Engaging in Public Discourse in Fields Where Extremists Operate

by James Petts

Essay originally from Counterweight.


This article sets out some important general guidance for engaging in public debate on topics in which a significant number of people engage with the topics as sectarian extremists. By “extremist” here, I refer not so much to the nature of the beliefs espoused themselves, but rather to those who use what they know to be unethical or dishonest means of seeking to advance a political agenda[1]. The behaviours from which dishonesty can be inferred in political discourse I describe in another article. Those who espouse sectarian beliefs often behave in this way because, as I explain elsewhere, sectarian ideas are fundamentally unpersuasive to most people because, by their nature, they can appeal only to a subset of people.

Know your audience

Always aim for the right audience. The audience is not those who seek to advance a political agenda by deceit themselves: by definition, they do not have an honest belief in what they are claiming, so cannot be persuaded. The audience is people who want to understand the world as it really is but might be misled by the extremists into believing falsehoods.

The only aim in most situations of engaging directly with extremists is to show them up as dishonest to the real audience, not to persuade them – just as the aim of cross-examining a person suspected of guilt in court is not to extract a confession, but to make it obvious to the jury that the person is lying when he or she denies the crime. Where this is not a realistic outcome, do not engage directly with the extremists (except possibly to find weaknesses in their argument – see below).

Be unremittingly scrupulous

There is truly enormous social power in being untouchable by credible allegations of wrongdoing. It allows one to criticise others’ wrongdoing and call for serious consequences for that wrongdoing with total impunity.

Thus, in all aspects of all discourse, be scrupulous. Never be tempted to make or endorse a bad argument for what you believe is a true position. Subject arguments for propositions that you already believe to double the scrutiny that you apply to arguments for propositions that you initially believe to be unfounded. Do not unthinkingly adopt a position advanced by a person whom you believe to be an ally. Never do anything that amounts to dismissing an argument in spite of, rather than because of, its merits.

Check with the utmost rigour the internal consistency of your own position on everything at the highest level of abstraction[2]. Think carefully about whether any counter-arguments to beliefs that you have adopted have merit. Be prepared to change your view if you are shown to have made a mistake or if new evidence emerges.

Engage with nuance. Be prepared to state – if this be so – that a particular policy, practice or similar has good points and bad points, and be able to explain consistently with principle why the good points are good and why the bad points are bad. Do not refrain from expressing uncertainty about something about which you are genuinely uncertain.

In particular, be totally consistent on sectarianism: reject sectarian ideas because they are sectarian, not because they favour the “wrong” in-group. Reject all sectarian ideas consistently no matter who constitutes the in-group and out-group, and be explicit in so doing.

Take control of framing the discussion

Do not debate on the extremists’ terms. Those who do not engage in discussion in good faith will often seek to frame the issue in a misleading way. Do not adopt this framing when discussing the issue – instead, adopt your own framing that more accurately characterises the issues, and do this consistently.

Use words accurately (if you are on the side of reason, you will have no problem making your argument using the real definitions of words as found in dictionaries) and use a suite of relevant concepts (e.g. sectarianism) that you consider to be helpful to foster a genuine understanding of the issues.

Where referring to an extremist’s conceptualisation or terminology is unavoidable, explicitly distance yourself from accepting it by, for example, referring to it as “so-called” or similar. If there be good reason to contest the extremists’ conceptualisation, leave others in no doubt that it is contested and that there is an alternative way of understanding the issues.

Find the adversary’s weak point

One exception to the guidance not to engage directly with the extremists is to do so in order to discover the weakest point of their arguments. This is more likely to be helpful where the argument is one with which you are relatively unfamiliar.

Keep pressing the adversary civilly but with extreme analytic precision about the exact justification for each element of the argument that you do not agree with until the adversary responds with incoherency or abuse. The last point made immediately before the incoherency or abuse is usually the strongest point – i.e., the one that cannot be answered by reason.

You do not need to do this personally – this works equally well by looking at how others have interacted with these particular extremists in the past.

Focus relentlessly on this issue in future discussions of the topic and emphasise and expand on it to drive home the fundamental weaknesses in the adversary’s purported argument. Frame the whole discussion so as to maximally emphasise this weak point where this can be done without being misleading in any way.

Confound polarisation

Political extremists operate by attempting to give the impression that everyone who does not accept their claims is an extremist of an opposite kind – in other words, that those who do not accept a sectarian stance that favours one particular in-group are necessarily sectarians that favour a different in-group.

Confound this falsehood by explicitly criticising ideas of both (or all) sectarian groupings. For example, when criticising sectarianism generally, find an approximately equal number of examples of far-right as far-left sectarianism to criticise.

Those who consistently criticise only one pole of a sectarianised issue can easily be understood, even by those who are not themselves extremists, to be taking the side of the opposite pole, even if the criticisms themselves are moderate and valid. Such one-sided criticism can then be used by those of the opposite pole in support of their own extremist sectarian agenda even where this is not intended by the critic.

By contrast, anyone who explicitly criticises both poles from the same principled stance instantly confounds any attempt to portray the criticism as support for one of those poles.

Thus, even if it appears at any given time that more danger is posed by one or another pole or that there is more material to criticise from one pole or the other, it is always a mistake to ignore the other. In any event, taking a long-term view, all sectarianism is equally dangerous even if one particular in-group appears to be ascendant at present. Those who seek to take a principled stance against all sectarianism will be far more successful by putting beyond all doubt that this is what they are doing at every possible opportunity.

Solve the real problem

Sectarian extremists often hijack genuine and serious problems such as racism, poverty or crime to promote extremist agendas by claiming that the extremist measures advocated are the only solution to the problem, that the side effects (which are usually the real aim of the extremists) are worth it for the prize of solving the problem, and that no one who disagrees with their solution takes the problem seriously or even wants it to be solved at all.

Criticising the solution without offering an alternative, in cases where the problems are real, makes it hard to distinguish those who accept that the problem is real and needs solving from those who criticise the solutions as a means of trying to suppress any attempt to solve the problem because they do not really believe that it is a problem.

Confound this technique by being careful always to present in such cases a real and genuine solution to the problem. In cases where the proposed extremist solution is likely (or even intended) to be ineffective or make things worse in other ways for the people whom the purported solution is intended to help, as is common, make this explicit, and relate that extremist solution directly to the argument about why the real solution is better as concisely as possible.

Find a persuasive sound-bite

For each argument against an extremist idea, find the most succinct and clear way of summarising it in the most persuasive way. This should be done in a single sentence, e.g., “planning control impoverishes millions by artificially increasing rents and house prices,” or, “so-called ‘alternative medicine’ is a fraud which enriches its practitioners by deceiving patients”. This can take careful thought, but it is more than worth doing.

Always be prepared to argue in detail if the occasion arises, but if you can summarise your ideas succinctly, you can engage with people who would not have the motivation to read or listen to lengthy and detailed arguments.

Starting with the most succinct presentation of your argument also puts the onus on the opponent to make more detailed arguments in response, the flaws in which can then be exposed. Anyone who has the motivation to read or listen to the opponent’s detailed criticisms is likely to have equal motivation to read or listen to equally detailed rebuttals.


To the casual observer of any given public debate, it can be difficult to discern who is engaging in the issues with good faith and who is not and who has an argument that has some basis in reason and who does not. This is often the result intended by those not engaging in good faith, who know that, if it were easy to distinguish, nobody would take their false and deliberately harmful ideas seriously.

The techniques discussed here will, if applied consistently, confound abusive behaviours intended to cause people to accept ideas by deceit, manipulation or intimidation rather than persuasion, and circumvent dishonest attempts to confound real scrutiny. Those who engage in abusive conduct are not invincible: the fact that they have to behave abusively in order to have any chance of promulgating their ideas itself reveals a fundamental weakness in those ideas. Anyone who lies does so because he or she is vulnerable to the truth. Exploit those weaknesses and vulnerabilities relentlessly and consistently and the truth can prevail.

  1. The terrorist who uses violence to advance a political agenda is a paradigm example, but the principle of an extremist as a person who seeks to achieve political change through discreditable means encompasses also those who use dishonesty to achieve political ends. 
  2. I.e., at the most abstract level possible, where it applies to the greatest number of different things. For example, if you are arguing for or against, e.g., free trade in goods, check that the reason that you believe in what you are claiming is fully consistent with the reasons that you believe in whatever views that you hold about free trade in capital and labour. Further, check that that reason is consistent with all of your other beliefs and all of the reasons that you hold those beliefs and the reasons that you consider those reasons to count as reasons. Check that it is fully coherent logically and is fully consistent with all facts about anything that you know to be true. If you find a conflict anywhere, it means that you are definitely wrong about at least some of your beliefs and need to consider very carefully what is true. 

James Petts is a barrister in London who believes in the pre-eminent importance of reason in all aspects of life.

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