Rebirth of Reason

War for Men's Minds

Thinking on Your Feet
by Barry Kayton

Since I began wondering down life's road with an objectivist guidebook, I have had many opportunities to encounter fellow travellers whose own travel guides bore no resemblance to mine. Sometimes these fellow travellers have suggested new, exciting roads to explore that my own guidebook had glossed over or ignored. And these have proven a treasure of self-discovery adding depth and breadth to my understanding of the world and of objectivism. At other times, even when I've doubted the suggestions of fellow travellers, I've found them to be stimulating travel companions. But, more often than not, I have found myself having to defend my world view against those who are shocked by my ideas. After many years I have had hundreds of opportunities to practise thinking on my feet when discussing or debating with such argumentative characters. What follows are a few tips you may find useful for "thinking on your feet" when you encounter someone who finds your world view disagreeable.

Defensive Challengers

When you're having an argument it's important to understand what the other party is aiming for. When you understand their psychological goal you are in a better position to choose an effective response.

Many people argue from ignorance and without thinking. Often they simply react to something you say which seems to them untrue given their understanding of "the way things are". They may react with disbelief at your decision to homeschool your kids. They may be shocked that you oppose minimum wages. Or they may be offended that you oppose affirmative action.

However, when such people find your perspective outrageous, often they're simply defending their own perception of reality -- which is a good thing. Imagine living in a world where no-one takes ideas seriously at all and anything goes! So ask yourself if your challenger is simply defending undigested ideas absorbed on their life's journey so far. If so, an appropriate response is to help these "defensive" opponents to recognise that their perceptions are inaccurate. In other words, adopt a co-operative, conversational manner rather than an aggressive, dismissive tone.

What tactics are appropriate against a "defensive" opponent?

When you respond to a challenge with a statement, your opponent will automatically pick out the weakest link in your chain of reasoning and try to exploit that. (This is something we all do naturally. We don't need training to find the weakness in another person's thinking.) Since your opponent ignores the strongest link in your chain of reasoning, you will find yourself becoming more frustrated and agitated.

For this reason, I have found that the best way to deflect criticism from defensive opponents and to get them to think through their own ideas rather than attack yours is to adopt a Socratic attitude and to ask short, sharply-focused questions.

Here are some of my favourite questions:
  • What would you say you are assuming?
  • What are your reasons for thinking that?
  • What do you think are the distinguishing characteristics of this (policy)?
  • What do you think are the causes of this (social problem)?
  • What do you think are the actual effects of this (government policy)?
  • What do you think are the incentives at work when this (issue) is handled by the market and when it is handled by bureaucrats?
  • What do you think are the constraints at work when this (issue) is handled by the market and when it is handled by bureaucrats?
  • Whom do you think should make this choice: bureaucrats or individuals? Why?
  • What do you think is the role of property rights in this (problem/issue)?

Notice that I've tried to phrase these questions in a polite, non-threatening manner. The difference between "What are the causes of this problem?" and "What do you think are the causes of this problem?" is that the former question seems to demand a precise answer with no margin for error, while the latter question lets your opponent feel that you don't expect them to know for sure, but you're willing to listen to what they have to say.

These questions employ nine easy-to-remember concepts that empower you to "unpack" virtually any social or political issue in a way that leads towards an objectivist / libertarian conclusion: assumptions; reasons; characteristics; causes and effects; incentives and constraints; choice; and property rights.

An opponent cannot ignore a short question. By their very nature, questions will automatically set your opponent's "cognitive agenda". And if your opponent tries to ignore a question then you can respond with one of the most intimidating phrases available to you: "You're ignoring the question!" Or, to be keep it polite: "Aren't you ignoring the question?"

Remember that defensive opponents are usually open to thinking about an issue. So if you adopt a co-operative, thought-provoking approach you're likely to be more successful at getting through to them, than if you adopt an aggressive, know-it-all approach.

Offensive Attackers

Amongst those who find your views disagreeable, you will encounter people who understand their own point of view far more clearly than the defensive challengers I've discussed so far. Let's call these people "offensive attackers". These are people that have taken the time and made a conscious effort to do their own thinking and to reach their own conclusions. Unfortunately, the conclusions they've reached may be anti-reality, anti-reason, anti-human, anti-liberty, anti-capitalism -- anti-life.

Nonetheless, since they take ideas very seriously, when these people encounter your world view and charge that your thinking is naive, unsophisticated, non-environmentally friendly, shameless, disgusting, wicked or evil, they're doing more than simply defending their own perceptions of reality -- they're aiming to attack your values and virtues and to convince you (and anyone within earshot) that their ideas are superior.

Some of these people have reached this point by building an almost impregnable wall of ideology on a foundation of mistaken perceptions. Their ideological walls are so internally consistent that they can remain standing even if you identify their flawed foundations. So ask yourself if your challenger is launching an offensive attack against your world view. If so then often the most effective response to these "offensive" opponents is to blast a breach through their ideological walls.

What tactics are appropriate against an offensive opponent?

The most effective response to an offensive opponent is a volley of facts. Facts, facts, facts! Often if you wrap facts in the form of a dilemma that forces your opponent to make a choice, then you leave him/her having to accept your point or look like a fool.

Faced with an unknown life-threatening virus, would your opponent place his/her life in the hands of a medicine man or in the hands of a well-educated surgeon who has spent years learning how to reason and learning the facts required to diagnose disease?

Which has brought humanity greater value, science or superstition? Scientific inquiry or the Spanish Inquisition? The flight of aircraft or the charge of witchcraft?

Here are a couple of great sources of facts on economic freedom:
The Index of Economic Freedom
The Economic Freedom of the World Report

For the latest figures on standards of living in different countries, see:
The World Factbook

If you can memorise figures such as infant mortality in China (27.25 deaths/1,000 live births) as opposed to Hong Kong (5.73 deaths/1,000 live births), or life-expectancy in Russia (67.5 years) as opposed to America (77.4 years ) you arm yourself with an arsenal of virtually unanswerable facts that paint an ugly picture of statism and make a powerful case for the superiority of liberty.

Combine these facts with a question, and you can sometimes blast a significant breach through an ideological wall. For example, you can ask an offensive opponent: "How do you explain the fact that those countries that are most economically free enjoy the highest living standards in the world? And how do you explain the fact that those countries that are least economically free have the lowest living standards?"

Remember that offensive opponents aim to attack. So go for a counter-offensive approach by means of facts that undermine their world view and aggressive questions that force them to defend their own opinions.

Keeping your cool

What about the balance between rationality and passion? Generally, I try to observe the advice of Sir Robert Morton, a character in Terence Rattigan's play, "The Winslow Boy". Sir Robert says:

To fight a case on emotional grounds... is the surest way to lose it. Emotions muddy the issue. Cold, clear logic -- and buckets of it -- should be the lawyer's only equipment.

Furthermore, I'm reminded of an occasion at university when I threw out Sir Robert's advice and did a Vesuvius impression that would have left even Lindsay Perigo impressed! I was arguing with a communist and the exchange was getting hotter and hotter. I was arguing that liberty is an objective requirement of human nature. She responded, "There's no such thing as human nature!" And I simply exploded.

In that one statement she had revealed that she was willing to enforce her social engineering on the whole country to prove her assumption correct -- no matter how many corpses and impoverished and malnourished people it would take -- in exactly the same way that Lenin, and Stalin and Hitler had done on the same assumption. Her response to my outburst was simple: "You're so immature!" she said, and she walked off.

Had I known then, what I know now, I would have responded with facts. Facts drawn from the latest research in genetics, cognitive science, social anthropology and evolutionary psychology. Facts which make Aristotle's assumption that we are born tabula rasa as false as the assumption that the earth is flat. Facts that make a much stronger case for individual rights and property rights than the tabula rasa assumption. But I digress...

My point is that usually, facts and logic are the most effective response to offensive opponents. Getting emotional can be a disaster.

Of course, sometimes you can't help being caught up in the heat of an argument. If you can perform verbal pyrotechnics at a moment's notice -- if you command a sharp wit and a sophisticated vocabulary -- then getting a little hot under the collar may loosen your tongue and make your opponent regret the argument. But, for most of us, our natural wit tends to follow us by at least half an hour, so that by the time the most witty or intelligent comeback occurs to us, we can only enjoy the moment in an action replay of what might have been.

For this reason, I have learned to control my temper. How do I do this when faced with an opponent arguing for higher taxes, conscription, compulsory community service, minimum wages, and so on? I listen to my opponent, look into the eyes of my opponent, and breathe deeply. When the person has finished speaking I pause before speaking, and I speak slowly. I try to keep myself focused on identifying contradictions and posing tough questions which gets the challenger to go on the defensive.

The Solution to Human Suffering

Sometimes, especially with female opponents and if there are women within earshot, an effective response to a political discussion is to talk about the impact of social policy on ordinary people, particularly children.

For example, if your opponent's objective is to improve conditions for children by means of some statist intervention, then you need to be able to respond with graphic details about the living conditions of children in countries that have chosen government solutions to these problems, as opposed to individualist and non-governmental solutions. Talk about the poverty and malnourishment of children in the Eastern Bloc countries, in Africa and in the Middle East where in many places you can't even move without special government permission -- let alone open a business.

If you are perceived to be in favour of a libertarian solution because you are passionately concerned about the poorest of the poor, your opponent will be totally thrown. In fact, you may be able to shame your opponent if you can prove that the policies they are advocating are likely to harm the very people they say they want to help.

In my experience, nothing can have greater impact on an offensive opponent -- and especially women listening to the debate -- than your knowledge of such conditions and the passion with which you talk about them and the conviction with which you argue that government is responsible for the problems and that ordinary people can bring an end to these conditions if governments simply leave them free to do so. Prosperity is the result of freedom. And freedom works because it's a requirement of our nature as reasoning individuals.

(Why am I suggesting that you try to make your arguments appealing to women? Because women are disproportionately represented in the libertarian and objectivist movements, probably because capitalism is not often enough presented as the solution to human suffering -- and too often presented as its cause.)

Keeping it in the family

Finally, there's a simple analogy that may be useful in some cases, once you start getting through to an opponent. Ask opponents what their family life would have been like if they had had one more sibling, or two more, or three more, or five more. If the growth in their parent's income had remained constant, then their living standards would have declined with every extra mouth to feed, body to clothe and mind to educate. Only by raising the family's income would they be able to maintain or improve their living standards.

Similarly, in a country as a whole, the only way to raise living standards is to ensure that economic growth far exceeds population growth. In the case of South Africa, where I live, the apartheid state (and those that preceded it) deliberately prevented black people from participating freely in the economy. Their movements were controlled. Wages were set by government bureaucrats. Regulations on property ownership and exchange were so severe as to render property rights non-existent. Private education was at times forbidden. And state-provided education was designed to prepare people for a life of manual labour and servitude. Yet, naturally, the black population continued to grow. So blacks became poorer and poorer while whites, who enjoyed a small measure of economic freedom and were able to employ artificially cheap labour, were able to create economic prosperity for themselves, while at the same time lowering their birth rate.

My point, here, is that the family analogy is useful in explaining poverty in many other cases, particularly in pre-industrial Europe. After all, what do people understand by "capitalism"? Many people equate capitalism with William Blake's imagery of "Satanic mills" and with Dickens's imagery of children in factories and work houses and orphanages. That is why the so-called "third way" is so popular -- because people feel that we have to chart a course between Dickens's England and Solzhenitsyn's Russia. But, in fact, the cause of poverty in both cases is the same: population growth exceeded economic growth (but for different reasons).


When encountering travellers on life's road whose world views clash with your own:
  1. Respond to defensive opponents with Socratic questions.
  2. Respond to offensive attackers with facts, logic, dilemmas and aggressive questions.

And, when appropriate, make an emotional appeal for liberty by means of graphic details of what happens to ordinary people and especially children when freedom is diminished or shattered. After all, that's what Ayn Rand did in We The Living, Anthem and Atlas Shrugged.

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