Ever hear of the Drake equation? It’s this mind-bending attempt to estimate how many intelligent species there are in the universe. It basically lists all the things you need for intelligent life and tries to lay odds on clearing each of the hurdles. It goes like this:
By the time you guess all those answers then multiply them together, you wind up with an infinitesimally-tiny number. Of course, it’s more of a thought experiment than a way to get an actual answer. But a political version of the Drake Equation is useful for understanding the impossibility of arguing our way to policy victories:
It's obviously not exactly the same as the astronomical version, but the basic idea is there: by the time you go through all the steps, you have an infinitesimally-small number. A number so small, and the likelihood of success so remote, that the effort required can't be justified. In short, trying to persuade someone who doesn’t agree with you is a colossal waste of your valuable time.
I feel sad that this is true. It’s a communal good to engage in meaningful debate. There is something of a tradition, based on some Socratic ideal probably, that good people of good conscience can arrive at good conclusions together.
But we have a very limited amount of time to solve enormous problems. Even if every conservative you debated was intellectually capable and emotionally available to change their mind, the ROI is simply far too small.
I used to think, naïvely, that people's beliefs are like a light switch; that a well-placed rejoinder would close some cognitive circuit and turn opponents into allies. What I've learned is that people might change their minds... if you share a relationship you both value. If your only relationship is words on a screen, or banal hallway chitchat, you will never change their mind. Absent a meaningful relationship with your co-conversationalist, no progress is possible.
But we don’t need to hoist a hostile boulder up a cliff. You just need to nudge a friendly pebble over the edge:
Don't waste time arguing with trolls online. Spend that time telling your friends what local and national candidates excite and inspire you.
Don't read clickbait about the latest insanity from the administration. Spend that time showing people how to register to vote by mail.
Don't watch videos about cruelties perpetrated by racists. Spend that time volunteering for groups that promote racial, environmental, and economic justice.
We already know apathy and resignation are enemies, just as dangerous as this administration. We also know the power of inspiration cannot be overstated. So we should spend our time being proactive and motivating our friends to action also. The best debaters seldom win. Enthusiasm and excitement always wins.