Some People Will Say Anything to Win an Argument

“Never fight with a pig. You’ll just get dirty and the pig likes it." —George Bernard Shaw 


Absolutism: Absolute confidence in one’s beliefs. Beliefs held so firmly that nothing could change one’s mind (AKA fundamentalism, extremism, pigheadedness, buttheadedness, incorrigibility, un-receptivity, close-mindedness, self-certainty, faith, being a know-it-all, suffering from hardening of the smarteries).

When the going gets tough, we would hope that, just like in the blockbuster disaster movies, people would become more receptive, flexible, collaborative, creative, and adaptable. That’s not what usually happens.

It does with other organisms, just not with us. For example, when stressed, single-cell slime work together, becoming a kind of super-organism. And plenty of creatures are ‘facultatively sexual” meaning that they generally reproduce asexually—in effect, cloning—except under stress. When stressed they mate, producing varied offspring. It’s as though they live by the rule, “When things are working fine, keep doing what you’re doing; when things aren’t working fine, try lots of different things to find what works.”

We humans aren’t like that. When the going gets tough, we tend to dig in our heels, getting stubborn, even absolute about doing what we have been doing. There are plenty of explanations for our tendency toward absolutism when stressed. One has to do with our use of language to give ourselves pep talks. When our behaviors aren’t succeeding we can close our eyes and tell ourselves that we are succeeding. With language we can rationalize stubbornness in ways other organisms can’t.

It’s a good trait. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. It’s a bad trait. When the going gets tough, the tough get going straight off cliffs they could have avoided if they were more adaptable.

Lately, the going has gotten tough and, right on schedule, people are digging in their heels and squaring off. Absolutism is on the rise and with it, a whole lot of finger-pointing, people accusing each other of being absolutists.

Which raises a question that would have been more fruitfully addressed in milder times. How can you really tell whether someone is absolutely closed-minded?

A popular answer is that people are closed-minded when they disagree with us. We try to change their minds and if they don’t change, they must be closed-minded. But think about it. That doesn’t work.

If some kook demanded that you come around to his way of thinking, you wouldn’t, and not because you’re closed-minded. If people disagree with you, it doesn’t make them absolutists. For all you know, it might mean you’re the absolutist because you disagree with them. Still, applying this popular, but inadequate test, we end a lot of arguments with each side concluding that the other is pigheaded.

By definition, an absolutist is unreceptive to absolutely every possible challenge to their beliefs. So if you wanted to know whether someone is absolutely closed to changing their minds, you’d have to try them on every possible challenge—which is impossible.

We see an attempt at running the gamut of challenges in Dr. Seuss’s book Green Eggs and Ham. Sam-I-am keeps trying to change the other guy’s mind about green eggs and ham, and the other guy keeps refusing. “Would you like them on a boat? Would you like them with a goat?” Finally, the guy tries them and likes them.

But what if you find someone who’s unreceptive no matter what challenges you pose? How many tries before you give up? That’s an open-ended question. If you give up, maybe the one thing you would have tried next would have done the trick. And maybe nothing would. And maybe nothing should. There are lots of things about which we’re never going to change our minds and not because we’re closed-minded.

Of course, some people are proud to tell you that they’re absolutists. They call it faith, a proud word for absolutism. But what about the many who claim they’re receptive when they show no signs of it? And what about the fact that you can’t even hold out for a changed mind? After all, one can be totally receptive yet unconvinced.

I conclude, that you can never tell for sure that someone is an absolutist. You can only guess. And you have to guess, because you need very different interactive strategies for dealing with the open and closed minded. If you’re dealing with someone who will say anything to win an argument, you shouldn’t keep arguing with them. We can frame the challenge as a variation on the serenity prayer:

Grant me the patience to engage with the receptive, the impatience to avoid the absolutely unreceptive and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom to know the difference doesn’t come easy. It’s a hard art, and you will guess wrong sometimes, engaging with the unreceptive, and avoiding the receptive.

Don’t feel too bad about guessing wrong sometimes. Try not to feel like a chump if you tried too long to reach someone unreceptive or like an intolerant beast if you decided that someone is an unreceptive absolutist only to find out later that they were actually receptive. You will make mistakes. Live and learn in your quest for greater wisdom and therefore fewer errors.

And don’t pretend that you can solve the challenge by deciding that everyone is receptive or unreceptive. No, you really need the wisdom. You need to be able to engage the receptive and you really can’t afford to waste effort talking to brick walls. It’s worse than wasting time. If you keep reasoning with the unreceptive, you’re enabling them. You don’t just look like a chump you make them look receptive when they’re not.

I frame it this way:

I try to be a nice guy
But if you show up done,
ready for a fight you're 
already sure you've won
I'm gonna do my best
to have you leave here disappointed
with your scheme to dip in quick, 
pre-and post-anointed
as the one who only tutors,
teaching others what to think
cause it's attitudes like that 
that put the whole world on the brink.

Absolutism is usually regarded as a firm commitment to a belief. I’d argue that it’s actually a firm commitment to pretending to be absolutely right. It’s more about being a know-it-all than it is about what they might happen to know or believe.

I’ve found a few useful tests for guessing who is an absolutist:

Ask them what they’re still wondering about? Absolutists will have a hard time downshifting from insistence to curiosity. They don’t identify with their questions, only with their know-it-all answers.

Do they ingest challenges or spit them out? I distinguish between ingesting and digesting feedback. Ingesting is taking it in, hearing, and most importantly understanding it. Digesting comes later. It’s sorting out by one’s own standards what’s nutritiously useful feedback and what’s waste product. The unreceptive will show signs of inability to ingest, let alone digest, perhaps because they find the taste of any challenge as bitter as poison. They spit feedback right out, telling you instantly why they need not even consider it. Paradoxically, the more we trust our guts to digest, the more we can afford to ingest feedback. It’s like knowing that you have a stomach of steel that can handle even the things that taste bitter but might be good for you.

Fake-reasons for speed spitting: To spit out feedback rather than ingesting it, people rely on quick deflections, ways to say “no you’re wrong, that’s irrelevant” without having to think about it. For speed-spitting you need content-free objections to the feedback, objections that come to mind as quickly as possible to fill in the end of a quick dismissive sentence, “You’re wrong because…” You don’t have time to consider the feedback’s content. Indeed, you don’t want to—that’s the point of quick spit. Here’s a long list of such content-free excuses for not having to ingest feedback. Use it as a test for absolutism. If you hear a lot of these fake reasons used instantly and automatically to deflect any incoming feedback, you’re probably dealing with an absolutist.

When you follow their logic do they change it? Humor them. When they employ a rule, adopt it right away, no questions asked. You’re probably dealing with an absolutist if they change the rule when they don’t like the consequences of it. For example:

“Like all closed-minded people, you’re name-calling, which is totally disrespectful.”
“I agree. So you’re calling me a disrespectful closed-minded name-caller?”
“No, that’s not name calling, and name calling is sometimes OK and you’re just a gotcha-player!”

Give them the floor, remove the wall and mirror it: If you’ve got the patience for it, or if the engagement really matters to you, let them speak their mind uninterrupted and then give them ample evidence that you understand what they’re saying, chiefly by “mirroring,” stating their position back to them as convincingly as possible. Some people come across as absolutists because they feel backed against a wall, anxious that if they don’t push with all their might, they’ll get knocked over by absolutists. So give them room and see what comes of it. Be understanding until they feel completely heard. Remember that you can understand someone without agreeing with them. Perhaps when they feel fully heard, they’ll be willing to listen. And if they aren’t you’ll have the consolation of thoroughness, ample evidence to guess that you’re dealing with an absolutist.

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