On "Dealing With Extremists"

Some of the core messaging at Something to Consider is that we’re capable of having enjoyable, productive political conversations with people that disagree with us if we use the right methods. Our recent post on mindsets and “the path forward” outlines one of these methods.

A few readers have asked what to do about “extremists:” that is, people that have viewpoints that are seemingly beyond the pale. (We won’t talk for now about people with deep-seated hate, psychological problems, and whatnot.) They’re doggedly partisan, seem to believe things that defy reason, and summarily reject evidence or argument.

We tread into slightly dangerous territory here, so we’re going to steadfastly not call out any particular viewpoints as “extreme” or in defiance of reason. As writers, we have our own opinions, but our intent is not to impose them on others, nor attempt to be held up as an “authority” on which positions are reasonable and which are not. One man’s “extremist” is another man’s steadfast defender of truth in the face of public opinion.

So take “extremist” to define whatever group you think it does for the moment. Take a moment and think of a few viewpoints you’d consider to fall into this list.

Readers that have asked about dealing with extremists sometimes vent their frustration about trying to have conversations with people they believe fall into that category, with such phrases as:

  • “They completely ignore evidence”

  • “They’re proud of their ignorance”

  • “They are so dogmatic they twist every narrative to support their claim”

  • “They use ad hominem and reject someone’s arguments based on their identity”

The readers then explained that they attempted to lay out the case clearly, cite evidence thoroughly, and handle objections logically. To no avail!

Much throwing up of hands or flipping of tables ensues. What can be done?

Ultimately, the flaw in the method is self-admitted. Often, we attempt to use reason and logic to change the minds of someone we claim is impervious to both. We attempt to use facts to unseat arguments that weren’t formed on facts. The reason this method fails is that it simply doesn’t address the root causes of someone’s belief, nor address the fundamental threats to admitting error.

The underlying mindset that will help us reconsider our approach is this:

“To change minds, I must be a leader. A leader takes responsibility for finding the method that will lead someone where I want them to go.” Thus, if we choose to take on the task of trying to begin changing the minds of an extremist, we cannot simply blame them when, after using a flawed method, they do not go where we wish them. By taking responsibility, we simply and cooly seek out the method that will work.

Some Core Principles:

There may not be a silver bullet for changing the minds of an extremist--at least, we do not know of one. But there are a few principles we can understand that will guide us in our future conversations.

  1. Don’t provoke bad habits. These are folks who are used to throwing up a wall, digging in, and defending themselves. Once someone is provoked into the mindset and habit of defending oneself, we’ve already lost them. Going on the attack, telling them they’re wrong, or disagreeing starkly are all going to provoke this.

    Bonus: “The Muddy Pig” model. It’s been said that “arguing with a Republican/Democrat/engineer/insert-whatever-here is like wrestling with a muddy pig: at some point you realize the pig enjoys it.” If it becomes an argument, the game or sport of argument can take over. This also happens to the rest of us sometimes.
  2. Be their teammate. Be curious. You’re on a journey together. They obviously have a perspective you don’t share. Listen and be friendly. You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) pretend you agree, but this attitude provokes trust and openness, Such a tenor will make them want to listen, as well.

  3. Impervious to evidence? Then don’t use evidence. Just because someone didn’t use reason to reach their position doesn’t mean that they don’t have a reason for holding the position. As we’ve discussed before (and will be discussing further in our book Wedged), people often hold political positions as a way of reinforcing their cultural identity. Want to get the person to consider a new position: then frame it in terms of their values, emotions, and cultural identity. “Don’t Mess With Texas” got Texans to stop littering. Appealing to parents’ concern for their children’s health (via second-hand smoke) got millions to stop smoking. Getting heroes in movies to volunteer as designated drivers cut down on drunk driving. Treat this conversation like it’s a sales call.

  4. Concede where they have a point. You’re going to be tempted to not “give them an inch,” as doing so partially validates their beliefs. “If I tell them they’re right about one thing, they’re going to think they’re right about everything.” Not only is this not true, but it will backfire. Many folks with strongly-held, unpopular beliefs are actually very well-researched… just selectively so. If you show that you’re unwilling to consider evidence or reason against your position, then they’ll decide that you’re the extremist, and not worth talking to.

  5. Frame the new viewpoint to be consistent with the old one. It can be very threatening to change one’s beliefs, especially if one holds an unpopular opinion. One has been yelled at, put down, and called all sorts of names for holding one’s position. It would be an understatement to claim that it’s a tall order to admit, “I’ve just been dead wrong this entire time.” So never ask anyone to say they’re wrong. Don’t frame things in terms of people being right or wrong. It’s just a new perspective, an expanding, a refining, an evolving of a position.

We’ll post an example of this process next week.

To Avoid at All Costs:

Some people believe that shaming, or otherwise making socially-unacceptable, someone’s extreme viewpoint is the only reasonable method. Since they can’t be convinced using reason, they need to be shouted down.

We can’t emphasize enough that this is flawed and short-term thinking. There are some people that believe “using drone strikes to kill terrorists only creates more terrorists.” Whether that logic is militarily true, we believe it is true here. If people believe they’re being persecuted for their beliefs, they’re going to dig in and hold those beliefs more firmly. They’re going to avoid conversation with people that disagree with them, become insular with the group that already agrees with them, and become more extreme.

The only serious path forward for dealing with extremists is to welcome them, respect them, listen to them, and work with their feelings. Will it work right away? Probably not. But it has a far higher chance of inspiring reasonableness than fact-spamming or shouting-down. Much akin to our “Why do I Discuss Politics?” post: if you’re going to take the time to discuss politics with people you believe are extremists, you might as well do it right.


Erik Fogg

US political and cultural dialogue is broken, and we intend to change that. We're starting by giving you Something to Consider.