The following article appeared originally on BeingLibertarian.com

Bernie Sanders finger wag

Debating with leftists can be a tricky endeavour – but not for a lack of good arguments, evidence or sound reasoning on our part. It may even feel like the discussion is completely at cross-purposes. Despite what they claim, this is because leftists typically don’t engage in an intellectually ‘open and honest’ way.

For those unclear on the meaning, ‘leftists’ here refers to anyone who would describe themselves as being politically on the far-Left, or those who endorse the dominant ‘social justice’ narrative and use Critical Theory as the basis of their reasoning. With that in mind, the aim of this article is to take a look at some of the ‘techniques’ used by leftists to seize control of, and dominate, a discussion.

1) Sidetracking and derailing

Railway splitOften, a conversation will start out with a given topic in mind. Both parties will argue about it, but before you know it, you’re talking about something completely different. Leftists often derail the discussion by trying to force us into a different one, without fully resolving the first.

By not stopping this in its tracks, you are allowing the other person to set the agenda of the discussion and steer it as they see fit. Essentially, that person becomes both an adjudicator and a participant. Moreover, it’s often the case that you wouldn’t have finished outlining your ideas before the other person swiftly moves on to the next topic, rendering your argument incomplete and thus seemingly weak.

The best response to this is to hit back – hard. Point out what they are trying to do in derailing the conversation. Most importantly, highlight that they haven’t provided any counterarguments where this is the case (as it so often is). The burden of proof is on both parties to demonstrate the soundness of their claims. Don’t allow the other party to sneak their way out of this responsibility.

2) Ad hominem attacks

Ad hominem referee

One of the most pathetic attempts at winning an argument is pointing out some flaw or shortcoming of one’s opponent. This is a primary weapon of leftists, though.

Rather than responding to the premises of an argument, or highlighting its logical flaws, they will draw attention to the apparent ‘bad intentions’ of the other person. Men will be told that they are ‘sexist’, and whites that they are somehow ‘racist’. The list of these ‘oppressor’ classes goes on indefinitely, and will be drawn upon to maximum effect.

The idea behind these attacks is to destabilize the debate. By attempting to show what a horrible person their opponent is and how deplorable their ideas and motivations are, the leftist casts a strong shadow of emotionally-laden doubt over their opponent’s case. By implication, the leftist is using this as virtue signaling to show how much better a person they are – which is why, supposedly, their ideas should be accepted. Insofar as casual observers are won over by such emotional appeals, this is a very powerful tool.

As before, the best response is to disarm leftists by pointing out exactly what they’re doing. In fact, they’re fair game for a full-on retaliation: by trying to demonstrate what a bad person you are, it’s reasonable to point out how craven and malicious they are actually being, and how they are substituting these claims for an argument.

At the point where your opponent is hurling personal insults instead of engaging your points, you’ve pretty much won the argument. As Margaret Thatcher said, “I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.”

3) Bias

One of the detriments of modern education is that it often teaches us to react in a particular way to certain words. ‘Bias’ is one such word, and we’re taught from a young age to have a negative, knee-jerk reaction to it, without necessarily considering why or how something or someone is ‘biased’ – and what further implications this has.

Leftists will leverage their audience’s propensity to reject anything labeled ‘biased’. They will often call you biased for having reached a conclusion other than theirs, without making any attempt to show where the bias lies (if it is relevant) or where your reasoning is faulty. The claim of bias is a careless and lazy one. Actually demonstrating that someone is biased is not a simple task, since we generally aren’t aware of another person’s deepest convictions and ideas.

But the most important point is that even if a person is biased, pointing this out is usually not sufficient as an argument against their ideas. Karl Marx may have been a loathsome freeloader – and thus biased towards socialism – but that alone does nothing to refute the claim that socialism can ‘work’.

Claiming bias without demonstrable proof is really just a variation of an ad hominem argument. It is necessarily invalid and, in the context of a debate, cynically constructed to show some sort of ‘dishonesty’.

4) Different standards of ‘proof’

Once you’re aware of this wily tactic, it will become much easier to spot and counter. Nowhere is the problem of applying different standards to evidence more prevalent than in the ‘socialism vs. capitalism’ debate, but it does rear its ugly head elsewhere. Essentially, leftists tend to apply different standards to the evidence provided by both sides to suit their purposes.

For instance, they will give examples of real-world problems (regardless of the source of the problem) and label these as ‘failures of capitalism’. Then, in the same breath, they would use theoretical ideas to ‘prove’ that socialism would ‘work’ and deny that the USSR was a socialist megastate. Either the debate needs to take place on theoretical grounds, or on empirical grounds – but don’t allow your opponent to slither their way between the two such that their arguments win by default.

Lawrence Reed of the FEE has analysed this problem, and aptly stated the following:

“It constantly amazes me that defenders of the free market are expected to offer certainty and perfection while government has only to make promises and express good intentions. Many times, for instance, I’ve heard people say, ‘A free market in education is a bad idea because some child somewhere might fall through the cracks,’ even though in today’s government schools, millions of children are falling through the cracks every day.” (Emphasis in the original)

5) Claims to special knowledge

Redefining violence
Social justice activists will challenge the meaning of basic, commonly-understood words to suit their narrative.

It’s no secret that many leftists use contrived theories in support of their claims. The convenient redefinition of racism and sexism is one such example. On the other hand, they may arbitrarily deem knowledge about a certain field (say, gender studies) necessary to understand another (say, economics). While it is true that some fields of study help in better understanding others, it’s fallacious to believe that studying in those fields is necessary in this regard.

The problem mentioned above is compounded when leftists try to deny their opponents an opportunity to express their views on certain topics. They usually do this by declaring you ‘ignorant’ of certain theories.

When one of the parties in a debate is ignorant about an important idea, the other should be gracious enough to inform them about it, and point them to some sources where they could find out more for themselves. This is in the interest of having a truly ‘open and honest’ discussion, even if the discussion will have to be shelved for later.

Instead, leftists often relegate their opponents to ‘ignorant’ status and use this proclamation to shut down debate. This shields certain ideas from inspection and criticism. Nicholas Woode-Smith has already written about the wider consequences this can have.

Concluding thoughts

The list above is by no means exhaustive, but it does outline some of the major tactics leftists use to destabilize debate – thereby making it feel like you’re having to work twice as hard just to get your point out.

The reality is that many leftists are fixed in their thinking and are unlikely to be swayed by compelling evidence or logic – for the most part, it’s not them that we should try to win over. Instead, there will often be a casual bystander who is not committed or yet convinced by either view – and who can still be won over by reasonable points and arguments.

The tactics outlined above will be employed to make you look evil and your arguments look weak, which is why it is important to reject a lot of this nonsense outright – or, better yet, to call your opponent out on it. With a clear understanding of the cheap shots that will be coming your way, you will be much better prepared to fight back.

An ardent supporter of personal responsibility and freedom, Nic enjoys thinking and writing about all sorts of things: economics, Critical Theory, culture, and current affairs. He is a fourth-year actuarial science student at the University of Cape Town.
Favourite economist: Mises or Rothbard.
Favourite political philosopher: Thomas Sowell