Identity and Debate

When debating, there is often an invisible wall you can run into when the topic you are discussing is part of a debaters self defined identity. Religion is one of the most common of these topics. Often when an Atheist and Christian argue both are people who strongly identify themselves as being “A Christian” or “An Atheist.” When it comes time to defending an argument that could undermine said identity, there is a kind of impassable barrier that enters the conversation.

The harder you press that topic a kind of fight or flight response takes over. Either the point is entirely avoided, or it provokes an emotional and aggressive response. In both cases the argument simply isn’t going to progress in any useful fashion. I find the best course is to steer the debate into more comfortable territory or try to place it in a more hypothetical context.

Sometimes people are aware of this, but I find often they are not. I’ve had debates where a point of mine simply goes unresponded to no matter how often I bring it up and if I press hard enough they will claim never to have heard it. Its like trying to get a straight answer from a political candidate to a pointed question but the evasion seems to be happening instinctual rather than being crafted.

As a result I’ve learned to mostly avoid such debates. If I am going at it on a strong identity topic I tray simply not to bring up the direct challenges. Its often better to ask a lot of direct questions about what someone thinks or to direct them to sources they can read about some expert opinion on the topic at hand. Of course you can’t expect this tactic will change minds, but that simply isn’t on the table during the discussion.

What can and sometimes does happen is you plant seeds of thought, then sometime later in life, circumstances will arise that may lead them to want to change their identity either thematically or subtly and your ideas will be there available for them to use as their own. When it comes from within, its is not a threat. People forced to change their identity rebel violently, but people often change their identity themselves.

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