When we see someone frothing at the mouth, pontificating almost without reference to the points being thrown back at them, what is really going on? When someone whose arguments have been pounded into scrap suddenly pauses and says with the slightest of smiles, “well I just don’t believe it,” what the hell just happened in that person’s head? When someone who knows they’re not going to convince you keeps pounding away without mercy or reason, what are they doing? What, besides adrenaline, causes some people to love heated dispute, and to actively seek it out? Why are people, and that includes you, sometimes driven to moments where you say “if only they could just see how wrong they are?” If you have been maddened by this before, and even later wondered at your own willingness to skip over a shaky bit of reasoning in order to state a conclusion that you’re not completely comfortable with, and wondering why exactly you felt good about doing it at all, the answer is pretty simple: endorphins. Part of the package you get from being human is a system for rewarding group identification.
When you affirm your beliefs (which ultimately in our inner world defines who is tribe and who is not), you feel a glow of warmth. When you reject someone else’s that conflict with your own, you feel it too, in addition to whatever turmoil the discussion may have stirred up. When you are forced to be polite to someone who you feel is “other,” it’s a horribly disorienting thing. It literally feels good now and then to think in your heart that freepers are idiots, because you’re affirming membership in your own tribe. It’s not a simple thing, it’s not by far the only thing that acts within us, but ignoring it is like pretending you don’t blink. This isn’t thought control, though through repetition and symbol abuse, it can certainly push your buttons. It isn’t a tinfoil-hat theory, this is just part of how your head is put together. It isn’t good or evil, but it isn’t particularly well adapted to modern society.
... Our brains are wired to make our bonds with the group we belong to more important than anything else, which is what makes a sociopath so terrifying to society at large - whatever makes that connection give you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside just isn’t working.
So what can you do? If this is the way it works, then isn’t any attempt to fight it doomed to failure? It’s not like you can pull that part of your brain out, and there’s certainly no way to counter it any more than you can “make” someone stop drinking, right?
Yes and no.
Yes, it’s always there, but there are ways to turn it from a weakness into a strength without jumping feet-first into a moral slime-pit. The very, very first thing you need to do when confronted with this behavior is to get over yourself. Nothing productive is going to happen as long as you and whoever you’re arguing with are feeding each other’s endorphin/adrenaline habit. Second, recognize that you have no power in the situation over anyone or anything but yourself. On the other hand, unless you’re strapped into a restraint chair in an interrogation room, no-one has any power over you that you do not give them. It’s your mind, and it’s morally wrong to give it away when all you get out of the deal is a little glandular excitement. Lastly, relax and breathe; you are safe. You are part of a group that recognizes its faults and seeks to overcome them. You are of the family that embraces mistakes as opportunities for learning. Your tradition is to value being correct more than being “right.” Your people’s passion is to be good, kind, and fair when nothing in the world forces them to do so. You are part of the reality-based community, and your tribe’s wisdom is the Enlightenment.
Once you’ve gotten yourself under control, first find out if there is any common ground you can reach with the other person. Not just a common opinion, but some way in which you and they can look at each other as part of the same group. If not, then get out as quickly as possible, because nothing can be accomplished barring some accidental magical transformative moment. Perhaps someone else of your tribe can connect with them, all you can do is exacerbate the problem by reinforcing the divisions between you. Feel free to call them on exactly what they’re doing, though - your tribe values truth.
If you find that common ground, see if you can expand it a little. Just a little. Don’t push for too much, and don’t expect anything later. See if you can stretch the boundaries of agreement just enough for someone else to have a better chance of reaching a little further later on. The goal is not to make them do or be anything, it is to have a conversation in which truth is agreed upon, even if that truth is that you don’t know the answer to the question you face. Ultimately, their definitions of “us” and “them” are their own responsibility and no-one else’s, all you can do is invite them to see you as one of the former, rather than the latter...