Mehdi Hasan on How to Argue and Win

Noted for his hard-hitting interviews, MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan explains the art of effective public speaking.

Mehdi Hasan, who hosts The Mehdi Hasan Show on MSNBC, is known as one of the most formidable interviewers in journalism. He has tangled with Blackwater’s Erik Prince, John Bolton, Richard Dawkins, Paul Bremer, and many others. A video of a powerful speech he gave defending Islam at Oxford University has received 10 million views. He has now written a book on his methods, Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking, showing how to effectively confront and expose toxic beliefs. He recently joined editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson on the Current Affairs podcast to discuss the why and how of effective argument. The interview transcript has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

Robinson  

You are infamous for your interviews and known as the most terrifying interrogator in the business. You have gone up against such odious people—that’s my characterization—as John Bolton, Steven Pinker, Erik Prince of Blackwater, Paul Bremer, and Douglas Murray. My first question is: why argue with these people at all?

Hasan  

It’s a good question. I don’t argue with everyone—I should put that out there, right at the beginning. I know the book is called Win Every Argument, but I’m not actually telling people to go out and have every argument possible. There are many arguments I walk away from and many interviews I don’t do. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, but I will not do an interview with a Marjorie Taylor Greene, a person who’s pushing QAnon conspiracies and election and climate change denialism. It’s not worth it—I’m not going to debate reality.

But John Bolton is an interesting one. We’re about to mark the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War, and he is someone who still believes in it. I don’t think he’s a Tucker Carlson figure who’s texting in private the opposite of what he’s saying in public. I think he genuinely thinks the Iraq War was great, and stands by it in good faith, if you can use that phrase about the Iraq War. So, when I had him on my show a couple of years ago, I pushed him on the Iraq War: do the deaths not weigh on his conscience? I believe there were questions that were worth asking that other people haven’t asked him. And really, some of these people who you describe as odious, their views certainly are odious in many cases, even in my view, but I want to challenge them. And I believe that in our industry, that hasn’t been enough challenging being done. One of the reasons I wrote the book is because I want people to be more combative, challenging, and confrontational, not just in the media business, but across the board. So, when I see an Erik Prince or John Bolton, I see people who need to be held to account. I feel like I can ask them questions, which might help us do that.

Robinson  

Yes. But someone like John Bolton is a slippery customer. So, when you said to him, “Don’t the deaths weigh on your conscience?” he says, “I want to draw a distinction between removing Saddam and then everything that came after it. And all the bad things are mismanagement afterward. But that doesn’t in any way affect the legitimacy of the underlying decision to invade and depose Saddam.”

Hasan  

And what do you do? You’ve got to push back. This is one of the things that unfortunately too many interviewers at that point will either nod and move on to the next topic, or not forensically go back strongly enough. So, I try to have the follow-up questions. Something that’s a lost art in some parts of our media industry is the follow-up question. Nobody’s asking one question about something important, and then having a bunch of follow-ups to say, “But hold on, what you’re saying there is inaccurate,” or “Hold on, have you considered this statistical fact?” And when Bolton tried to make that disingenuous, nonsensical split between the invasion and the rest of the war and occupation, I didn’t let him do that.

Robinson  

Yes. The classic, most infamous example of the follow-up question is that Jeremy Paxman interview where he’s asking the guy whether he threatened to overrule the other guy, and he asked about 13 times. I don’t know that you’ve ever done that. Have you beaten Paxman’s record?

Hasan  

I’ve come close. Paxman was a hero of mine growing up. I urge your readers and listeners to go look up Jeremy Paxman clips on YouTube—notorious BBC interrogator. And he did once ask a conservative Minister the same question 13 times. Although interestingly, later on, it turned out that it wasn’t some act of journalistic brilliance. The next package had fallen through—there was a technical issue—and they asked him to buy time, so he just asked the same question again and again.

I did something similar, not for that cynical reason, with the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely on my Al Jazeera English show a few years ago, where I simply asked her, “Do you support a two-state solution?” which I knew she didn’t, but knew she couldn’t say she didn’t because she was bound by collective responsibility. She was in a cabinet that claimed to support a two-state solution. So, she kept saying, “the government I’m part of supports a two-state solution,” and I kept responding, “But what about you?” And she said, “Mehdi, you could ask me that 10 times, and I’ll give you the same answer,” but I kept asking it because it was worth doing.

Robinson  

Yesterday in an interview, I learned from an example you cite in your book of Elizabeth Warren going after Michael Bloomberg about nondisclosure agreements. I had Marianne Williamson on the program when it had just been reported that she had bound workers to nondisclosure agreements and had covered up abusive management practices in the workplace. And I asked her, “Would you hold people to nondisclosure agreements if they try to go public with these accusations?” and she replied, “I’m not Donald Trump.” But of course, that’s not an answer, so I followed up, and I thought, “I am channeling my inner Mehdi Hasan here.”

Hasan  

The Elizabeth Warren clip, by the way, is a great clip. It’s a reminder of what you can do in a short space of time. In 59 seconds, she single-handedly destroyed Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign on the debate stage in Las Vegas in the Democratic presidential debate. It was a masterpiece, to the point where Wikipedia amended its entry for Bloomberg that night to say, “Murdered by Elizabeth Warren; time of death: whatever it was in Las Vegas.”

Robinson  

That’s actually a fascinating example because one of the questions people might have when they crack open your book is where I began at the beginning, which is: what’s the point? So, you win an argument? Okay, good for you. You won the argument. You feel good, but you haven’t gotten anything and moved political power. But that is, in fact, a case where with Michael Bloomberg, he had a lot of buzz around him.

Hasan  

One hundred percent. People forget that he was starting to poll very highly in places like Florida. He had a lot of momentum and buzz. There were many centrists in the party who saw him as a better centrist candidate than Biden, and with a lot of money. And within a few weeks, he was out of the race. That can be the power of rhetoric—obviously, not every time and not across the board. No one is pretending the rhetoric has that power in every instance. But there are many.

I look at Erik Prince as an example. When I interviewed him, it wasn’t just that I won the argument. It was fun, and the audience in the Oxford Union laughed and applauded when I cornered him on his dishonest testimony to Congress. Adam Schiff ended up referring him to the Department of Justice for possible perjury after my interview with him, which is still an unresolved case to this day. So, there is an impact you can have with certain moments, and not just interviews. Everyone reading or listening to this conversation will have an instance from their life where they had a discussion, debate, or argument which had major consequence, maybe life-changing consequences.

People say, “Oh, argument. Some people are arguing. What’s the point?” It depends on how you define it. I define an argument very broadly. I would say when you go for a job interview, you’re making an argument for yourself and making the case for yourself. No one would say that’s a trivial thing to do. You may need to have to pay your mortgage or your rent, and you need that job. I’m saying in the book, here’s the best way to get that job and negotiate that pay raise.

Robinson  

I recently published a book of responses to right-wing arguments, and got a very negative review in Compact Magazine. The headline is “The Left’s Debate Bro.” Maybe you’ve had this name applied to you before. The argument that was made in the review was, “Why do you respond to all these terrible, right-wing arguments? Politics is about building power, and you’re talking about winning the discourse.”

Hasan  

What a load of utopian BS is what I say to whoever wrote that. Most of the kinds of queries or pushbacks that I’ve gotten from this book are from well-meaning people who want to live in a world of Kumbaya. I was in the U.K. and an interviewer said, “I feel nervous about your book in this polarized climate. Should we be increasing polarization?” Polarization hasn’t increased because more people have arguments. What I’m trying to say is the arguments are already happening. Are you winning or losing them? Are you able to convince the people in the middle—the sometimes imaginary, but sometimes crucial, independent swing voter?

I felt like a lot of the people who push back against debate argument rhetoric are people who want to live in a world other than the world that we actually inhabit. My book is a very practical book about the real world. I even say don’t use some of the techniques and tricks that I deploy: don’t use them in high school debate competitions—you’ll lose or be penalized. High school debate competitions are very formal with numerous rules. I’m saying that it’s for the real world when you’re actually up against someone on a platform, in a boardroom, in a negotiation. Human nature is such that you have to deal with human nature as it is, not in some abstract, idealized view. To come back to your point, your book is an essential book. It’s a book I actually wanted to write. I wanted to write a book responding to right-wing arguments, and that’s probably going to be my next book.

Robinson  

I wanted to write your book, so we’re even.

Hasan  

You write a better version of mine, and I’ll write a lesser version of yours. But, this Michelle Obama idea that “when they go low, we go high,” is one of the most pernicious ideas. And I’m saying this as a fan of Michelle Obama. I have a soft spot for her.

Robinson  

Yes, that quote grates on me too.

Hasan  

But, “they go low, we go high,” is absolutely damaging to the progressive cause because right now, all they’re doing is going low, and going high doesn’t get you anywhere. Going high allows Donald Trump to be the front-runner in the Republican Party’s presidential campaign right now. Over two years after he incited an armed insurrection, the man is running for president again. We’re speaking on a day when he may get indicted any moment over the Stormy Daniels stuff. But he’s running for president again, despite a coup and insurrection, because Democrats said, “let’s go high and take our time, build bipartisan support, and get a special counsel to slow everything down.” I feel like that’s a real problem in an age of gaslighters, authoritarians, and what I call Gish gallopers. You cannot just go high and imagine the moral high ground while your opponents, meanwhile, are winning the argument.

Robinson  

You mentioned Gish galloping, which is the technique of saying a bunch of false things. Ben Shapiro has made this his entire career. You speak really fast and people can’t refute you as fast as you can drop fallacies. But you’re talking there about why we need to learn these techniques. It reminded me of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings where Democrats interrogated him. I wrote a 10,000-word article at the time laying out all the proof that Kavanaugh was lying in his testimony. But for the Democrats, he slipped through their grasp. I feel if they had read your book, they could have followed up and said, “This contradicts your testimony. Your calendar shows that this could have happened, and you’re saying it didn’t happen.” And they didn’t do it, and now he’s on the Supreme Court.

Hasan  

It’s interesting you picked the Kavanaugh example because clearly some Democrats dropped the ball. I’m not sure all of them did. I’ve been critical of Kamala Harris, but I thought she did very well, if you remember, during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, as did Amy Klobuchar. If memory serves me correctly, I would give a different example to you, of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s hearings, where Republicans basically said, “child porn, child porn, you’re soft on child porn, you’re soft on child sex predators.” And the Democrats, with the exception of Cory Booker, did not blow up over this. And what I say in chapter two of the book is that you need some emotion and feeling—it’s not enough just to have evidence. I’m sure your 10,000-word article is brilliant. It’s not enough to have forensic evidence of a lie or a contradiction. At certain times, you need a bit of moral outrage. You need, “How dare you, sir.” Cory Booker did very well during those hearings.

I would have liked to see Democrats across the board get way more emotional about this Black woman being smeared as she’s in the middle of being confirmed, and I would also like to see ad hominem attacks. I wrote a chapter in the book defending ad hominem attacks. If I was a Democratic senator sitting in that Judiciary Committee, I would have said, “You know what, you want to talk about sex predators? Let’s talk about sex predators. Let’s talk about Dennis Hastert and the allegations against Donald Trump and Jim Jordan, and go through the entire record of Republicans who have been accused of this stuff or prosecuted in the case of Hastert.” But they didn’t do it! 

Robinson

When you say that you don’t like Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high,” aren’t you suggesting that to beat the Republicans, we have to become like the Republicans, and resort to dirty tricks and become just as bad as they are?

Hasan

Well, it’s a bit of a loaded question because, for example, what do you define as a dirty trick?

Robinson  

An ad hominem: getting away from the arguments and talking about people.

Hasan  

So, something else I do in the book is always question the premise of your opponent. I don’t accept your premise that ad hominem is a dirty trick. I believe that ad hominem arguments are legitimate tools when deployed in legitimate ways. Like any other rhetorical tool, it can be deployed in a good or bad way. You can deploy it in a bad way like Donald Trump, who says you’re fat and ugly, or make a racial insult—I’m not defending that kind of ad hominem attack at all. But if you’re saying, for example, the person sitting in front of me, who says that climate change is a myth, is funded by the fossil fuel industry, why would I not bring that up? That is ad hominem. It’s a circumstantial ad hominem, to use a technical term, but it’s very relevant. That’s not a dirty trick to say that the person trying to persuade you that climate change is amiss: he has a financial self-interest in persuading you that it’s a myth.

Robinson  

I assume he would reply to you and say, “Why don’t you argue about the evidence I presented?”

Hasan  

And I would say that we can argue about the evidence as well, but I’m not going to let you off the hook. You are pushing a case that has value to you, and the audience deserves to be skeptical of your arguments because you may not be making them in good faith. In the book, I make it clear: I don’t say ad hominem arguments are argument winners. They’re not the smoking gun or the mic drop that allows you to win. Are they logical fallacies? Sometimes yes, sometimes not. What I am saying, though, is that they should be used as part of a rhetorical toolkit to put your opponent on the defensive, and to allow the audience to take a more skeptical stance towards your opponent’s argument because, again, we don’t live in some abstract utopia that the Compact Magazine writer or Michelle Obama wants us to live in. We live in the real world—in the real world, human beings judge arguments not just based on the arguments themselves, but on the people behind the argument. They do play the ball and the man. And if you want to unilaterally disarm them, say, “I will only high-mindedly address the premises and conclusions of your argument,” while your opponent is busy saying, “Trust me, I’m a doctor or a general,” building up their expertise. It’s your job to do down their expertise and credibility, to question it at the very minimum. This is not a book about logic, it’s a book about rhetoric. Rhetoric and logic are different things.

Robinson  

Well, logic is part of rhetoric. It’s part of the three-part thing with the logos, ethos, and pathos, and logos is only part, but you’ve also got to get people to trust you.

Hasan  

Indeed, and this is what I wrote in the book in the chapter on ad hominem. As I wrote at the end, if you are in a university seminar on logic, don’t do this, it won’t work. If you’re in a high school debate, don’t attack your opponent, you’ll be penalized by the teacher. But in real life, if you’re on a presidential debate platform and the man next to you is lying, and has a history of doing so, why wouldn’t you say, “You’re a liar”?

Robinson  

Friend of the program Noam Chomsky will be horrified by what you’re saying. He’s always had the position that there’s almost something evil or sinister about rhetoric, and he has a somewhat dry, “I’m going to just present the facts because that’s all that’s legitimate.”

Hasan  

I just interviewed Noam Chomsky for my show this week on the Iraq anniversary, and he’s still very lucid at the age of 94. His hearing is not as great as it was, but his memory is astonishingly good. And yes, he’s not someone known for just throwing out insults. I’m not saying you should do that. But yes, I think he probably does, as an academic and intellectual, takes a more abstract approach to this stuff. I take the approach of someone who spent my entire life debating, arguing, and interviewing politicians for a living. So yes, I’m going to have to live in the real world, and I won’t apologize for that.

Robinson  

What about the role of humility? Your book is Win Every Argument, but presumably, it wouldn’t be great if everyone read your book. If people like Douglas Murray or John Bolton pick up your book, they’re going to develop tactics for becoming more effective. And for some people, we want to give them the ammunition to do better as they enter these conversations. Other people need somewhat different advice, which is you shouldn’t be trying to win every argument, instead you should be more pensive, self-reflective, and think about your mistakes.

Hasan  

I’d say three things. Firstly, my 10-year-old daughter actually said to me, “Why did you write this book? Now your guests will all know what to do when you’re interviewing them. Why did you give all your tricks?” It is a fair question. Maybe I’ll regret it.

Robinson  

And you shouldn’t give a copy to your daughter. Obviously, she should not be allowed to read it.

Hasan  

Yes. For children and spouses it is a different ballgame. Congressman Ro Khanna made a joke on Twitter that he was going to read the book before he came on my show next time. Secondly, I would say that for the people we don’t agree with, don’t like, and who you say shouldn’t read the book, like with any other tool, it is a tool—it can be used for good or evil in anyone’s hands. I don’t dispute that.

But thirdly—here’s the crucial point, especially for your readers on the left—the people on the right are already doing this stuff. They are already winning. This is my problem. I believe that the right is better at this stuff and better at connecting with people’s emotions and rousing up their base, connecting with human nature as it is and not as we want it to be.

To go back to your earlier question, should we be more Republican? No. I’m not saying go out and be like Donald Trump and connect with people’s fear, hate, anger, and self-loathing. Instead, I’m saying to connect with people’s hopes and dreams—inspire them and use it for solidarity. But the point is to appeal to people’s emotions, and don’t just be like those leftists and liberals who want to win every argument by deploying another policy paper or one more Pew poll.

Robinson  

When I watched the 2016 debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, all the people I was watching them with who hated Donald Trump were saying, “Look what a terrible debater he is. She’s wiping the floor with him because her arguments make sense, and his don’t.” Do you share my perspective that actually Donald Trump is quite effective rhetorically?

Hasan  

Yes, sadly. One hundred percent, he is. Not in the sense that he’s an eloquent person—he’s an ignoramus. He rambles and says ridiculous things. But does he understand, like many fascists and authoritarians have understood throughout history, how to get people worked up, how to manipulate, and how to be a demagogue? Yes. Of course. He’s excellent at that. He understands the role of emotion and that when he says, “build a wall”, “ban Muslims”, and “lock her up”, it has an impact on the crowd in a way that Hillary Clinton talking about a 17-point childcare proposal doesn’t.

And one thing I’ll say about Hillary is, interestingly, if you remember 2008, she was running against Obama, loses in Iowa, and people think she’s out and will lose in New Hampshire. But then she has a really emotional conversation with a voter in a diner, if memory serves me right—she cries, and then wins in New Hampshire. I know correlation is not causation, but I find it interesting that the time we see an emotional, human Hillary, that’s when she wins.

Robinson  

There are some on the left who think that debates are not worth it. I think you and I both disagree with that. But another thing that is worth deflating is the idea that just because you’re right, you’re going to win. I think people underestimate how good some of these people are. Previously, I mentioned John Bolton as being a slippery customer, and about Donald Trump being effective. For someone like Douglas Murray, you might go in thinking because he says horrible white nationalist things, you will bowl him over because these are terrible, idiotic beliefs. But then, actually, these people are very eloquent. They’re good, and they know what they’re doing.

Hasan  

I agree with you fully. I think one of the reasons so many people—leftist, liberals, progressives, people who support the Palestinian cause, Muslims trying to fight back against Islamophobia—lose in public debate is because there is an assumption of “we are morally correct and factually correct; therefore, we will win.” As I write in the book, just having the facts and being on the right side is not enough. Clearly, that’s been demonstrated to us time and time again. There’s a lot of confirmation bias, as I write about in the book, especially in an age of social media where we cluster in our own groups and information silos, and then we say, “We’ve got all the best arguments, how can we lose?” I remember when Brexit happened, a number of people said, “Hold on, but it’s stupid! Everyone I know is against it!” Well, yes, everyone you know is on your social media feed, and what were the arguments for it? Brexit is a classic example where the right and the Brexit-ers were able to talk about the “sovereignty, freedom, liberty, and British tradition,” and get people really worked up emotionally talking about abstract concepts and values.

Meanwhile, the anti-Brexit side was talking about the costs of trade and what it will cost to change our trade deal with the EU—very uninspiring technical stuff. Progressives and liberals have always been a little bit too technocratic, managerial, and bureaucratic for my liking—I want to see a bit more energy and passion. So, yes, there’s a famous story from either Plato or Aristotle about the rhetorician and the doctor: if they were to go city to city giving out medical advice, who would the people listen to? They’d listen to the rhetorician, not the doctor because the doctor may have the actual qualifications, but can the doctor convince the public? No. The rhetorician can because they have the skill set and the tricks. That’s how dangerous and invaluable rhetoric can be.

And you’re right: in the wrong hands it can be used for all sorts of horrible things—incitement of violence, for example. In the right hands, you get an MLK, or a Churchill in World War II.

Robinson  

On things like climate and COVID, there is a failure to understand that just because you’re right on the facts, you still have the task of getting the public messaging and rhetoric right. Going to battle with bad ideas is not just a matter of proving facts.

Hasan  

Absolutely. I think COVID is another example of that. You have the right and conspiracy theorists pushing “freedom and liberty,” and the other side saying, “Have you checked my latest peer reviewed paper on masking?” It’s not a fair fight.

Robinson  

You mentioned Brexit. Boris Johnson’s entire career is a testimony to the fact that humor and personality can be everything. He spread nonsense about Brexit, about the statistics of how much we’d get for the NHS if we pulled out of Europe were all false. But that’s not what matters to people who liked Boris Johnson because he’s funny.

Hasan  

I have an entire chapter on the importance of humor. Again, many people on the left tend to be super serious and rational. And I’m saying no, you need some emotion and humor. It’s the best way to bond with an audience and come across as relatable, as human, as authentic. People will bond with you, not just with your arguments; they will connect with the person, not just with the argument that the person is making. That is the real world, not the world of abstract theory or Athenian debate.

And also, I would say this about Boris Johnson: on the eve of when he came out for Brexit, did you know he wrote two op-eds the night before, one making the case for Brexit, the other making the case against? He knew what would be in the best interest of his political career—he didn’t give a damn about the country—and eventually decided that Brexit would help his career, so he came up with that. But what’s interesting is, if you really want to go down the cynical road, there is the power of argument and debate: Boris Johnson—the old Etonian, Oxford Union guy, super confident—can make the argument for both sides of the same issue, and cynically pick the one that helped him.

Robinson  

We’ve been talking about rhetoric, humor, and even ad hominem arguments and the utility of these things and why we need to use them for good. And we’ve been saying just having the facts is not effective in and of itself, but having them can be used as part of an effective strategy. In fact, two of the chapters in your book are about having the facts, “Show Your Receipts” and “Do Your Homework.” In interviews where you have managed to expose people, it is because of a wealth of factual preparation going in.

Hasan  

Absolutely. I’ve been talking a lot on the book tour about the importance of emotion because I do believe that’s one of the main takeaways from the book, that we don’t understand the role of feelings when it comes to winning people over, persuading, overcoming skepticism, the fact that we feel our way towards the decision. I produce a bunch of science in that chapter about how the brain works. But having said that, I make it clear that I’m not saying to drop facts for feelings. They’re both important.

Feelings get you through the door, and then you have to show your facts, show your receipts. As you say, I’ve got two chapters in there on the subject. I’m known as the guy who brings receipts. I take great pride in the fact that when I argue with people like John Bolton, I say to him, “Do you support regime change in Iran because you believe in democracy or because you’re getting paid to give speeches to an anti-Iranian government cult?” And he says, “I didn’t do that, I did it after Hillary Clinton delisted them from the terrorist group.” And I say, “No, you did it in 2010, before they delisted. I’ve got the transcript here of you in Paris.” That’s me bringing my receipts and having my facts ready to go, having done my homework and anticipated what he’s going to say and being ready with the pushback and the follow-up. So yes, I do say strongly, if you are going to win an argument, one of the best ways to do that is to know your opponent’s side of the argument as well as your own. In fact, to know your opponent’s side of the argument better than they do. Steel man their argument. We live in an age where we straw man each other’s argument, especially on social media. I’m saying to argue against the strongest version of what you think your opponent’s argument will be so that you’re ready for anything.

Robinson  

In your book, you write about a debate with either a representative of the Israeli government or one of the settlers. You had someone on your staff play him beforehand and game it all out so that you knew every answer they could give in response to a question that you ask.

Hasan  

I used to be a researcher on ITV weekend programming, the British equivalent of NBC. The Sunday morning shows going back to the early ’80s were well-known for having a kind of plan of attack, where everything would be worked out in advance. If the minister says X, you say Y; if they say Y, you say, Z, et cetera, and it would just follow. It would all be plotted out and practiced in the days before—a really rigorous approach to interviewing. I’ve taken that with me through my life.

I took it to the next level when I was at Al Jazeera. As you mentioned, when we had more time, we would prepare for a big interview that was coming up, but in this case, Danny Ayalon, the former Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister, came on the show at the Oxford Union in front of a live crowd. I wanted to role-play—I didn’t just want to imagine it. I got one of my producers to become Danny Ayalon—to read every Danny Ayalon interview and op-ed, and to basically put themselves inside their head so that we could role-play. I could say, “Danny Ayalon, what about this UN resolution?” and know what he’s going to say in response, and also have a response to his response. So, it requires a lot of preparation.

People think we’re winging this stuff, turning up and just chucking stuff out. No. I like to do a lot of planning and prep. It annoys me that people think they can stand up and speak in front of a crowd, engage in a debate, or do an interview without doing the sufficient homework. One of the chapters in the book is “Do Your Homework.” Doctors don’t go in to do an operation without being fully prepared for it. In every walk of life, people practice, prepare, do the homework. I don’t see why when it comes to public speaking, performing, or arguing in public, we think we can just wing it. It just annoys me.

Robinson  

That moment with Erik Prince that sparked the investigation has nothing to do with rhetoric and everything to do with the fact that when you asked him, “Why didn’t you cite this meeting in your congressional testimony?”, I forgot what he said, but he denied it. 

Hasan  

First, he said, “I did cite it.” And I said, “No, you didn’t.” 

Robinson  

And then you have the testimony! 

Hasan  

“I have the transcript. We printed it out. Here it is.” We went through every page of it, and it’s not there. The receipts—have the receipts in your hand. You can’t go wrong.

Robinson  

I was interested in what you said earlier about interviewing climate change deniers, election deniers, or QAnon people because I think I might differ from you on this. Part of me really wants to see you go after Dinesh D’Souza. I would like to see someone sit down with that man.

Hasan  

I’ll be honest with you. Part of me does as well. But it’s not a consequence-free thing. I’ve learned this through experience. About 10 years ago, I interviewed Richard Lindzen, an MIT emeritus professor and a climate change skeptic. He’s one of the few climate change skeptics who’s actually from and published in the field. So, I thought, we’ll have him on. He’s not nuts like everyone else and has some scientific qualifications. People said to me not to do it, and that I’m going to regret it. “You can’t have a climate change denier on, it will be a car crash.” And it was.

When you debate with a conspiracy theorist, and everything becomes part of the conspiracy—there are no rules, there is no rationality, it’s pinning Jell-O to a wall. And after that, I thought to myself, I’m not doing that again. I just gave that person a platform to misinform my viewers for the course of an hour, and I wasn’t able to pin him down not because I’m not good at pinning people down but because it’s almost impossible to pin down a conspiracy theorist. They’re not operating in the same reality-based universe as the rest of us.

If I had Marjorie Taylor Greene on my show, it would be fun, and I would enjoy battering her on the nonsense and the inherent contradictions of what she says. I could craft the interview for you now. But I would also be giving a platform not just to someone who spreads horrible white supremacy—which is itself offensive, to even platform such offensive, odious people—but also, she doesn’t believe anything she’s saying. 

Robinson  

I don’t know. Does she not believe it? 

Hasan  

You think she believes half the stuff she says, after all the Fox News and Dominion tech stuff? I think these people have contempt for their base. I don’t want to insult my own viewers by allowing these people on. Many of these people on the right are grifters. They are as much out for the money as they are for eyeballs and conspiracies. And where would you start an election denial debate? It’s almost insulting to people to say, “I’m going to indulge your cynically nonsensical point that Joe Biden didn’t win the election.”

Robinson  

Yes, but D’Souza, for example, wrote a book and says he has evidence, and we know he doesn’t. So, you say, “let’s hear the evidence.” Well, the evidence doesn’t prove what you say it proves, does it?

Hasan  

I’m not saying it wouldn’t be easy to do that. It’s in some ways shooting fish in a barrel, and in other ways harder because conspiracy theorists can fold everything into the conspiracy. But the problem is, at the end of that 10–15 minutes, what has been achieved? He hasn’t changed his mind, which is fine. I don’t try to change his mind. But what has the audience learned or experienced? It just comes back to the Gish gallop point: the Gish galloper doesn’t want you to believe them over you, they want you to believe no one. These people are not interested in fact-based discourse. They’re interested in burning the whole thing down and want to destroy a free exchange of ideas. That’s how fascism grows and how authoritarianism comes to power, when you don’t believe anyone. Nihilism is a step before fascism. Why do I want to aid and abet people who want to burn it all down?

Robinson  

I don’t think you would be aiding and abetting. One of the things they do is say, “They won’t engage our arguments and examine our evidence because they’re afraid.”

Hasan  

You can engage it. You can do a fact check of Dinesh D’Souza’s book and show everything wrong with it without giving him a platform to gaslight, Gish gallop, and lie.

Robinson  

It is tough to know what you shouldn’t do. 

Hasan  

It is tough. I’m not saying it’s easy, especially in a two-party system where one of the two parties has now been taken over by authoritarians and gaslighters. I have a hygiene test on my show where I say I won’t have election deniers on. And I wonder, for myself and my team—we discussed this—how long can we sustain that role as we head into 2024? If everyone on the right is an election denier, then we’re basically saying we don’t want anyone right wing on my show, which I’m not comfortable doing because I don’t want to have just people who agree with me. So, maybe I’ll have to drop my hygiene rule at some point, but it’s not something I’ll do happily.

Robinson  

Some part of me just wants to see you say, “Prove it. I want the proof. Show me the proof.”

Hasan  

Well, part of me wants to do that, too, but it’s a balancing act. How much oxygen do you give these people to a point where they just win by appearing? That’s my worry. It’s a real issue. I can say to Marjorie Taylor Greene, “You think the election was stolen in Georgia, the election that elected you? So, you’re not a member of Congress?” That would be my obvious gambit with her—I’ve never heard anyone really push her on that. “If Joe Biden didn’t win Georgia, you didn’t win Georgia.” Where would we go then?

Robinson  

Oh, I’d have her on. But I might be wrong. I might come out of it like you did with the climate change interview, where you thought that didn’t work.

Hasan  

You really have to stop and ask: what is it for their side? “All publicity is good publicity.” Where do you draw the line? Do you have no line?

Robinson  

I don’t know if I do draw a line—

Hasan  

A Holocaust denier? Would you debate the Holocaust on your show?

Robinson  

Yes, I think so. 

Hasan  

What would be the point of that? 

Robinson  

I think to discredit the person. 

Hasan  

The audience knows that! The only people who are Holocaust deniers are crazy conspiracy theorists! 

Robinson  

I’ll tell you when I would debate the Holocaust denier: if Holocaust denial was getting extremely popular. I think that right now, it’s hardly—

Hasan  

Yes. It’s basically a version of what I just said, which is, at some point, maybe I have to drop my election denier rule because it’s so widespread. It’s now the accepted wisdom on the right. It’s horrible. I hate having to do it.

Robinson  

Yes. The election denials are getting more marginal, though, so there’s no need to engage them.

Hasan  

Are they? As far as I’m aware, the Republican Party is all election denial.

Robinson  

In the last election, the midterms, they all lost.

Hasan  

They lost, but the Republican Party has not stopped believing in election denial.

Robinson  

So, with something like climate change denial, the more popular it gets, the more I think we need to do work on exposing it. I would not have a Holocaust denier on if I thought it was going to go like the Richard Lindzen interview.

Hasan  

Yes, and if it’s not gratuitous as well. Also, many people just want to have arguments for clicks, even if it’s damaging to our discourse, and that’s a problem.

Robinson  

That’s right. You have to be careful. But I do think argument can be very effective. There’s a YouTube video of you that’s got millions of views from 10 years ago of a debate you did at Oxford on whether Islam was a peaceful religion. You gave this one 10-minute speech that really resonated with people where you defended against all these people saying Islam is a religion of violence. Why do you think that speech was so particularly effective?

Hasan  

It’s a great question. It was 10 years ago this May on the day after a terrorist attack in London, so I thought, We’re definitely going to lose this debate. How can I make the case for Islam being peaceful when one soldier was just killed by “Islamists”? I guess it was because I threw everything I had into it. It was emotional. I made it very personal. I wrote in the book about the importance of personal anecdote, about me and my kids and what this meant for my parents to pass a motion that said Islam was a religion of violence. What does that say about your Muslim neighbors? So, I did make it emotional and personal. I did turn up with receipts—I had the facts that shut them down. I had the polling and evidence about terrorism and terrorist attacks. I went ad hominem: I questioned the credibility and expertise of my three opponents in a very successful way. And I had my zingers—my one-liners as I say in the book—and I pointed out that if Osama bin Laden turned up to that debate, he would be on the other side, arguing the case that Islam is a violent religion. So, I used many different techniques that I deployed in the book all rolled into one. But I was very passionate.

The audience at home knew I cared, that it meant a lot to me, and that I had done my homework and turned up ready to make the case. I also think it helped from a Muslim perspective in terms of going viral because of the vote that night, which we won in the Oxford Union. But the reason it went globally viral is, I think, for many Muslims it was the first time they had seen a brown Muslim dude in a black tie in the heart of the British establishment, rhetorically giving the anti-Islam elites a bit of a kicking.

Robinson  

Yes. It feels nice for those who are used to being on the receiving end of things to get to win. If you use this on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed, you take back power, and it feels good. 

Hasan  

Very much so.


Hear the conversation on the Current Affairs podcast. Transcript edited by Patrick Farnsworth.

More In: Interviews

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue

Featuring

A wonderful spring issue touching on important issues such as child liberation, whether humans really love animals, why Puerto Rico's political status remains a problem, what Islamic finance can teach us, and how 'terrorism' has become a shape-shifting word. Welcome to the Manos-Fair, and enjoy Luxury British Pants, among other delightful amusements!

The Latest From Current Affairs