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How To Win Arguments In The Post-Truth Era

By Bruno Diaz.

In this photo taken Sunday, Sept. 27, 2009, a sculpture by Chinese artist Chen Wenling entitled "What You See Might Not Be Real" is on display at a gallery in Beijing, China. The artwork is a critique of the global financial crisis with the bull representing the golden bull of wall street and the man pinned to the wall representing the jailed financier Bernard Madoff. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

“I only know what I believe.” Tony Blair, Labour Party Conference Speech, 2004.
According to the likes of Faisal Islam, Ralph Keyes, and The New York Times we’ve entered the post-truth era. If they’re right, it’ll be a time when, like Tony Blair, we will eschew the achievements of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and base what we know not on what we prove through intellectual enquiry, but on what we believe as articles of faith. In this new world, as both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have shown, facts and experts will be pushed aside in favour of populism and emotion. Public opinion and government policy will be moulded by those whose words provoke the most hysteria. It’ll be a place where controversial opinion pieces, and the polemicists who write them, will be in great demand.
So with a cry of “The White House Here We Come!” these are some tips on how to get your opinions sounding like cast iron “facts” straight from the columns of Peter Hitchens, Owen Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos.

1. Be Perfectly Reasonable

Whatever or whoever you’re criticising, start out by saying that you think they’re great.
If it’s a person or an institution you’re targeting, follow Tory MEP Daniel Hannan’s example in his critique of Guardian journalist Zoe Williams: “Williams is a great writer – original, clever and with a fine turn of phrase.”

If you’ve got a whole industry such as banks in your sights, take time to praise certain aspects of the financial sector, or to point out that you’re not talking about all banks, just a few bad apples. Whether or not you believe what you’re saying doesn’t matter – the point is to come across as someone filled with well-mannered common sense who would only be critical if it was absolutely necessary. Once the reader thinks of you in this way, it’ll seem perfectly reasonable, and believable, when you tar the Co-Op and Nationwide with the same brush as Bear Sterns, Lehmans and Deutsche.

As French playwright Jean Giraudoux put it: “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.”

2. Don’t Let the Truth Get in the Way

For those interested in the truth, debating can be tricky. Facts tend to get in the way, sticking their noses in to point out what is true or false. What a bore!
But polemicists are more interested in winning the argument than in being right, so remember that time spent on facts that don’t back up your case is time wasted. Better still, learn how to reframe the data so that it looks like the stats are actually on your side.

Vacuous right-wing pretty boy Fraser Nelson (more on ad hominem attacks later) is excellent at this, as his (disingenuous?) misinterpretation of last year’s school exam results for The Telegraph shows. Nelson’s premise is simple – state schools are outperforming private ones. To back this up, he points to Government figures showing that several state schools outperformed Eton in the 2015 league tables. This would be a fine thing to claim if it weren’t for the fact that pupils at schools like Eton don’t sit the same exams as state schools, often choosing the more academically rigorous iGCSE and the more globally-focussed International Baccalaureate.

As The Telegraph’s own analysis of the league tables puts it in eye-catchingly bold italics: “[m]any independent…schools score zero (or very low scores) if they enter all or most pupils for alternative qualifications that are not accredited by the Government.”

3. Use Broad Strokes

Doyen of left-leaning armchair anarchists Adam Curtis “describes his work as journalism that happens to be expounded via the medium of film.” So it’s odd that people let him get away with gross generalisations that aren’t backed up by anything more robust than his confident Home Counties accent.

“In the early 70s,” Curtis says in his “documentary” series The Trap, “the government bureaucracies in Britain began to collapse.” The programme then cuts to archive footage of civil servants with shaggy beards and flared trousers telling people that “we don’t deal with that sort of thing”, and arguing with each other in nicotine-stained meeting rooms. Hey presto, viewers think what he’s saying is true – that in the 1970s Britain’s civil service was a place of anarchy and bedlam.
So, when writing an op-ed, forget about subtlety and nuance. Focus instead on crafting pithy broadsides that sound generally true.
And for a rib-tickling takedown of Curtis watch this.

4. Embrace Ignorance and Inconsistency

Life as a polemicist will be busy – a flurry of think pieces, blogs, and interviews on Russia Today. There won’t be enough time to make sure every contentious assertion you assert is ideologically coherent. For advice on how to deal with this, Chris Snowdon’s work for the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) is instructive.

As per the IEA’s free market ethos, Snowdon rarely misses an opportunity to go on about how great private enterprise is. But dig into Snowdon’s work and you’ll find that he’s happy to drop this line if it ceases to be useful. Like in this nugget from a pamphlet against the plain packaging of tobacco:

“…companies often produce two barely distinguishable versions of the same product and give the budget brand a consciously inexpensive-looking package, even though it would cost no more to make it look glitzier.”

This description of businesses as amoral snake oil merchants out to hoodwink consumers via the deceptive use of cardboard doesn’t chime with Snowdon’s usual view that the free market is the road to human salvation. It also reveals a lack of knowledge of how business works, because yes, actually, YES, given the extra costs involved that glitzy pack IS more expensive than a plain one. As anyone who ever bought wedding invites would be happy to explain.

But who needs to know anything about anything and have their ideological positions all singing from the same hymn sheet when you’ve got to get over to Russia Today to appear on the Keiser Report? You’ll just have to take whatever expedient argument you can get.

5. Conflate the Unconflatable

To back up your point of view it’s useful to connect things that haven’t got anything to do with each other. To see how this is done check out Spiked-online.com’s rich seam of polemical gold.

Take a piece by controversial barrister Barbara Hewson in which she attempts to link feminism to fundamentalist Islam. First, she describes how the Indonesian military makes female recruits take virginity tests. Then she reports that the principal of an Oxford college deplores the sexual harassment of her female students.

“These two episodes have more in common than you may think,” writes Hewson.
Except they don’t. One is a display of sexism from the conservative armed forces of a country that while being majority Muslim is also democratic, constitutionally secular, and not given to fundamentalist interpretations of the Quran. The other is a British academic who doesn’t like the young women she teaches being sexually intimidated by male students.
Conflated in Hewson’s vigorous prose, though, this becomes compelling stuff, making it possible for her to declare that “Muslim fundamentalists and modern Western feminists have so much in common.” Boom! Eat that Germaine Greer!

6. Ad Hominem Attacks, or Play the Man Not the Ball

Hopefully, these pointers will have your argument honed into a rapier of polemic so sharp that it will easily rip your opponent’s thesis asunder. Should you find that you’re still not victorious in the cut and thrust of debate, however, why not make things personal?
Again, the work of the IEA’s Chris Snowdon is useful here, particularly the vitriol he reserves for public health scientists such as Simon Chapman. Now, Chapman might be an Emeritus Professor at the University of Sydney, he might have written over 500 peer-reviewed articles, he might have been commended by the WHO and the BMA, but none of these achievements impress Snowdon. In just one piece Snowdon calls Chapman a “scrotum-faced headbanger”, “a gadfly”, accuses him of “promot[ing] junk science”, and even questions his mental health: “[h]e…has an unfortunate habit of listening to the voices in his head and repeating their words out loud”.

The purpose of this, of course, is to make an audience doubt your opponent’s argument. And if insulting people’s appearance, personality, professionalism and mental health don’t work, why not follow Chris Snowdon’s example and JUST RAISE YOUR VOICE.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bruno Diaz is a trends researcher who also writes poetry and prose. His writing has been published by the likes of Canvas8, Bella Caledonia, Glasgow Review of Books, and The Inkling. You can find more of his writing here: or follow him on Twitter.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, November 19th, 2016.