Know Thy Enemy

TL;DR: We should always try to understand the reasoning of those that we do not agree with. It is not enough to reject a position out of hand, but we should always try to understand exactly why this position is compelling for others and why they hold it. Even if you are sure in your position, understanding the thought of others makes it easier for you to show the flaws in the arguments of others and make your own position sound more appealing to their values.

Image result for know thy enemy sun tzu


When it comes to political discussion, a huge part of my message is just that we need to talk to each other. I do everything that I can to expose myself to the opinions of others, both in social media and in more formal reading. It is extremely important to understand not just the conclusions of others, but their reasoning behind those conclusions. This is the fundamental thesis of this article. First I shall briefly state what precisely this process entails and then I shall argue why it is important.

It must be made clear that it is not enough to understand the conclusions that others have reached. To someone who doesn’t know the reasoning behind a policy being advocated or attacked, it might sound silly. Consider a liberal and conservative contemplating the privatization of social security. A liberal who does not understand the conservative viewpoint might interpret the policy as a policy that endangers the retirement funds of the elderly while boosting investment in big business. Instead, from the conservative’s point of view, the privatization of social security might seem to present a way to increase retirement savings rates and boost economic prosperity at the same time. Yet the liberal might never see this point of view if they were simply to assume the reasoning without taking any significant time to examine it. Therefore, it is clear that if one is actually interested in understanding what another is saying, then one should take some time to actually expose oneself to the arguments of others. Merely understanding the conclusion is dramatically different than understanding the reasoning that lead to the conclusion. Further, often one has to be generous in seeing where the other party is coming from, even if one’s next move is to dismiss that outlook.

For instance, suppose that with the privatization of social security, part of the idea that the conservative has on the subject is that individuals will make good decisions concerning where they invest their money. While the liberal might not agree with this for any number of reasons, it certainly has a logic to it. The individuals investing their money have a greater incentive to make sure their own retirement accumulates quickly than the government has to boost the retirement funds of nameless citizens far in the future. Just writing this line of reasoning off without entertaining it introduces a chance of error and potentially makes the position seem more absurd than it really is.

This is something of an idealized approach for why we should take the following approach when understanding the viewpoints of others:


  • What is being advocated?
  • What is the justification for this being advocated?
  • Does this viewpoint make sense internally?
  • Does this viewpoint make sense when I bring in my outside knowledge?


This is not just how one should approach positions one does not instinctively agree with, but rather how one should approach most viewpoints that generally one encounters. One should be critical but generous in one’s approach. One must be critical so that one is not mislead either into accepting something that is false or rejecting something that is true out of hand. One must be generous so that one can really understand where the other party is coming from and see if they aren’t allowing their existing feelings to skew their outlook one way or the other.

Now many might consider everything that I have written up to now to be a very intellectual ivory tower perspective. Sure, if one is interested in only intellectual purity, this is what one should do, but if I’m very sure of my own opinion, why should I entertain viewpoints are clearly wrong? Overlooking the possibility that all humans can err, the clear reason you should try to understand the perspective of others is that it aids in your ability to address their arguments and play to their values.

What I see from the vast majority of political discussion is two parties talking directly past each other. The real issues of contention are often not addressed, and thus no one is convinced one way or another. Without addressing your opponent’s central concerns, very few of the people who presently agree with them will feel convinced. They will simply think that you do not understand where they are coming from and move on. You will be just another stupid (insert label that seems to fit you in context here) in a mass of similar fools. If you DO understand your opponent’s argument and where they are coming from, then you are far more able to actually address their points. If you are indeed right, then it is far more likely to appear that this is the case precisely because you are “speaking their language”. You are addressing what they consider to be important, rather than speaking directly past them and making a fool of yourself by not dealing with their central points, but rather what you believe their points to be.

rhetoricA large part of what I am afraid may happen in the coming years is an increasingly large division and balkanization within public political discussion. Already it seems as though there is a gap that is larger than ever before, where both sides see themselves completely differently than the other side, to the point where it is fundamentally difficult for the two sides to even discuss things with one another. The alienation of these factions, our increasingly pronounced inability to simply talk to each other is something that is deeply worrisome to me, and which must be fought at all costs.

Even in the event that one does not truly care for open political discussion, the case for “knowing thine enemy” is clear: it is the easiest way to fight them. The only reason why one would be afraid to engage others and try to understand them is precisely because one is not confident in one’s own logic and current understanding of the world. This is to admit that you are simultaneously unconfident in your worldview and unwilling to expose yourself to potentially more compelling ones. Talk to others, learn what they have to say, even if it is incorrect. It will make you better at actually fighting bad ideas and spreading good ones.

2 thoughts on “Know Thy Enemy

  1. Banhus

    I completely agree. This is a big problem. Recently I was among a group of intellectually-minded individuals, and one woman remarked that she found it troubling to encounter eloquent arguments made by intelligent members of the opposing side. My first thought was that it should be the other way around–we should be happy that those on the other side have at least thought things through and aren’t just unreasonable morons. But I also sympathize with the feeling. Our beliefs play a big role in our lives and to have them undermined can induce uncertainty and anxiety. This is made worse by the habit of peddling petty polemics on social media and elsewhere, which seems to develop into a dependence on having one’s beliefs quickly validated by others in the same camp. I think we need to practice a level of emotional detachment if we are to seriously engage opposing views.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think this is an excellent statement of the problem. Sometime in the future I would like to write on precisely this. I think in particular “anxiety” is an absolutely perfect word for the feeling of having our beliefs seriously challenged. I really like that. When an opponent had a really good point I remember in the past feeling panicky and nervous, and only on rare occasions did I stop and ask myself “Am I really being fair?”. I’ve always had a really strong attachment to intellectual honesty, but for some people who don’t, I have to wonder how much of their politics, or indeed their entire lives are actually driven by such feelings and an iron conviction that they are correct.


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