Concede the Point
An amateur guide to retreating
Lucius Aemilius Paullus laid against a stone, dying. A young soldier happened upon him and offered help. Paullus was, after all, a consul: Rome’s second-highest official.
The young soldier tried to help him to safety, but Paullus refused. “Tell Fabius Maximus,” he implored the young man, “that Paulus Aemilius was true to his precepts up to the end.” With that, he wandered back into battle and was promptly killed.
It was one of the worst massacres of the Roman empire, and a particularly low point of the Second Punic War. With Paullus dead — and his co-consul, Gaius Terentius Varro, roundly defeated — Rome needed a new commander, and a new strategy. Paullus and Varro had tried to overwhelm the invading Hannibal, but they were outflanked by a wiser commander.
So they went to Quintus Fabius Maximus: The guy everyone hated. The dictator.
Fabius eschewed big battles, preferred instead small skirmishes, operational dexterity, and wearing down the enemy’s resources. Sometimes that meant retreating, retreating, retreating — before striking. His tactical faintheartedness actually worked pretty well against the tired, invading hordes. (Nobody ever talks about Hannibal after he crosses the Alps.) But the Romans hated it. Who wants to be known as the empire that takes a tire iron to the invading heroes’ knees?
The defeated consuls were, technically, following Fabius’ strategy. But Varro and Paullus had charged ahead in the most un-Fabius way possible. Meeting the invaders with superior force was the moral course, whereas the Fabian strategy was defined by, as Plutarch wrote, “cowardice and sluggishness.”1
But, as Plutarch writes, eventually they came to see Fabius’ strategy as “no mere human calculation, nay, rather, a divine and marvellous intelligence, since it looked so far into the future and foretold a disaster.” Facing a brilliant tactician with hardened forces, Fabius opted for survival instead of heroism.
Fabius wouldn’t live to see Hannibal defeated in Italy, but he would make a cameo in the afterlife in Virgil’s Aeneid:
Fabius Maximus, You are the only soul who shall restore Our wounded state by waiting out the enemy.
The Fabian Strategy aged rather well with time. George Washington picked it up after the continental army’s a near-calamitous defeat in Long Island. Mao Zedong was a fan, too. (“The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”)
But it found fans outside of the military class. In 1884, England’s leading socialist thinkers got together to organize a new society. On the first page of their first pamphlet, they explained their name:
For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did most patiently when warring against Hannibal, though many censured his delays; but when the time comes you must strike hard, as Fabius did, or your waiting will be in vain, and fruitless.
Thus, the Fabian Society was born: The United Kingdom’s channel for democratic socialism. The embodiment of the idea that the proletariat would cast off its shackles and govern itself…eventually.
Honestly, the strategy is of variable quality as a military strategy (used equally these days by both Ukraine and the Islamic State) and is a probably outright bad partisan tactic (the Fabian Society has had a few bad decades.) But it might be a rather useful way to think about our relationships with each other, especially when politics come into the equation.
To that end the prophecies of 30 Rock nail it.
Faced with an intractable argument about the wall color in the upstairs hallway, villain/hero/love-interest Jack Donaghy opts for the Fabian Strategy. “Although I abhor it as a military strategy,” Donaghy explains. “It is the basis for all of my personal relationships.” He would pillory his fiance with so many inane distractions that she would lose focus on the main issue — the paint color — and concede.
If I may yadda yadda yadda to the end of the episode, Donaghy discovers that his perfectly-matched fiance was playing him all along (“She Hannibaled my Fabian!”2)
And thus we’ve arrived at the moral of this newsletter, before it’s even really begun. Sometimes a strategic retreat is a victory onto itself. Sometimes conceding the point means winning the argument.
Sometimes siding with the anti-vaxxer is the only way to bring them on your side. Sometimes finding some common ground with the TERF is the best way to soften their anti-trans radicalization. Sometimes the only way to win is to retreat.
Bug-eyed and Shameless is basically a 30 Rock stan newsletter at this point.
Before I get to the point, I want to talk about jiu jitsu.
Not, unfortunately, the 2020 movie staring Nick Cage that I have never heard of before today.3 The martial art which, proponents claim, “tends to wipe out the differences of size, weight, height and reach.”4 Jiu Jitsu is comprised of a series of tricks, which can incapacitate — or, supposedly, even kill — an opponent by using their own weight to get them on the ground, where their advantages are useless. You use the momentum of their attack against them.
I couldn’t tell you the first thing about jiu jitsu’s efficacy in defending yourself against, say, 100 duck-sized horses, let alone a single horse-sized duck. But I can tell you that as a rhetorical tactic, jiu jitsu is a secret weapon that we don’t talk about enough.
In 2017, two researchers at the University of Queensland wrote a paper5 that I am in love with. It begins this way:
There is a worryingly large chasm between scientific consensus and popular opinion. Roughly one third of Americans are skeptical that humans are primarily responsible for climate change; rates of some infectious diseases are climbing in the face of anti-immunization beliefs; and significant numbers of the population worldwide are anti-evolution creationists. It is easy to assume that resistance to an evidence-based message is a result of ignorance or failure to grasp evidence (the “deficit model” of science communication). But increasingly, theorists understand there are limits to this approach, and that if people are motivated reject science, then repeating evidence will have little impact.
When this paper came out, this suggestion was quite novel. There was no “misinformation beat,” per se. Anti-vaccine sentiment was considered a stubborn little pocket of quackery that could be stamped out, if only we could show them the real science. The intervening years have, I think, made it clear just how much that deficit model is — largely, in this context — useless.
The Australian authors proposed a new way of addressing this rising problem. They proposed looking at the “attitude roots” of these anti-scientific, counter-factual beliefs. “Attitude roots are the underlying fears, ideologies, worldviews, and identity needs that sustain and motivate specific ‘surface’ attitudes like climate skepticism and creationism.”
These sentiments, the researchers theorized, are the reason why beliefs can withstand evidence to the contrary. They are roots that hold the tree in place as the wind blows. The researchers break those priors down into six groups: “Worldviews, conspiratorial ideation, vested interests, personal identity expression, social identity needs, and fears and phobias.”
And finally, the authors propose a gameplan on how to convince these people of the science. It’s a strategy that stops trying to fight those attitude roots and, instead, uses them. It uses the weight of their priors to build momentum towards, if not a whole worldview shift, at least a begrudging shift towards reality.
It is, they propose, a “jiu jitsu model of persuasion that places emphasis on creating change by aligning with (rather than competing with) these attitude roots.”
It is the Fabian Strategy of argument.
Last year, during the Freedom Convoy occupation of Ottawa, I was interviewing one of the participants: A very nice guy named Chris. After getting through some of the bigger, political, issues surrounding the movement, we eventually ran into the question of the vaccines.
Here’s how the conversation6 went:
Chris: I'm not against vaccines whatsoever. But this one, there was too much uncertainty, too much information war around this virus. And what really solidified it for me, actually, was with our prime minister, the leader of the country. He had three doses — and he still caught COVID and had to isolate from his family. That tells me that this vaccinating, there's not a lot of hope to be placed in it.
Me: But if we look at the numbers, the science, folks who have two doses of the vaccine, nevermind three, but two doses of the vaccine die at a rate of 10 times less than those who are unvaccinated. It's about 10 to 12 times. It's clear that people who are vaccinated do not experience severe side effects. Preventing infection, yeah, that doesn't seem to be super effective right now, but it's certainly saving people's lives.
Chris: Well, I would say that the word science has been thrown out there constantly. But I think they've decided to re-define it. Because from my understanding, even back to grade 11 biology, science is a process. Science needs to be continually tested. I can't tell you the steps of the scientific method right now. But I knew, though, that they certainly haven't given us enough time and run it through the scientific method enough times.
This conversation plays in my head fairly regularly. Not because I think Chris is some big dumb idiot — off the top of my head, I can’t remember the steps of the scientific method either — but because of how much he tries to ground his position in science, even if it’s misguided.
It’s a really common habit of those who adhere to these anti-scientific movements. Our Queensland researchers phrase this phenomenon so well:
People develop an attitude, and are motivated to search for evidence to service the attitude. In other words, people do not adopt the scientific process, weighing up the evidence before reaching a conclusion. Rather, they often operate like cognitive lawyers, engaging in a biased and selective search for information, with a view to reinforcing their preexisting attitude.
This shouldn’t come as a great shock to anyone. If you have ever met someone dead-set against vaccines, convinced that climate change is caused by sun spots, or adamant that thermite took down the twin towers, you know what this looks like. Their reasoning is not devoid of reasoning or evidence. Far from it. Their side is replete with studies, blogs, photographs, interviews, grainy security footage, and so on. And they have a quiver full of arrows to explain why it is the official narrative that is, in fact, lacking evidentiary or scientific rigor. In this context, there is some evidence to suggest that giving some people new evidence for a particular theory makes them more likely to reject that theory.
For Chris, the fact that the vaccines were released as quickly as they were — with symbiotic support from government, industry, the media — proves that they were never tested as well as they ought to have been. It’s proof that they were abandoning the principles they were supposed to be governed by. Physician, heal thyself, he says.
He’s wrong, of course. But how can you tell him that?
You make like Fabius.
Rather than taking on people’s surface attitudes directly (which causes people to tune out or rebel),the goal of jiu jitsu persuasion is to identify the underlying motivation, and then to tailor the message so that it aligns with that motivation. For example, rather than trying to directly combat an attitude that is based on core values and ideologies, the goal would be to yield to those values and to use them to capture attention and trigger change.
The authors make clear: This isn’t about feinting to gain strategic advantage in an argument, or doing a Socratic tapdance to draw your opponent out and kick them in the shins with their logical fallacies and inconsistencies. It’s more like psychotherapy, understanding peoples’ motivations for their thinking and addressing the things that make them tick before coming back to the issue at hand.
But this paper was theoretical. Advertisers had known for awhile that you sell people things by meeting their underlying values — convince conservatives that solar panels are good, for example, because they promote energy independence; or selling shoes made by children by telling consumers you’ll donate shoes to children in need — but this was a more fundamental reimagining of how we should communicate with each other.
They offered plenty of cautions and caveats about this jiu jitsu method. But they argued that figuring out new ways of talking to each other about these issues should be a big priority.
Skepticism around climate change and vaccination (like beliefs in creationism and parapsychology) are dangerous in that they signal an erosion of the public’s faith in data, science, and evidence as the standard bases for decision making and the default path to progress. Given that the influence of science has increased steadily in the last four centuries, it is easy to forget that these gains will not continue inevitably; they need to be defended. Our argument is that defending these gains will require us to not just be clear about the science, but also to be alive to the subtle psychologies of motivated reasoning.
A year after their jiu jitsu paper, the Queensland researchers decided to prove the underlying point of their argument: That anti-science beliefs are not merely the byproduct of insufficient or bad information, but the result of deeper psychological, social, and political inclinations.
The authors recruited more than 5,000 participants in 24 countries, measuring their attitudes towards vaccines.7 Rather than simply measure opposition to inoculation, the researchers looked at factors that they believed could correlate to anti-vaccine attitudes: Conspiratorial thinking, of course; disgust of needles and fear of blood; contrarianism, a need to go against the grain; and individualism, a general belief that anything required by the state must be wrong.
The study found that these attitude roots were the variables that pointed to anti-vaccine attitudes. “These psychological predictors accounted for more variance than demographic factors. Strikingly, analysis of the pooled correlations showed that education had no significant relationship with vaccination attitudes, neither did gender.”
The biggest predictor of distrust of vaccines was conspiratorial thinking. For them, “official pronouncements that imply a lack of dissent or that the ‘science is in’ — can be inverted to be proof of a conspiracy”
So here’s where the jiu jitsu approach shows up.
We know appeals to authority won’t work. But nor is it feasible, maybe not even possible, to rid someone of an innate distrust of systems of power and an inclination to believe in secret plots that run the world. That would be like Paullus and Varro trying to overwhelm Hannibal.
Instead, the thinking goes that you should draw the enemy out and use their own weight against them. “To acknowledge the possibility of conspiracies, but to show how vested interests can conspire to obscure the benefits of vaccination and to exaggerate the dangers,” the authors write. Or, if someone tends to prefer their individualism and personal freedom, perhaps you ought to note how “anti-vaccination movements are high-pressure, highly conformist organizations in which individual freedoms are discouraged.”
Someone who suggests that Ukraine is a neo-Nazi fascist state, for example, may do so because they are so hostile towards the American military-industrial complex and the lying bastards who precipitated the invasion of Iraq. Rather than dodge that valid point and attack on another front: Concede the point. Particularly because that point, which I hear often, is entirely correct. Yes, you may say, the White House lied to invade another nation: Just like the Kremlin did last year. In other words: Your skepticism of war and power is justified, but you’ve followed it to the wrong conclusion.
The same may go for someone hostile to transgender people. It may well be edifying for them to hear that discussions and debates about the correct age to transition, and the exact role that surgery and medication should play in the process and when, are common in the medical community and amongst trans people themselves. Rather than telling someone that they are wrong because the consensus is in, it is (almost) always beneficial to invite them into the debate.
People get exhausted being told that they are wrong. People enjoy finding areas where they can get consensus.
Sometimes it can be hard to look past these surface-level ideologies long enough to bother trying to engage with the underlying causes. People who argue that migrants are rapists and murderers can be so odious that we’d rather not engage. And there are people out there who are definitely too bug-eyed or shameless to bother engaging with. See: Elon Musk, who recently said that doctors are out there “sterilizing and mutilating children” and “should be put in prison for life.”
And, of course, a lot of this is easier said than done. Conversations are not perfectly predictable and rational exchanges where everybody reveals their deeper motives and listens attentively to their sparring partner. They are not actual jiu jitsu matches.
I’ve been writing a fair bit over the course of this newsletter about how manufactured schisms can drive divides and make issues more contentious than they need to be (Dispatch #51) but also how exposing yourself to diversity of thought can help produce constructive politics. (Dispatch #20, #56) But the one thing that seems to be elusively difficult to pin down is just how to provoke good, constructive, conversations with people across these stark divides.
No wonder. This area of study has been far too limited and we’ve been far too blithe to the risks of anti-scientific nonsense infecting our political debate for far too long. But what is becoming clear, I think, is that this philosophy needs to change how we move forward. The pandemic and the internet have turned us all into these cognitive lawyers, as our venerated researchers say. Today, our political culture encourages jousting, not jiu jitsu.
In fact, we should hope that pursuing a jiu jitsu approach against those predisposed to conspiratorial beliefs leads them to adopting the same style. At the risk of torturing the metaphor used by these researchers, hand-to-hand combat is more up-close-and-personal than our current social climate allows. The closer you get to someone, the easier it is to engage thoughtfully.
There is, unfortunately, not a lot of good real-world examples of this jiu jitsu style that spring to mind (if you can think of any, please leave them in the comments!) But one in particular caught my attention recently.
Hayley Williams, lead singer of Paramore, made some big headlines during her recent tour: Kicking fans out of a New York City show for being unruly, and telling voters in Florida who voted for Ron DeSantis that they are “dead to me.” Her supporters loved it, her detractors hated it. She had no reason to apologize.
Then she did.
In a long post, she begins by finding a place of common-ground with people who often feel picked-on and ostracized. “Like plenty of elementary school kids, the biggest motivating factor in my social life was belonging,” she wrote. “I often felt like an outcast, even when there were friends around.”
Facing no particular pressure to retreat, she did it anyway. “I hate that the only thing I really know to say to people I deem racist or bigoted in any way is ‘you’re dead to me’ when I know that message isn’t the kind that’s going to change a hateful heart. How can I feel soft and tragic about it in one moment and ragey and rigid the next? Because that’s human.”
She took responsibility and asked everyone to do the same. “If you’re coming to a show on this tour I am practically on my knees typing, begging you to be open to the idea that every person at your show needs it as much as you do.”
I don’t know what the magic words are that break through thick walls of distrust and motivated reasoning, anymore than those Australian researchers or the lead singer of Paramore do.
But I do know that you get further being Quintus Fabius Maximus than you do being Lucius Aemilius Paullus.
That’s it for this week!
I was on CBC’s The National this week, talking about conspiracy theories cropping up around Canada’s raging wildfires, if that interests you.
I’m keen to hear any experiences you folks have had litigating this issues with associates, friends, family, and so on. To that end, I’m opening up comments to all subscribers!
For paying subscribers, there’ll be some exclusive content coming your way soon. I appreciate the hell out of all the annual and monthly subscribers who are renewing their subscriptions.
Until next week.
An actual line from the show. Never let them tell you that a classical studies degree is useless.
The tagline: “Every six years, an ancient order of jiu-jitsu fighters joins forces to battle a vicious race of alien invaders. But when a celebrated war hero goes down in defeat, the fate of the planet and mankind hangs in the balance.” Incredible.
Matthew Hornsey and Kelly Fielding, Attitude Roots and Jiu Jitsu Persuasion: Understanding and Overcoming the Motivated Rejection of Science
Edited for clarity, and to make both of us sound more coherent
Matthew Hornsey, Kelly Fielding, Emily Harris, The Psychological Roots of Anti-Vaccination Attitudes: A 24-Nation Investigation