01/09/2013 10:06 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2013

Taking the Argument to Them

I was having drinks at a corner pub in Brooklyn one night years ago when I fell into talking with a couple affable older blokes from Ireland. I don't remember how the conversation evolved, but it started out friendly enough, in the way that three strangers drinking in a pub work together to find a pleasant common ground.

Then the conversation turned to politics. From Iraq to Afghanistan, we worked our way back in time until we found our way, inevitably, in retrospect, to America's modern origin story: September 11. One of these drinking companions, who had seemed so rational up until that point, abruptly insisted that 9/11 had been an inside job engineered by President Bush so that a war could be declared over oil in the Middle East. When I tried to question the man, presenting what I thought were facts and reasoned arguments, he serenely shrugged, grinned, and said, "How'd they do it? Black ops."

Black ops. Suffice it to say the conversation stuttered to a halt.

Black ops! The comment still leaves me dumbfounded, but laughing. What an amazing shorthand for the refusal to let go of a thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory, all wrapped up in the inscrutably placid smile of someone who believes in his own malarkey. It's the kind of story that makes people nod their heads sagely and remark, "People are morons. That's why I never bother with arguments anymore."

And yet... years later, I find myself engaging with more people like that. They are conversations I actually seek out. Whenever I hear someone spout a conspiracy theory, I'm pestering them for facts, for proof. You might call my odd "project" of mine -- a funny impulse, really -- a total waste of time, but I disagree. By pursuing conversations with people about urban legends, conspiracy theories, and the nuttier political and social myths that pervade our culture, I've learned something about people: Our media-fueled "culture war" is in many ways an illusion, and most people actually aren't as crazy as Mr. Black Ops.

I'll give an example. During the election there was one Facebook friend of mine who often repeated unverified rumors from several obscure, paranoid, anti-Obama groups he had found online. Once he posted something disingenuous about birtherism, and I had some time on my hands, so I went after him for it. The exchange was as polite as I could make it, and I held my ground, sending links to news stories that proved that the president was in fact born in Hawaii. A few comments later, the man had given up. "Look, I just don't like the guy, OK?" he wrote. OK. Can't argue with that.

At this point, your reaction may be, "So what? The guy still detested America's first black president and no doubt voted against him." To which I say, sure, but this was a public argument on social media, so what about that guy's friends? Maybe I influenced someone else that day and didn't even know it.

We live self-filtered lives. Technology and the self-discriminating organization of our cozy, cosseted neighborhoods makes it so easy to never run into someone who votes for the other guy, so easy to tune out the arguments that might weaken our own precious, fragile idea of reality. We don't know how to engage people who disagree with us anymore, because we don't try. We don't want to be bothered.

But when everybody takes that attitude, there's a cumulative effect. This "culture war" of ours is the result of all this self-filtering. The polls show we're more divided than ever, over everything. It's not really true, but it threatens to become true because perceptions can shape reality, especially when those perceptions are left unquestioned.

I want to urge my fellow progressives to start engaging more with the people they disagree with. There's never been a better time, too. Gun control is hot in the news, because it really does look like Obama and the Democrats might push for reform in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings. I know things are already heating up; my Facebook news feed tells me so. It has been exploding with conspiracy theories and paranoid commentary from some of my conservative friends about how liberals, the media, and the government are plotting to take guns away from law-abiding citizens, possibly through house-to-house raids.

My own views on gun control are actually pretty mainstream. Like the majority of people, I want to limit access guns to felons and the mentally ill, to ban the assault weapons and ammunition that are "useful" only for mass murder (rather than, say, deer hunting). I want background checks and I want effective gun registration. The problem is, as you know, the NRA and its strident supporters have an accumulated over the decades an intimidating amount of lobbyist power -- in large part because few people have questioned or criticized their agenda.

The Democrats have their jobs cut out for them. But I think regular people have work to do, too. People have to respond to these paranoid fantasies about gun violence, the kind of fantasies that want to arm teachers rather than limit the access people have to guns. This issue is so big, it falls to everyone to try to make change happen.

Here's the thing: It's nice of you to post your own articles about gun control on your own blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, etc., but most likely the only people reading your passionate, well-meaning posts are your like-minded buddies. You're just shouting into your own self-created echo chamber. And it's nice of you to go on the NRA social media pages and let yourself be heard there, too, but most likely you'll be dismissed as just another provocateur, and anyway you're surrounded by unfriendly commenters who will drown your protests with their own rhetoric.

Worse yet: Getting into heated arguments when you're using a safe anonymous handle is just lame, lame, lame.

I'm proposing you find the gun advocates you know and take the argument to them, not with anger and accusations, but with logic, respect, and an unflappable relentlessness. If we're not attempting to engage the "other side" directly, we're not doing anything.

Having gained some experience in this area, I've learned a few things about how to do it, without causing anyone to unfriend me on Facebook, and without having the whole conversation disintegrate into a juvenile exchange of obscenities. Here are my tips:

Set aside the time to make your points: If all you're doing is shooting off a quick, snarky comment before you leave for work, you've done nothing. You will be dismissed within minutes and you will not be around to respond. If you run into someone really persistent, these conversations can go on for hours. So be choosy about when you do it.

Be respectful: This may seem like a no-brainer, but don't call your opponent a Nazi, a fascist, or stupid. That goes for the beginning, middle, and end of the conversation. Some people just don't seem to get that (If this point seems lost on you, stop reading now and don't attempt this at all, because you'll only make things worse for the rest of us who do want to see positive change). Start almost every comment and response with something like, "I must respectfully disagree." Then lay out your points impersonally and thoughtfully. Be self-deprecating if you can -- referring to yourself as the left-wing nutter isn't such a bad idea if you're trying to get the other person to relax, and think about the issue less rigidly.

Keep it concise: Stick to the basic facts of the conspiracy theory, and do it in a way that invites the other person to respond.

Keep it plain, keep it humble: Avoid anything approaching an accusation or assumption about the other person. Also, breaking out a Howard Zinn or a Michel Foucault reference impresses no one.

Use proof: Quote and link to sources to show you're not just being contrarian. Better yet, quote sources the opponent can relate to. Don't link to something from Talking Points Memo, link to The American Conservative or The Wall Street Journal. I got the birther theorist to back down after I sent him a recent article from that derided birther theorists. So be prepared to use search engines during the debate.

Be prepared to lose, or, rather, "not win": The best you can hope for in most of these conversations is if both you and your opponent decide to agree to disagree, before someone jumps in with a small joke that changes the subject or ends the conversation. Still: If you're doing this on Facebook or some other social media site, remember that you're doing it in front of an audience. It's not just you and the person you're arguing with. Other people are silently following the debate, and thinking about what you're saying. Which is why I'm endorsing all of this in the first place. If liberals aren't prepared to go out and make the case for rational gun control, then our argument doesn't spread outside liberal circles, and the battle is already lost.

I'm able to do these kinds of debates because I have such a wide variety of friends on social media -- I essentially bill myself as a "liberal with a lot of conservative friends," because it's true. Thanks to all the self-filtering in the world, many of you are probably not in the position I am, but practically everyone I know has a weird uncle or other relative with strong conservative views. So I'm sure there's someone you know that you can argue with!

Lastly, I endorse this kind of debate because, when you go out and engage people with radical -- or even seemingly crazy -- views, you tend to learn some things yourself. Time and again I've learned important lessons in empathy toward the people I may have initially seen as my "enemy" in this "culture war" of ours. Without having tried this minor experiment of mine, I'm sure I'd just be doing what everyone else is doing, robotically "liking" the same one-sided arguments and never leaving my political and cultural tribe. When I broke out of my own self-filtered bubble, I realized just how stale and suffocating the air was in there; now I don't ever want to go back in.