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How to Think: or, how to argue.

I remember the Cold War, when we were taught that the Russians were the bad guys, the Americans the good guys, and it seemed impossible that they would ever communicate across the deep political, doctrinal, and cultural divide. And yet, as Sting sang in 1985, “But what might save us, me and you,/ Is if the Russians love their children too”. Turns out they do.

Then Perestroika and glasnost happened, and the world became more nuanced. We started to see James Bond movies were the Americans were not to be trusted. Now it seems that the President of the United States is very friendly with certain Russian elements… Ideas change, people change, and really anything is possible. Just think, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, arch-bigot Fred Phelps’s own granddaughter Megan Phelps-Roper, raised in bigotry since birth imbibing hatred with her mother’s milk, managed to extricate herself in 2012. She learned to see nuance where before there was only black and white.

It seems that my Facebook feed is lighting up with one argument after another, over gun control (I’m a gun-owner but I support gun control), immigration (from a historical perspective, we are all immigrants unless still living in the Rift Valley, so I’m for freedom of movement), Brexit (the triumph of pride and prejudice over sense and sensibility), and a million other polarising issues, large and small. One glimmer of hope is that I’m still seeing both sides of these arguments in my feed. I’m not (apparently) stuck in an echo chamber (yet).

But I don’t come here to complain. I only bring up problems on my blog when I have some kind of a useful suggestion. It’s really not my place to tell Americans what to do with their guns (the best idea I’ve seen yet is to have them licensed and insured just like cars, but it's really not up to me), I voted Green (pro immigration), and Remain (anti-Brexit), in the last two ballots in the UK, so I’ve had my say there. But the central problem behind all of these issues is that everything is presented as black and white. And so the people on each side cannot talk to each other, and so cannot work together towards some kind of solution.

So here’s my suggestion. Read this book by Alan Jacobs:

How to Think: a survival guide for a world at odds.

It doesn’t matter what side of any issue you are on; this is simply the best approach to negotiating with people who disagree with you that I have ever come across. It’s worth the price of admission just for the checklist at the end. One really useful, and immediately actionable, suggestion: when discussing any issue with someone who strongly disagrees with you, avoid saying “in other words” and then recasting their argument to sound stupid. Instead, restate their argument to their satisfaction. Then put your position. Before they respond to it, they should also restate your argument, to your satisfaction. That way, you both at least understand where the other is coming from. Agree on this pattern before the discussions starts, and lo! You’ve already agreed on something…

Knowing how to discuss issues with people who disagree with you is simply essential for the study of historical martial arts. Pretty much the defining characteristic of my friends in this community is the ability to disagree wildly with someone without disliking them. In the wider community I’ve lost track of the number of issues that became so heated that it appeared the only solution would be to bring back duels at dawn. Plastic swords? Certification? Tournament rulesets? The interpretation of largo and stretto?  The list goes on. And I’ve done my share of denigrating and deliberately mis-stating my opponents’ views.

If only I’d read this book years ago. But hey, it only came out a few months ago.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

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