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Modesty of words
On train wrecks, effective activism, and the case for making measured arguments
One of the best ways to lose an argument is to overstate the case. Certain classes of activists (especially including, though not limited to, many vocal environmentalists) are especially prone to overstatement. Not everything is an "emergency", a "crisis", a "catastrophe", or a "disaster".
■ It's understandable that people can look at a problem and think that it's uniquely threatening -- or that the threat imposes a unique burden directly on them. (Think of the youthful activist berating the world at a climate summit: "You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.")
■ But in trying to rally other people to share a sense of urgency about this issue or that, escalating to the language of "catastrophe" risks causing a escalatory spiral, in which nothing gets taken seriously unless accompanied by extreme language.
■ Take, for instance, the train disaster in East Palestine, Ohio. It's a disaster, but exaggerations aren't helping the case. It's quite enough to say that it is a disturbing and damaging event of a scale large enough that it calls for the aid of the Federal government. But it does not help for environmental activists to label it "one of the deadliest environmental emergencies in decades" when that claim is patently untrue.
■ As the economist Todd Yarbrough thoughtfully puts it, "people will interpret hyperbole as dishonesty". That's a truth people of all stripes ought to take to heart: Exaggerations undermine reasonable arguments. They give people who might be sympathetic but skeptical the intellectual wiggle room to retreat to their prior assumptions.
■ A willingness to change one's mind is vital, especially in a self-governing society. But minds aren't changed by overheated arguments screamed from a bullhorn. Often, they're made by appealing to the self-interests of the audience first: In Ben Franklin's words, "Would you persuade, speak of interest, not of reason."
■ People may be fooled in lots of ways, but they quite often know both what's "for their own good" and what represents a real threat to that good. And if the person making an argument appears only to believe in it if couched in the language of exaggeration and overstatement, then it's quite often plainly unconvincing to the audience.
■ It's especially unconvincing if the persuasion is intended to compel the audience through shame. "I early learned that it is a hard matter to convert an individual by abusing him," wrote Booker T. Washington, "and that this is more often accomplished by giving credit for all the praiseworthy actions performed than by calling attention alone to all the evil done."
■ It's a lesson not just for environmental activists, nor just for those making causes from the left. A world filled with many varied and complex problems calls for solution-making through healthy, reasoned persuasion. Modesty of words is a good starting point.