Arguing against interest for the public interest
On high-school writing class, the Netflix "surprise me" feature, and the socialist case for right-to-work laws
Classic advice from high-school writing teachers insists that a good persuasive writer should be able to make their opponent's case as well as their own. It is solid advice, since it requires the would-be rhetorician to be capable of understanding an argument in both the affirmative and the negative.
■ The advice does contain limitations, though. To say it helps a person to "see both sides" presupposes that there are merely two sides to an issue, and that they are diametrically opposed. This isn't always the case; in fact, the people who aggravate our political sensibilities most aren't the ones who are seen as taking opposite views from ours, but rather the ones whose views might be considered a "near miss" from our own.
■ For that reason -- and for many others -- it would be refreshing to see a revival of heterodoxy in the public square. People with good persuasive skills should be challenged to make the best possible case for reaching their own conclusions, but using the assumptions and predispositions of someone who disagrees with them. Or, similarly, to make use their own preferences and logical pathways to make the case for their opponent's conclusion.
■ Too many issues are nationalized anyway in American politics. This country of more than 330 million people contains just too many variables to rely on one-size-fits-all arguments for all public policies. It would serve us well to hear good-faith arguments that are not strictly in the speaker's (or writer's) self-interest.
■ We lack a well-known forum not for contrarianism (those can be found all over), but for unconventional arguments arriving at surprising conclusions. What is, for instance, the best rock-ribbed capitalist case for single-payer health care? Or, what is the socialist case for right-to-work laws? What is the most persuasive libertarian case for a larger, more muscular navy? What is soundest progressive argument for deregulating financial markets?
■ It's entirely fair if the people making these arguments offer clear disclaimers right up front: The persistence of arguments found online means that basically anything a person says or writes is likely to be used against them for generations to come.
■ We still haven't reconciled ourselves to this problem, and a problem it surely is. Nothing indiscreet someone writes for a college newspaper out of youthful ignorance remains buried forever, as it once would have been. No ill-advised endorsement or impulsive tweet is lost to the ether; they all come back to haunt.
■ And as a result, the incentives -- at least for now -- are for people to dig in their heels, double down, and seek refuge within their own tribes. But that doesn't help anyone to make the case for change within their own communities, nor does it bring anyone over from other sides (however many there may be).
■ We do need to get to a more forgiving place, culturally; one where people are forgiven for embracing bad ideas in the past and rewarded for changing their minds as new facts (and new arguments) come to the forefront. One step in that direction would be to challenge persuasive individuals to make those unconventional cases -- either the best version of an opponent's case to persuade one's own side, or the best version of one's own conclusion but structured around an opponent's assumptions and values.
■ None of it is a silver bullet, and any forum worthy of hosting these kinds of arguments would need to be financially viable, and that creates a chicken-and-egg problem. But it ought to be there. The same old arguments being made to the same old interests aren't really interesting, and they aren't really productive, either. If even Netflix has developed a feature that basically begs "Surprise me", then we ought to have a similar relief valve in our public sphere.