Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Planting seeds

One of the more egregious abuses of the idea of open-mindedness is when people say, "If you were more open-minded, you would have changed your mind already." Whenever I hear this, I just look down and shake my head. For one thing, it's begging the question--would I in fact have changed my mind by now? But the much deeper error is the unrealistic expectation of how easily people change their minds. You can't entirely change a person's point of view with just one conversation. And if you expect to change everyone's mind so easily, you will be disappointed in all your rhetorical endeavors, and become a bitter cynic.

I suppose this is why people say, "You're not there to change people's minds, but to plant seeds of doubt."

I am not a fan of this metaphor. It makes it sound as if all you need to do is go up to people, ask a provocative question, and then leave. You've planted a seed, so your job is done! Because you already know how great your own arguments are, there's no need to listen to any responses, or to make sure that you've really conveyed your point. It sounds an awful lot like trolling.

Perhaps it would be better to say that you're not just planting seeds, but also watering the plants. But I'm still not a fan of the metaphor. It makes me imagine trees growing in people's brains.


But there's an important point behind by the "planting seeds" metaphor. People really don't change their minds after just one conversation. They may be corrected on facts, and they may concede smaller points. But on larger issues, it simply doesn't happen quite like that. More often, people change their minds through several conversations with different people. By reading many different articles with different points of view. By doing a bit of introspection on top of all that. At least, that's how I do it.

And so, in any single conversation, you can't expect to make major changes in a person's point of view. That doesn't mean they're close-minded, it just means they're normal. Nor does it mean that discussion and persuasion is completely futile. You can persuade people, it's just not easy, that's all. It's probably better this way, since you wouldn't want people to be persuaded by every huckster they come across.

But the tricky thing is, that means that whether you make good arguments or bad arguments, there will be little observable difference. If you never succeed in persuading anyone, is it because persuasion is a slow process, or is it because your arguments just suck? How do you tell?

Personally, I try to distinguish between good and bad arguments by examining their logical soundness. Use some critical thinking to see if the conclusion really follows. Also, listen to other people's responses, see if they find any flaws that you've missed. Just because an argument is logically sound doesn't guarantee that it is effective at persuading people, but it's a fairly good start.

I'm curious if my readers have any other answers to the question: How do you know whether your arguments are effective?

1 comment:

DarkSapiens said...

Sorry I'm so late, but I was reading a bunch of posts today that I had a little time :P

And well, to know if your arguments are or not effective, I try to see if they look still unconvinced or they sey they are, and of course ask them why. But perhaps, and more important, would be asking them why do they believe what they believe. Could be that what you're trying to disprove has actually nothing to do with the main reason of that person maintaining that opinion.

In that case even the most convincing argument would have no effect if it misses the point. Sometimes talking with someone about what made me think what I think I found myself in that situation. The facts that make me see things so clear for me have sometimes no relevance in the other's beliefs.