In Part One of a two-part article, George Stevenson looked at the need to develop compelling arguments for why rejoining the EU is the right answer to the current difficulties. In this article, he looks at how best to strengthen them, so that we achieve the maximum impact, and can anticipate the arguments of our opponents.
In a recent Radio 4 series the presenter attempted to test and strengthen her own opinions by discussing them with someone who disagreed with her. This person then discussed their opinions with someone else who agreed with the presenter and returned to discuss the issue with the presenter. In this way, both sets of opinions were tested against each other. The presenter referred to the process as ‘steel manning’, as opposed to ‘straw manning’- the deliberate floating of flimsy arguments which can easily be demolished. Somehow, ‘steel plating’ arguments sounds a bit better, and more gender-neutral.
It wasn’t quite clear at the end whether the presenter was more confident of her opinions, or had been swayed by the alternative views. However, the principle of testing our opinions by thinking about how our opponents might attack them seems worth thinking about. Indeed, in the final episode, former barrister Lord Sumption argued that this should be an important part of public debate and developing policy.
As an example, let’s take the argument that we need the European Union (EU) to help curb the excesses of authoritarian and nationalist governments. I’ve some sympathy with this view and wrote about it three years ago. The trouble is, no-one is suggesting that Norway needs to join the EU to strengthen its democracy (although accession to the then European Community was seen as a way to reinforce nascent democracy in Greece and Spain). Or to turn it round, EU membership hasn’t prevented illiberal governments in Poland and Hungary from emerging (although to be fair, the EU is belatedly taking legal and other action against, for example, their violations of the fundamental rights of LGBTIQ people).
This is a perfectly good argument, but could also have some weaknesses. Thinking about these, and other, questions, should allow us to clarify our motivations, and to anticipate the counter-arguments of our opponents, hence ‘steel plating’ our own arguments, and giving us a a greater chance of developing compelling arguments which can withstand attack by our opponents.
Engaging directly with our opponents is probably a step too far for most, particularly given the strength of feeling on both sides, but it could be worthwhile speaking to more thoughtful Brexiters. In any case, using this as part of the programme of developing compelling arguments could well reap huge dividends.
If we can develop compelling arguments, and then "steel plate" them, we can persuade more people of our cause, and be more resistant to counter-attacks by opponents. If this happens, then the politicians will find it harder to ignore us, and we will have a greater chance of achieving our aims.
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