In the movie Thank You For Smoking, the main character Joey Naylor, a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, has a great scene with his son that talks about how he wins.
His son asks him what happens when he’s wrong. Here’s the quick transcript of the scene:
Joey Naylor: What happens when you’re wrong? Nick Naylor: Whoa, Joey I’m never wrong.
Joey Naylor: But you can’t always be right…
Nick Naylor: Well, if it’s your job to be right, then you’re never wrong.
Joey Naylor: But what if you are wrong?
Nick Naylor: OK, let’s say that you’re defending chocolate, and I’m defending vanilla. Now if I were to say to you: ‘Vanilla is the best flavour ice-cream’, you’d say…
Joey Naylor: No, chocolate is.
Nick Naylor: Exactly, but you can’t win that argument… so, I’ll ask you: so you think chocolate is the end all and the all of ice-cream, do you?
Joey Naylor: It’s the best ice-cream, I wouldn’t order any other.
Nick Naylor: Oh! So it’s all chocolate for you is it?
Joey Naylor: Yes, chocolate is all I need.
Nick Naylor: Well, I need more than chocolate, and for that matter I need more than vanilla. I believe that we need freedom. And choice when it comes to our ice-cream, and that Joey Naylor, that is the defintion of liberty.
Joey Naylor: But that’s not what we’re talking about
Nick Naylor: Ah! But that’s what I’m talking about.
Joey Naylor: …but you didn’t prove that vanilla was the best…
Nick Naylor: I didn’t have to. I proved that you’re wrong, and if you’re wrong I’m right.
Joey Naylor: But you still didn’t convince me
Nick Naylor: It’s that I’m not after you. I’m after them. [points into the crowd]
This scene illustrates one of the greatest issues that I see liberals struggle with in the public sphere:
We think we win when we win a logical argument.
Professionals like Nick Naylor understand that you win when you win someone over.
If we were only having conversations with people in academic settings, this wouldn’t matter. But today everyone, in some shape or form, is their own pundit. Conservatives unfortunately have an edge in that if you choose to be conservative, corporate special interest groups have laid out exactly how to win professionally in their media. As liberals, we don’t have this support.
This is why it’s so important to understand the fight we’re fighting. We’re not up against stupid people. We’re up against the best propaganda on the planet.
So let’s talk about how and why people troll and how trolls can be your best friend in the sphere of public opinion.
The purpose of trolling
One of the best definitions I’ve found comes from Ann Coulter’s How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must).
You must outrage the enemy. If the liberal you’re arguing with doesn’t become speechless with sputtering, impotent rage, you’re not doing it right. People don’t get angry when lies are told about them; they get angry when the truth is told about them. If you are not being called outrageous by liberals, you’re not being outrageous enough. Start with the maximum assertion about liberals and then push the envelope, because, as we know, their evil is incalculable.
And yeah, Coulter’s “logic” is crazy. People hate when you lie about them. This isn’t what she cares about though.
What she cares about is the “speechless” part. This is her way of “winning” in a similar way to Nick Naylor.
She wants liberals to not know how to respond. Or to respond by attacking her.
This is what trolls want. They win when:
- You’re calling them names
- You’re calling them dumb or making fun of their intelligence
- You’re wasting your time on them
- You’re angry
- You’re not winning over those who are winnable
So how can you deal with trolls?
1. Know who your fight is with
You can’t win the troll. This is a person who has deliberately chosen to attack you. This is not someone looking to talk or have a discussion.
Like Nick Naylor, the only people you can win are in the audience. So the first question you should ask is, do I have an audience I can win?
If yes, then you may want to respond. Otherwise, there’s no point. Don’t feed the trolls.
2. Know your goal
Is your goal to win the argument?
It shouldn’t be. Here’s what you should choose as your goal: win people over to your side.
Will this be done by winning an argument? Maybe with some people. But often you’ll only polarize them more against you.
Again, this may seem obvious. But time and again I see liberals getting into head-to-head knock-down, drag-out fights because they want to be right more than they care about their relative or friend.
Here’s a quote that struck me from Mike Murphy, a veteran GOP strategist:
Political satire doesn’t have anywhere near the power you’d think it does. Most people who watch Jon Stewart’s show or a Michael Moore movie have already made up their minds.
Now I don’t bring this up to agree or disagree with Mr. Murphy. That’s not the point.
This is meant to point out that Mike Murphy is a political professional and he’s saying that what’s important is winning people over.
Ask yourself this question when you get into a discussion: Do you want to be right, or do you want to genuinely win someone over?
If you want to win someone over, you have to treat them with respect and dignity.
Telling them that they’re wrong is going to have about the same impact as satire. You might win someone over who is pretty close to agreeing with you. But someone who has a completely different opinion?
They’re going to think you’re not listening to them and just repeating liberal propaganda.
And yes, they’ve been told this by all the conservative pundits for years and it’s not true, etc, etc.
This doesn’t change the fact that this is what they believe.
If you can’t handle being respectful and you know that what they say is going to drive you nuts, you probably should take the advice of the Gambler, and know when to fold ’em.
3. Know their tactics
Much has been written about this and you probably know these from their frequent usage so here are a few recommendations if you want further reading:
One of the reasons the conservative base loves our new leader is that he is a consummate troll. If you understand trolling and how to use it as a tactic, you understand that this is what he was doing in his press conference the other day. Everything he said was designed to derail the conversation from his horrible week and Michael Flynn’s resignation. He threw out a couple lies for the media to write about, he made an outrageous statement comparing his administration to a finely tuned machine, he blamed the media, and he asked a black reporter if she was friends with the National Black Caucus (you know … because she’s black). All of this was chum thrown to the media to give them 20 other things to write about to disrupt the more threatening questions about Russia (What did Trump know and when did he know it?). In other words, our President is a well-versed troll.
I’ve even known conservatives who go so far as to deliberately spell things wrong so that some “liberal” would correct them and they could look like a a victim of mean academic liberals. And sadly, this tactic works more often than I’d like to admit. It seems to be easier for us to see the base as “stupid,” rather than as using a tactic designed to make us look immoral and elitist in that academic sense.
Another good source is to read some conservative literature, listen to some conservative pundits, or find yourself a good person online to practice having discussions with.
NOTE: Just don’t pay for any of this material. I’ve checked out Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, and Rush Limbaugh all from the local library. You only have to suffer one or two disapproving looks from the librarian.
4. Hold your ground and know your beliefs
Okay, we’ve set the stage. Now here is one of the strongest strategies to use.
It’s simple in theory, but hard to do in practice.
Almost all conservative tactics have to do with changing the argument.
Straw men, changing the subject, accusation, name calling, moving the goalposts: all of these are designed to change the argument to something else and knock you off your game.
Why, you ask?
Because they want you to either A) take the bait and start arguing on their terms, or B) as Ann wrote, become speechless with sputtering, impotent rage.
Are you starting to understand the game?
You’re trying to have a rational conversation with someone while they are trying to bait you and make you angry.
These tactics likely sound familiar.
What you have to do is know your beliefs, hold your ground, and don’t take the bait.
Keep coming back to what you believe.
5. Let them look bad
If someone wants to look like an asshole, let them. This is more powerful than calling them a name.
The other day I was posting about how the economy works and demonstrating how demand creates jobs (not tax cuts). I was having a good, honest discussion with someone who I feel is a fairly moderate conservative.
Then, my favorite troll hopped on:
I couldn’t believe my luck. A screaming raging whack job appeared.
So what did I do?
Absolutely nothing. I let him look like a screaming raging whack job.
After a bit, my conservative friend hopped on and agreed with one of my points.
I liked his comment and moved on. Celebrating a victory only makes you look bad.
Our problem is that all too often we don’t know when we’ve won. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen someone almost win only to, at the last moment, blow it by saying some version of, “I’m glad you agree with me.”
Remember, the goal is not to win an argument but to win a person. And you don’t win people by telling them you’re right. You win people by being someone they want to follow.
If a troll looks like an asshole, no one wants to follow him. The trick is you have to let him look like an asshole without being one yourself. This latter step is not always easy.
6. How to tell when you’ve won
If your relative is a “no win” conservative, you will never win.
So how do you know when to quit?
I work to win the independents. One way to do this is to state what you believe and quit when it’s obvious that the person I’m talking to has said something outside recognized norms.
What does this mean?
Basically, it means he’s (and mostly it’s a “he”) said something that makes him look foolish.
Because at that point, I’ve won over the independents. I’ve won over anyone listening who can be won over. Like Joey Naylor, I’m not playing for him. I’m playing for the audience.
At this point, you should let the religious look religious and step away from the argument. The trick is that you need to do this without calling names or calling anyone stupid.
Sometimes you can do this by not saying anything as in my example above. Another good way to do this would have be to say something like, “At this point, we’re just going to have to disagree” and then to restate what you believe.
7. Why trolling doesn’t work for us
Conservatives are a top-down coordinated campaign backed with money from corporate special interest groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Their strategy is divide and conquer. When people are arguing with each other and dividing, they win. This is what happened in the 2016 election.
If you want more division, troll. If you want people to fight with you, you want strategies that bring people together.
You want to talk about your values and what you believe. You want to focus on areas where you can begin to fight together so you can learn how to fight together so you can start expanding your fight.
Unless you’re getting the opposition to pick fights with each other, focus on strategies that bring people together rather than trying to mimic some tactic of the opposition without understanding why the opposition used it.
I hope this helps. Last week, I wrote about a simple process for overcoming objections.
I’ve been doing this because I find it easier to focus on talking about our beliefs than in trying to keep up with landslide that is the daily news cycle under the current administration. While it’s important to keep up with current events, it’s much more important to contextualize these in terms of what we believe—for example, talking about the importance of checks and balances and democracy.
People often ask me my opinion on current events because they see me having really interesting conversations. The trick is to know what you believe, and how to talk about it.
And, if you encounter a troll, to keep talking about what you believe and use the trolling to your advantage—or simply don’t engage.
David Akadjian is the author of The Little Book of Revolution: A Distributive Strategy for Democracy (now available as an ebook).