Sometimes when discussing how society might function without an overbearing threat of violence imposed on ordinary people, anarchist libertarians are on a completely different wavelength during most political discussions. Typically, political discussions revolve around who to stab and how deep should the blade go. And anyone who questions why anyone has to be stabbed at all is perceived to be the frivolous one.
That is OK. Those who believe aggression is wrong are actually at a distinct advantage — several actually — when it comes to spreading our ideas. The first is that we are not trying to impose beliefs or positive obligations on others. We are seeking but a “mere negation,” as Frederic Bastiat said. We only “oblige him only to abstain from harming others.” For anyone but authoritarian sociopaths, that seems simple enough. Other political ideologies require coalition building for a dominant majority to implement and sustain them, while the believers in a voluntary society must only win over a much lower threshold, something of a passive neglect on the part of anyone who does not share our opinions. We only have to convince them to leave peace lovers alone, you see.
Second, we seek to respectfully disagree. If some think that the best way to protect us from terrorists is to build military instillations in foreign countries, I say go for it. I am confident they are just looking out for our best interests. Personally, I disagree and think that trading with others promotes mutual aid. It was Bastiat again who said that “When goods do not cross borders, soldiers will.” (What does some French guy know about war anyway?) In this instance, it seems both sides are at a stalemate as to what to do together. There really is no settlement that could be made, so both sides should be free to part ways and spend their time and money how they best see fit. Surely, in a free country, peaceful and civil people can agree to that much.
And if we do live in a free country, then surely anyone who peacefully disagrees should not be attacked or threatened by the government for having a different opinion. What good is freedom, after all, if we can’t peacefully disagree? Freedom of thought would be a petty and shallow consequence if others did not respect that freedom themselves. For that matter, what good would it do to disagree if someone could use force without repercussion to compel peaceful people’s obedience? Free people should not be made, by force, to counteract their conscience by being taxed to pay for or participate in actions and programs they found repugnant. Surely, in a free country, peaceful and civil people can agree to that much.
If someone can’t simply agree to disagree, anyone who insists on imposing a positive obligation on peaceful people is just a bully. In fact, what took place was not a discussion at all. It was more a hostage negotiation — between hostage negotiator and hostage taker. That is important to remember. Hostage negotiations are distinct from discussions. It is no longer an examination of facts and hypothesis, but a relationship based on control. Early in a negotiation, the hostage taker may attempt to take the dominant role of authority figure. The early role of the hostage negotiator is to access the circumstances and uncover background information, finding what brought the subject to those conclusions. Once the assessment is made, it is time to build rapport and perhaps reduce the stress of the situation. The goal is always to convince the hostage taker to let everyone go free. If no progress can be made, however, it is best to halt the negotiation to retain some self pride.
Some Advanced Techniques
One post-negotiation technique I have practiced over the years is building cognitive dissonance. I save it for after the negotiation period because it creates a sense of tension by making observations the listener believes are true yet should not be true by his or her own assumptions. The tension can be applied quickly and has a way of building over time, like a delayed detonation in the mind.
For longer encounters, use Socratic questioning, which requires more finesse from the questioner and intellectual honesty from the listener, to create some cognitive dissonance. Jan Helfeld is especially adept at this. His questioning of Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) illustrates an example of how this might be done. In this clip, Helfeld got the senator to admit that those in government use coercion and that individuals in their ordinary capacity had no right to initiate force. The senator said that the government had been delegated that power by the people through the constitution. Helfeld again confirmed with the senator that ordinary individuals do not have the right to initiate force, and then he asked how individuals could delegate to the constitution the power to initiate force if they themselves do not have that right to delegate. Basically, how can they delegate a right they do not have?
Try isolating the moral nature of the relationship being proposed; get to the root of the issue; get to the priority of it all. You know you’ve found it when someone responds by saying “Yes, but.”
At other times, it can be helpful to make a statement and ask listeners what they think of it. The most important lesson I’ve learned about discussion is that I cannot change anyone’s mind. Only they can. The harder I try and the more effort I expend, the less I am likely to succeed. It really is like any other relationship. Coming across as pushy or arrogant leaves healthy people resentful of the time they spent with you. The key to it all is asking questions. (I mean in a real way; I think people recognize someone acting artificially.) If I am genuinely curious about the reason why someone thinks a certain way, more often than not I am reciprocated in kind. If nothing else, it helps me understand the objections others have and how I can improve my own ideas. I also listen to words and phrases that are repeated or given an extra emphasis. The great thing about speech is how much easier it is to recognize the different vocal inflections. Those are all little insights that reveal what is important to someone.
It is nearly impossible get a reversal of opinion, a complete conversion, on the spot. It’s probably some ego thing we have in our mind. So I’m not that ambitious when introducing these ideas for the first time. It’s easy to forget that I didn’t always hold the beliefs I do now; we are all trying to integrate our own understanding of the world. Since we can’t change their minds, we can change the assumptions on which their ideas are based. If you want to light the fires of liberty, be patient for these combustive ideas to soak in.
(Note: In a later post I will write about the three most important points to get across in any political discussion.)