On Changing Minds That Aren’t Mine, and The Instinct to Surrender.

I am not a frequent poster on lesswrong. I’ve been part of the rationality community for a few years now, but I’ve fallen victim to the classic lurker mentality of looking at the most upvoted posts and believing that in comparison to them I haven’t got much to say. This post is, in part, an excuse to start posting anything at all- and in equal parts, an excuse to think about a problem that has been on my mind but not adequately articulated or considered.

I do not believe (or I at least do not behave like someone who believes) that people can change their minds- or, to me more accurate, that I can make people change their minds. This started with reasonable assessments and concessions to social realities; thoughts of the form, “While I might enjoy religious debates in the abstract, there is a very small chance that any conversation I have will convince anyone to convert to atheism. So, if I care about someone or consider them useful, it’s best not to talk about religion, because I’m unlikely to change their view but very likely to get them upset with me.” That is, I think, a sort of rational conclusion- Perhaps not one made for the right reasons, because my personality tends towards avoiding conflict anyway and this is a convenient way to do it, but it is at least defensible as an idea on its own merits.

I’ve always enjoyed arguing. I didn’t get to do it much as a kid, but the fun of debate was something that appealed to me. In college, I got on an ethics debate team that travelled across the state delving into the ethical dimensions of the issues of the day. With a few exceptions (I like to imagine they’re the sort of people who went on to become bioethicists), everyone was very friendly and polite. Due to the format of the competition, you didn’t need to disagree with your opponent; it was perfectly fine to say “Your conclusion seems right, however we’d like to refine a few points you made/​examine it through another potential lens.” And many people did so! There was a feeling that the competition rounds were an exercise in trying to refine arguments and understandings into better versions of themselves by exposing them to criticism; it was all pleasantly idealistic.

When I started talking more in the rationality community (mostly in a public discord that I’ll keep unnamed due to a perhaps pointless paranoia regarding my veneer of anonymity), I loved arguing with people. Sure, sometimes an argument would get heated or rude, from time to time I’d get genuinely mad at a person, and sometimes it would be a slow and agonizing road to realizing that I and someone else are looking at the same map of reality but with truly different core values guiding our judgements. But on the whole, I really enjoyed being able to disagree with people under the mutual belief and understanding that we were both willing to change our views and eager to get better. That belief in the back of my head, that some debates just weren’t worth having, was still there- but that was for friends, family, coworkers, these were rationalists. There should be nothing we can’t discuss and understand given time, honesty, effort, and politeness.

Politics was where things started to break down, at first. I considered myself, in broad terms, a leftist. I’m an American, and I grew up learning a million reasons that the Republican party is dreadful, corrupt, malicious, ill-informed, and hypocritical- whereas the Democrats were responsible, it seemed, mostly for their failure to exercise their power to execute their good ideas while in power, which would seem to imply that as a nice politically active citizen I ought to support them moving further left and being more active. I learned a bit more about economics on the Discord, heard compelling arguments from libertarians about the ineffectiveness of government being something that you can generally predict to happen regardless of who’s in charge, and economic leftist success being a somewhat suspect and speculative venture. And yet, Republicans still deny climate change, culturally align themselves with religion, and encourage greater militarism (slightly)- plus, at least Democrats are closer to sensible solutions like UBI, and frankly certain liberterian skepticisms of things like single payer healthcare seem like speculative whining about how any system will at some point fail. But regardless, with this new context it… Hardly seemed appropriate to be happy about anything when it came to politics. Everyone is dreadfully underinformed, and those with the greatest instincts towards kindness and systemic changes may nevertheless cause great harm.

And when it came to the actual elections, well… With Trump in office, I struggled to imagine how anyone could possibly change their view. If you like him, any argument against him seems motivated by hatred and partisanship to the point of being easily dismissed. If you don’t, then how could you possibly credit any idea or statement of himself or his party as worthwhile in the face of his monumental evils. And based on the election results, those two groups ended up seeming very very close to the same size. How could I ever hope to convince anyone of anything when I have the full weight of all their convictions weighed against my attempt to go against the party line? Perhaps on some matter where the facts leave little doubt, but even then it seems so unlikely- unlikely enough that the old cached thought, “There are some arguments not worth having,” started to rear its head and apply itself to more and more. What’s the point of getting people mad? Better to stay silent and let the ignorant stay ignorant- after all, it’s not like I’m some authority anyway, my beliefs are based on whatever random expert opinions, acquired cultural baggage, and arguments I’ve picked up over the years. On matters where there is doubt, what’s the point in listening to someone who might be scarcely better than noise.

Of course, rationalists ought to be in another category. We have methods we’re meant to use to defuse such arguments in a way that’s supposed to leave us more right than before. But at a certain point, enough time in the same place made me concerned. There were communists, libertarians, laid back incrementalist leftists, centrists dubious of most claims made by anyone, religious authoritarians (only a couple), extropians (a far larger majority which overlapped with most of these other groups)- and in principle, such ideological diversity is lovely and potentially useful. But as time went on, it started to seem disconcerting how little anyone wavered from their core ideology. All these words exchanged, but the libertarians still won’t ever trust a government policy, the religious types won’t give up the holy ghost, the communists won’t give up hope in the face of numbers that don’t look suggestive of anything working out in their favor. If people can be so consistently opposed after so much argument, what are we getting at?

Originally, I had earned a reputation on the server for my patience, my ability to defuse heated disagreements and give everyone every single chance to offer a good reason for why they held their positions. That slowed and stopped. I got angrier, ruder, more sarcastic, less willing to listen to people. Why should I, in the face of a dozen arguments that ended without any change? Eventually I was growing frustrated with people for what seemed to be hypocritical standards of evidence or an overweighting of their unjustified intuitions, and doing little else. The community is still one full of people that I enjoy talking to and enjoy the company of, it’s still one I engage with a lot, but I have lost something that I cared about in becoming unable to have civil arguments.

But identifying problems is the first step in finding solutions. What has happened seems to be basically this: I have lost my faith in people being able to change their minds, and that has made me worse at arguing. I know this is the case, I was far more able to change people’s minds on matters of substance when I started out and was willing to patiently explain myself and generously interpret those who disagreed with me. And yet, my psychology remains a fact about the universe that I only have limited control over: I do get frustrated with people now, in a way I didn’t before. What can I do to stop this?

Well, one idea that comes to mind is to be more exclusive about the community I interact with; create a space with people whose views are similar enough to mine that it doesn’t create this dissonance that leaves me frustrated. There are varying levels of this I could try- blocking the users that frustrate me most, going to a whole new community and starting over (or starting a splinter community with the people I most enjoy the company of), or trying to push for the people I don’t like to get banned. That doesn’t strike me as right- they have just as much of a right to be there as I do, and I still like most of the people in the Discord.

There is, of course, the classic solution: Get stronger. If I could convince them I was right or get convinced that they’re right, that would nicely remove the dissonance. However given the range of opinions and the strength with which they’re held, that seems unlikely.

A change in my habits might help; perhaps if I deliberately limit my interaction with the community and am not always thinking about it, I’ll be less inclined to get this frustration with how invariant people are, and be more inclined towards the charity I hope to have.

And, of course, there is the psychological option- just get over it. People aren’t always going to agree with me, it’s unrealistic to expect that they will. I simply ought to hold myself to higher standards and stay silent or actively leave the conversation rather than venting my frustration onto others.

As ever, I do not know. I can only hope I make some change for the better.