Why Bother Arguing With The Other Side?

In defense of debunking bad arguments at considerable length.

I recently published a book of responses to common right-wing arguments. I put a lot of time and care into it, and I think the result is a solid piece of work that effectively demolishes a number of oft-heard talking points, from “taxes are theft” to “socialized medicine will kill your grandma.” I highly recommend purchasing a copy, and if you get it on audiobook, you can endure the sound of my voice reading every word to you personally, if that’s the kind of thing you go in for.

In the book, I explain how right-wing arguments work, why I don’t find them persuasive, and how you can effectively respond to them when you find yourself confronted with them. But one thing I did not spend much time on in the book was justifying the existence of the book itself. I do not explain why I think it’s valuable to spend 350 pages meticulously debunking a bunch of crap that the “other side” (for I am a gentleman of the leftist persuasion) says. 

 A very interesting negative review of Responding to the Right has recently been published in Compact magazine by Sohale Mortazavi. It calls me “the Left’s Debate Bro,” which I must admit is the first time I can remember being called a “bro.”1 I call the review interesting because, while it is very negative about both me and the book, it does not actually criticize many of the arguments I make in the book. Instead, it is mostly a criticism of the existence of such a book in the first place. Mortazavi is critical not so much of what I say in my arguments with the right, but the fact that I am having arguments at all. Politics, he argues, is a contest of power rather than ideas, and there’s little point to showing that the other side’s ideas are wrong and harmful. 

Mortazavi opens by comparing my book to Saul Alinsky’s 1971 classic Rules for Radicals, saying that my book is a similar guidebook “updated for the social-media age.” Alinsky, he points out, has been criticized for the outsized role his rules give to the professional organizers. My book, he says, is even worse: 

By comparison, the focus Robinson places on political debate is inherently ideological, but his project is ultimately even less ambitious than Alinsky’s. Robinson isn’t just making the case for a certain vision of politics—he elevates “making the case” for one’s political views to the actual pursuit of politics. Though the book closes with a reminder that “building strong political movements involves far more than words,” and that we shouldn’t let “the intellectual and theoretical aspects of politics distract too far from the practical realities of movement building,” the preceding 300-and-some pages are devoted to readying progressives to battle ideological opponents in the marketplace of ideas. Political theory and ideas matter—but we should have serious reservations about presenting debate as the paramount political activity. Public intellectuals such as Robinson, the founder and editor of the left-wing magazine Current Affairs, might be able to argue that their own political discourse amounts to important political activity. There is an even better case to be made for everyday people engaging friends, family, acquaintances, and, especially, coworkers in constructive political dialogue. But the kind of political sparring Robinson has in mind is rarely carried out in break rooms or on shop floors, but over holiday dinners and social media. Aside from voting and maybe attending the occasional protest or rally, the primary way most people “engage” in politics is through passive media consumption and online posting. Encouraging them to expend even more time and energy on frivolous hashtag activism will only leave participants feeling more outraged, frustrated, and atomized.

I think the critique Mortazavi makes of me here is based on a misunderstanding of my position. He says that I believe debate is “the paramount political activity” and that I elevate “‘making the case’ for one’s political views to the actual pursuit of politics” and am “encouraging [people] to expend even more time and energy on frivolous hashtag activism.” Compact editor Geoff Shullenberger similarly says, “Robinson’s core premise” is “that political conflict is a battle of ideas, rather than competing values and interests.”

But I don’t believe any of those things, and the review doesn’t cite quotes from the book that say those things. In fact, you can find quotes in my writing like: “Ideas mean very little unless they are translated into political power” and “There are conflicting interests in society, and they are deep. Politics therefore has to be a contest to see which interests dominate over which.” I don’t hold the view that if you just have the best arguments, you win at politics, and everything you want magically happens. In my previous book, Why You Should Be a Socialist, I devoted many pages to discussing inspiring organizing efforts around the country that are effectively building political power.

Mortazavi is right that Responding to the Right isn’t an organizing handbook, it’s an argument handbook, and he appears to have wanted an organizing handbook. (For that, pick up Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts.) I’m inclined to say that it’s unfair to knock a book for being about a different subject than the one you wanted it to be about, but I take Mortazavi’s position to be that by writing an argument handbook, I elevated arguing to the most important feature of politics even if I at no point said that. After all, I must think there’s a lot of value in political arguments if I wrote a whole book about how to have them effectively.

And I admit, I do think that there is a lot of value in political arguments. It’s totally erroneous to describe me as thinking that I believe argument is “the paramount political activity.” But I do believe that learning to articulate the case for your own political position is very useful if you want to be effective at politics. “Organizing” and “arguing” are not opposites. To organize a political movement, you have to convince people to join it, and to convince people to join it, you have to make arguments. 

I have noticed a tendency among some on the left to diminish the importance of convincing people. I have had conversations with people before who tell me that “you can’t persuade people” and “there’s no talking people out of irrational beliefs.” I know for a fact that this is wrong: there are at least some people you can persuade. I’ve gotten letters and emails from people who say that when they read an argument in Current Affairs, it helped them realize that some nonsense they’d heard from the right was mistaken. People have told me that I helped them see what was wrong with Jordan Peterson and stop respecting his intelligence. Changing minds is not in and of itself a political movement. But if you are to grow a political movement, you have to take a large number of people who do not currently hold left political positions and somehow get them to hold left political positions. You’ll be better at that if you can articulate clear and convincing responses to people’s objections. (If someone says “Okay, but why should I support raising the minimum wage if it’s going to reduce employment?” for instance, or tells you that they don’t want big government in their healthcare, what are you going to say in reply? Are you just going to give up and go home?) 

So I think the central criticism Mortazavi makes of my work is simply based on a misreading of it. He thinks I’m saying debate is the most important thing when I’m actually just saying that one important thing political activists need to know how to do is respond effectively to arguments from the other side. I do not claim that the Battles of Ideas is the only battle to be fought, but that it’s one battle to be fought, and I hope to show people on the left how to do better at it than they have been doing. (Conservatives understand the importance, which is why PragerU floods the internet with 5-minute rebuttals of leftist positions.) 

Mortazavi does briefly respond to the substance of the book (i.e., the actual arguments of which it is comprised). Here his main point is not that my arguments are wrong, but that I am inconsistent in applying the scrutiny to leftist views that I apply to right-wing ones:

For example, he acknowledges no contradiction between his contention that bakers aren’t actually forced to bake wedding cakes for LGBT clients, since they could simply opt out of the market entirely, and his articulation of the leftist principle that workers are actually forced to sell their labor under capitalism lest they starve. He decries right-wing figures who employ ludicrous hyperbole and false or misleading analogies, such as the likening of “cancel culture” to literal violence. But, in this condemnation, he fails to acknowledge that social-justice mantras like “silence is violence” or the progressives characterizing “microagressions” as violence do exactly the same thing. Though he blasts conservative commentator Ben Shapiro for “lying with statistics” when falsely claiming that 40 percent of transgender people commit suicide, Robinson fails to mention that trans rights activists first popularized and routinely cite the same erroneous figure for their own purposes.

To just respond quickly: First, I don’t think there’s a contradiction in believing that a choice between “working and starving” coerces a person into work and believing that a choice between “not baking wedding cakes and baking wedding cakes for all couples” does not coerce a person into baking wedding cakes. (One could also take the route of arguing that while coercing a person into labor itself is illegitimate, coercing them into following civil rights laws is legitimate, but I don’t think “coercion” is the right term to describe the condition of someone who could quite easily stick to birthday cakes if they wanted to avoid civil rights issues.) Second, it’s true that I don’t critique the social justice movement in Responding to the Right, as it is a response to the right, but Current Affairs has indeed published work criticizing progressives’ overuse of the concept of “violence.” So this charge cannot stick. Finally, I’m happy to say that a false statistic is a false statistic regardless of whether it is used by Ben Shapiro or a leftist activist, and I don’t excuse anyone who holds my own values when they make egregious factual errors, even if they do so for less malevolent reasons than Shapiro. (Even then, Mortazavi lists no example of a trans rights activist citing the particular erroneous figure, despite saying it “routinely” happens.) 

Mortazavi also finds space to make fun of my accent, compare me to Oscar Wilde (intended derisively, though I’m flattered), and critique my strain of socialism as being a “fundamentally moral politics” as contrasted with the hard-headed scientific analysis of the Marxist tradition. I plead guilty to grounding my politics in my moral values, and have never understood how it’s possible to do otherwise. I also plead guilty to having a silly accent and practicing shameless Wildean “dandyism.” (Am apparently an uncommon hybrid of a “bro” and an effete Victorian aesthete.) 

But the central criticism he makes is still one that is worth considering: Mortazavi argues that I’m not going to succeed at “convincing capital to relinquish power or adopt redistributive policies,” presumably because capitalists’ arguments are essentially bad faith rationalizations of their own possession of power. Mortazavi makes a mistake in thinking I aim to convince capital. No, I’m speaking to a different audience. I’m not trying to talk to Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis, but I am trying to talk to a section of their voters, many of whom have clearly believed these men’s bullshit and need to be equipped with the tools for seeing through it. 

What’s more, it’s true that when someone like Home Depot billionaire Ken Langone writes a book called I Love Capitalism!, clearly, all of the arguments in the book about why capitalism is so wonderful are secondary to the implicit argument: I love capitalism because it made me a billionaire. And you’re not going to convince a guy like that by debunking his explicit arguments, because ultimately you can’t refute the silent argument. You can’t prove to him that capitalism makes him worse off, because it didn’t—it gave him a billion dollars. Arguing with such a person is futile. 

But I am not trying to argue the powerful into giving up their power. I am trying to help the powerless avoid swallowing the propaganda that the powerful use to keep people from challenging them. I wrote Responding to the Right not because I think conservatives will all read it and suddenly have an epiphany, but because a lot of decent people end up believing bogus arguments that the right puts forth, in part because they’ve never heard those arguments effectively criticized. A book like mine, of course, is but part of a larger leftist project. All movements need theory and praxis, and I like to think that my book is a little bit of both: a theory that people can be persuaded by good arguments, and action to put those arguments into practice. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote in reference to historian Howard Zinn:

Zinn makes the simple yet critical point that people make their own way to political consciousness: “You read a book, you meet a person, you have a single experience, and your life is changed in some way. No act, therefore, however small, should be dismissed or ignored.” For Zinn, this fluidity of political consciousness—people who may be completely passive in one moment but can be moved to act in a different moment—was the key to the emergence of a mass movement.

I stand by this project, and if my book helps a few people persuade a few other people, who then persuade some more people, it might help a little bit to stem the tide of horrendous reactionary politics that seems poised to drown the country. 

I would love to have more critical reviews of Responding to the Right by people who entirely disagree with it, so you can help me by getting copies into the hands of conservative, libertarian, and neoliberal outlets and then demanding to know why they’re refusing to respond to my extremely powerful knock-down arguments against all of their beliefs. 

  1. Several people pointed out that the title of “The Left’s Debate Bro” would far better fit my colleague Ben Burgis, who runs the Give Them an Argument YouTube channel and engages in many public debates with conservatives. But Ben is not a “bro,” either, just a prolific public debater. 

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