Winning Debate Strategies

One of TB’s favorite books is The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. Thanks to Greeg/Satan’s appearance last week, henceforth Screwtape on this page, and thanks to the inanity of the debate I was half-heartedly watching tonight, my mind travelled back to that great work. For those unfamiliar, Screwtape is a highly ranked demon who is mentoring his young nephew on the methods by which the minions of Hell can influence people and win them away from God. It’s a funny book in many ways, and its a book that will make you consider in a deep and methodical way the views you have and why you have them. Though its area of focus is religion, the ideas Lewis conjures apply across the board. As to elections in general, and this election in particular,  I think we are constantly subjected to a barrage of influence and argument inspired by those who employ Screwtape’s (the original–not Greeg) methods. 

I copied a passage from Screwtape’s first letter to his nephew Wormwood advising him on how to corrupt a man he is charged with winning that illustrates what I mean.

Quote of the Day

  “I note what you say about guiding our patient’s reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend. But are you not being a trifle naïf? It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy’s clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” of “false”, but as “academic” or “practical”, “outworn” or “contemporary”, “conventional” or “ruthless”. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.

     “The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propaganda of the kind I am suggesting He has been shown for centuries to be greatly the inferior of Our Father Below. By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favour, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it “real life” and don’t let him ask what he means by “real”.

      Remember, he is not, like you, a pure spirit. Never having been a human (Oh that abominable advantage of the Enemy’s!) you don’t realise how enslaved they are to the pressure of the ordinary. I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years’ work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. The Enemy presumably made the counter-suggestion (you know how one can never quite overhear What He says to them?) that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line for when I said “Quite. In fact much too important to tackle it the end of a morning”, the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added “Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind”, he was already half way to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man’s head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of “real life” (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all “that sort of thing” just couldn’t be true. He knew he’d had a narrow escape and in later years was fond of talking about “that inarticulate sense for actuality which is our ultimate safeguard against the aberrations of mere logic”. He is now safe in Our Father’s house.”

If you are interested in reading more, visit your local library, or click this link

About travellinbaen

I'm a 40 year old lawyer living in Ridgeland, Mississippi. I'm several years and a couple hundred miles removed from most of my old running buddies so I started the blog to provide an outlet for many of the observations and ideas that used to be the subjects of our late night/happy hour/halftime conversations and arguments.
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3 Responses to Winning Debate Strategies

  1. Jessie Lou says:

    I read this book many years ago and recently picked it back up. I was quite amused when Screwtape turn up on your blog yesterday. After reading I found myself thinking of the little digs the devil get in my own life, especially the parent-child relationship. Another example – when you are tempted to sleep in on Sunday morning or when you are just plain thinking of doing something you know you should not. Make no mistake, the devil is a patient fellow. If we all have guardian angels then I am sure we must all have one of Screwtape’s demons as well. The human mind is a place where he can wreak havoc within seconds – decisions are doubted and less than stellar decisions are made and before you know it your little demon has a smile on his face while you sit in turmoil. Mission Accomplished.

  2. Jessie Lou says:

    Sorry about the typos above – I was barely awake!

  3. supercynic says:

    Like war, the first casualty of politics is the truth. Paraphrasing Lewis, facts (doctrines) aren’t really facts, they’re just things we can affirm or deny, discard or conjure up.

    Lewis Black, one of my favorite comedians, stated that at some point we have to be able to agree on what objective reality is. Watching last night’s debate — and then watching the reaction of some of the undecideds on CNN — I’m not sure we’re anywhere close to that.

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