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How Can You Argue Effectively Against Someone’s Reality?

platano's picture

There are certain ways to argue a point in order to get someone to listen to what you have to say, and even grow to believe you. The bigger the lie or the bigger the change that a person must make in order to adjust to what you’ve told them; the harder it will be for you to convince them. People are more apt to believe you when there’s an immediate threat being posed, when they aren’t as knowledgeable about the subject, or when you have a monopoly on the information. People also take into account the reliability of the person trying to convince them of something. Although there are many rules that go along with providing an effective argument, there are still those ideas that threaten people’s reality in ways they are not willing to modify.


People feel entitled to their own reality. Two people can hold to opposing views, and their own view will be real for them individually. People believe that their reality or facts are unquestionable. There are even some principles that you can use to negotiate yourself through an argument. For example:




-Naess, p.222-229


These principles are examined in Arne Naess’ book “Deep Ecology” in relation to his interpretation of Gandhi’s nonviolent verbal communication (NVC). Gandhi’s NVC encourages people to say what they mean and mean what they say in order for the conversation not to result in ill feelings towards one another. When you speak in abstract terms it’s easy to believe that two opposing views can both be right/legitimate, however, when you get more specific it’s sometimes hard not to want to interfere with someone else’s reality.


The types of realities that I am referring to are cultural and social realities. Abuse, and racism (as well as other kinds of ‘isms’) are the types of realities that might lead others with opposing views to want to change the person’s opinion. As much as you believe that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, there are certain situations in which you’ll think that your stance is the right stance. This is when things get complicated. The general public agrees that abuse is inacceptable, so if you abuse someone, then you will go to jail. There is a general acceptance that abuse is bad, and we can therefore avoid the reality that abusive people have created for themselves by punishing them (law). However, can you really ever do away with a person’s reality within himself or herself? For instance: how can you convince someone to stop being racist? How can you convince someone that certain people deserve the same types of rights that they do? Racism is unacceptable on the surface level: people have to be politically correct, and hate crimes are punished. But racism occurs at a more personal level, and cannot be regulated adequately because there are many ways to mask racism.


I began thinking about this issue when Alan Gomez came to speak at my school about the immigration laws in Arizona. He said that when you start a conversation with someone about the laws on immigration, you have to speak to them as if you only get one opportunity to convince them. He framed the situation in this way because people have had years of history and fact that have allowed them to avoid the issue of racism. It is even a topic that comes up in my Cities class: when you’re looking at a policy or a law, you have to look at who is included and who is excluded.


I would find it difficult to accept someone else’s reality if there was a moral question involved. It would be even more difficult to try and interfere with that reality. These people have created a reality for themselves in which they have enough background/history to back up their point of view. The more common realities (i.e. racism) have enough support from other people to make them ‘true.’ There is also the fact that because racism can be masked, so there is not immediate threat posed to the person who believes that a certain race to be inferior. Alan suggested that the best way to deal with them is to represent the reality that you believe in as best as you can, and try to get as many supporters as possible.




1. Naess, Arne. The Ecology of Wisdom. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2008.



Anne Dalke's picture

How to change the subconscious?

You've chosen a very different project than the one you were working on last month, when you were calling for the continued enforcement of copyright laws. I found your most interesting observations, that time 'round, to be pragmatic ones, and I think that in this essay, too, your queries are primarily practical: "how can you convince someone to stop being racist?" you ask, when "people feel entitled to their own reality," and when "racism occurs at a personal level"? Many people have racist feelings, but they "cannot be regulated adequately because there are many ways to mask racism."

You evoke one possible response to this dilemma: Alan Gomez's advice to speak w/ others "as if you only get one opportunity to convince them." Your essay also garnered two other responses before mine: one suggests the importance of highlighting the need for individual consistency, and the avoidance of "cognitive dissonance," as a way of getting people to change their minds; the other speaks of the same concept on a social level: that is, those who are opposed to open immigration might consider how much their own culture relies on the labor of immigrants (and so be forced to recognize a social kind of "cognitive dissonance").

But you yourself seem still not to settled on an answer to the important question you raise; as you observe (and as Arne Naess's guidelines suggest) speaking abstractly allows us to "believe that two opposing views can both be right/legitimate"; but "when you get more specific it’s hard not to interfere with someone else’s reality." If the goal is specifically to do that -- and I think in anti-racist work that is explicitly the goal, yes? -- then it seems as if the work needs to be done on a subconscious level, @ the level @ which we may have learned, very long ago in our evolutionary history, to suspect those who looked and acted differently from our own tribe. How to change the subconscious? Not, probably, through conscious argumentation or debate. But perhaps (along the lines of psychotherapy) by making the unconscious conscious?

michael's picture

platano- how difficult it is to convince someone

You can always argue about the necessary exceptions in the mindset : e.g. here in Europe to fill up vacancy in positions of nurses and in general health and elderly care, for artist and writers, or you can refer to known contributions to the society by immigrants who are now "full" citizens., e.g. a neigbor, even a friend, a friend of his or her kid,.. I know this won't provoke a general shift in the mindset (mostly very difficult because who want's to face up group behavior), but it will have some individual behavioral and judgemental effects. And of course who can defend in opposition a general admission of all immigrants.. by all means. Every community, organization, structure has its limits. Unless it is no more a community, organization or structure. Good sense is never an extreme .

Loek's picture

Platano, ipse dicit

Dear Platano,

Throughout the history of rhetorics there has only be one argument by which people ought to have change their mind: ipse dicit - you said it yourself. It is for everyone very important to be consistent. If someone denies his own words and his own line of thinking, then his own feeling being consistent lessens very much. Normally, nobody will do that voluntarily. This feeling inconsistent is called cognitive dissonance in psychology.
So, if you can let someone else hear that he is himself not a racist, thereby pointing to his own words while you are thinking just like him, then he might say the next time he is not a racist. Otherwise, please do not bother. Respect what is out of your control. That is the first thing to stop racism, isn't it?
By the way, I do agree with the previous post too. Good sense is never an extreme. Furthermore, I think that there is a sound basis for racism, just as there is a sound basis for tolerance. IMHO it is the same basis.

With kind regards,