Keeping in mind the subject of Mehdi Hasan’s book, it’s tempting for an interviewer with a sense of adventure to consider launching into an argument with him. But that would be a rather masochistic thing to do. There’s a good chance that the TV journalist and author would react by setting a booby trap, pulling a judo move, launching a zinger, and then fish a receipt out of his back pocket. Those are among the many strategies Hasan discusses in his book Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading and Public Speaking.
Many in the subcontinent first became aware of British-born Hasan’s rapier-sharp debating skills from a viral video shot at the Oxford Union in 2013, in which he skillfully persuades his sceptical audience that Islam is indeed a religion of peace. He notes that violence in some Muslim-majority countries is the consequence of political factors, not inherent to the faith as many detractors have sought to claim.
He is now the host of the Mehdi Hasan show on MSNBC and NBC’s Peacock TV in the US and clips of this argumentative Person of Indian Origin interviewing yet another hapless victim go viral on social media with satisfying regularity.
Here are excerpts from an interview.
We live in an era of intensifying political polarisation when it seems to increasingly be difficult to find common ground with people who hold differing views from us. In this climate, why do we need to learn how to hold effective debates?
Because the debates are coming for us whether we like it or not. I could have written this book at any time in my life, but to write it now is deeply appropriate. I felt that it had to be done now because too many people think, well, you know what – I’m not a debater. I’m not a public speaker. That’s for you. Maybe that’s for people on TV. I keep my head down. I mind my own business.
The problem is we can’t keep our heads down anymore. We can’t mind our own business. A lot of people live in countries where democracy is on the line, a free press is on the line, where reality is being questioned – where truth isn’t truth apparently, to quote Rudy Giuliani. Where facts can be alternative, to quote former [Donald] Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway.
So the time for keeping your head down, having a kind of Kumbaya, let’s all just get along, let’s not argue moment – that’s gone, if it ever existed. We’re in an era when bad faith merchants and gas lighters and serial fabricators are taking over our public spaces, our media, our politics. I wanted to write a book to give you skills that will help you not just at the dinner table, not just in a job interview, not just with your career, but also on the big existential level to try to help those of us who are small “d” democrats to use rhetorical skills of debate, of argument, of persuasion, to push back against people who are trying to degrade our public discourse.
You write about how your father, who was from Hyderabad, encouraged a climate of discussion at home in the UK.
So, it’s the late 1980s. I’m about 10 years old and The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie’s notorious Islamophobic novel [has just been released. It] upsets a lot of people to the point where some Muslims in the north of England are burning copies of the book. My father buys The Satanic Verses. He reads it cover to cover and places it on the bookshelf right next to our dining table. And every time we have friends over for dinner – Muslim members of the community – they’re shocked. They’re aghast. Why would you have this book on your shelf? And my father replies, because you cannot condemn anything until you read it first.
That was the atmosphere in which I was raised. That was inculcated in me from a very young age: question everything. Ask for receipts. Ask for evidence. Don’t blindly swallow what anyone tells you, whoever they may be – friend, family, political or religious leader. Have a healthy sense of scepticism and try and see all sides of an argument. And that’s one of the things I stress in the book. To quote [English philosopher] John Stuart Mill, ‘you cannot know your own side of the argument until you know, the other side’. And not just any side, the most plausible other side, the strongest version of the other side of the argument that you’re making.
From a young age, I was always encouraged to speak in front of a crowd. Public speaking was something my father and mother encouraged. I acted in school plays. I did school debates. I turned up at Oxford University in 1997 and I threw myself into the Oxford Union debating society where I thoroughly enjoyed rhetorical combat.
Was it partly nature? Was I born this way? Maybe. But also, it was partly nurture and one of the reasons I wrote the book is to say not all of us come out of the womb like this. Some of this stuff is developed over time. Some of the stuff we pick up through our experiences – both personal and professional.
In the book, I say, look, I know that I’ve been like this since I was a kid. You may not have been, but let me teach you how to be like this because it’s useful to be like this in all walks of life. It’s a skill to be able to win an argument – it helps you in life.
Over the last few years, the volume at which we conduct our debates has risen. Has social media changed the nature of our discussions?
Before I get [to] social media, step back. Are we arguing more? Yes. Is it good faith argument? In the book I distinguish between good faith and bad faith disagreement. I’m all for good faith argument and debate. I’m not a fan at all of bad faith argument. In fact, those are the ones I avoid. I should actually have written a chapter on when to walk away from an argument.
I’m one of these people who love to argue but I’m not going to argue with people who question reality. I’m not gonna argue with conspiracy theories, with Holocaust deniers or election deniers. I’m not going to argue that up is down, black is white, hot is cold. That’s a waste of my time and it’s an insult to my audience.
So when you say arguments have increased – what kind of arguments, what quality of arguments, what nature of arguments? We’ve clearly increased the number of bad faith arguments.
I’ve watched Indian television debates. I’ve interviewed Indian politicians and commentators. It can descend very quickly into pointlessness shout fests that don’t educate or Illuminate. I host debates on my show, but I make sure they’re good faith debates involving actual experts – not just two people shouting for the sake of clicks or virality. So we have to define our terms.
But to take your point about social media, it’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s been a blessing in the sense that it’s amplified new voices. It’s given platforms to people who didn’t have platforms before to air their views, to share their expertise, to communicate across continents in a way that we never could before.
But it’s also a curse in the sense that it brings out the worst in us – and I include myself here. When we’re online, we do look for the kind of quick dopamine hits, the dunks, the hot takes, the not-considered views and the arguments that don’t rely on evidence. It’s very easy on Twitter to anonymously just throw out allegations and not have to share your identity or your name and not have to share evidence. When I argue on Twitter, I try to also bring evidence – as I say in the book, to show your receipts. You have to have your evidence but social media allows, as the famous phrase goes, the lie to get halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on. Well, that’s been taken to the, you know, the 100th level by social media.
How do we conduct effective debates in an era in which we can’t even agree on what a fact is. How do you deal with this?
It’s not easy. There is no silver bullet for a start. I would say shun those people who don’t believe in fact, who don’t want you to believe in fact. Or actually, let me rephrase this. They do believe in fact but they cynically want their audience to believe there is no such thing as a factual reality. As I have said many times before, the gas lighter – the Donald Trump figure – when they are pushing nonsense at you, they don’t want you to believe them over you. They want you to believe no one. They want to break down trust in all institutions because that is how authoritarianism thrives. That is how the strong man emerges – when people lose trust in everything and everyone.
To quote Steve Banon, the former Trump advisor, our opponents are not the Democratic Party – they are the media and the way you deal with the media is to flood the zone with excrement. That is the reality of what we’re facing right now.
I have a chapter in the book called “Beware the Gish galloper”. This is the person who wants to throw a load of nonsense at you – cherry-picked statistics, inaccurate facts, lies, distorted studies – and they throw it at you at speed, with intensity, with relentlessness. Trump is an example, but there are many others. In fact, this tactic of Gish Galloping is named after a creationist Christian called Duane Gish. So by the time you rebutted lie number three, they’re on to lie number seven. By the time you’ve rebutted lie number seven they’re on to lie number 15 and you just can’t keep up. You’re overwhelmed with BS and nonsense and conspiracy.
It’s not easy to defeat that but there are some things you can do. Number one: you can pick your battles. Don’t try and fight every battle out there. Rebut the main, most pernicious, most ridiculous lie that your opponent is pushing. Number two, don’t budge. Too often in the media industry in particular, interviewers will move on to the next topic without addressing the fact that the guest has not dealt with the question, has not answered it or has just said nonsense in response. Don’t budge. Less is more. Ask fewer questions, but make sure you get answers to your questions. And number three, call this stuff out. Tell people this is what’s going on – that [the interviewer doesn’t] believe in facts, that they want to push conspiracies, that this is all misinformation.
Take a step back and remind your audience because sometimes we forget about the audience – the audience watching at home or the audience in the auditorium or the audience around the dinner table or the audience at the boardroom. Remind them [of] what your opponent is doing. Call out that technique of BSing.
As you point out you don’t conduct every TV debate with the aim of convincing the person you are interviewing. It’s to convince the person at home. How do you do that?
So you have to be aware of who your audience is. That’s the very first chapter of my book. Because there is nothing more crucial when it comes to persuasion, when it comes to winning an argument, when it comes to triumphing in a debate than to understand who it is you’re trying to win over. Sometimes, we get so lost in trying to come up with an argument that sounds good to us or an argument that might persuade our opponent that we forget that our opponent’s not the target. The target is the audience watching, the neutral third party, as it were. We have to be able to tailor our messages and our arguments and our claims to those people.
What do they worry about? What do they want to hear? What do they need to be given in order to be persuaded?
You’ve got some pretty scary stuff in your book – booby traps, judo moves and more. How did you boil down these debating strategies you’ve learned over the years into 300 pages?
It’s a book with 16 chapters but I could have written 32 or 48. There’s a lot going on in the world of debate, rhetoric and argument. It’s a very practical book, but it’s for a general audience. So when I was writing this book I was thinking about my fellow journalists who I want to give advice to in the chapter on Gish Galloping. I was thinking of the politician who I want to give advice to in the chapter on emotion – the liberal, the left, the progressive politician who isn’t good at emotion – the right-wing is much better at being demagogues, at connecting with the emotions and rousing their base.
But I’m also thinking about the person who’s going into a job interview. What skill set do they need? I’m thinking about the person who’s at the Thanksgiving table with their crazy Trump-loving MAGA [Trump’s election slogan, Make America Great Again] Uncle. What if it’s someone you love and care for? You don’t want to beat them up, but you want to change their mind. How do you listen to them and show empathy?
Of course, I’m not that arrogant to say I came up with this. A lot of this stuff goes back to Aristotle, to Cicero, to ancient Greece and ancient Rome. The art of rhetoric has been around for millennia and I’m trying to digest it in different ways for different people.
You point out a crucial part of the art of debating is the art of listening.
When I told my wife I was writing a chapter on listening, she kind of stared at me for a long time and then she burst into laughter. She said, ‘You’re writing a chapter on listening? You’re a horrible listener.’ Which is true. I’m not a great listener. I tend to interrupt, I tend not to pay attention, I tend to talk too much. But that’s one of the reasons I had to write it to say, look, even people like me who do this for a living – even I struggle with certain important skills.
There’s the old saying that you have to open your ears before you open your mouth. Critical listening is crucial for multiple reasons.You can’t win an argument if you’re not paying attention to what’s being said by those around you, if you’re not listening for a contradiction or a false statement. How can you rebut someone if you’re not listening to what they’re saying? We think we’re listening, but, as I say in the book, we’re not listening. We’re waiting for our turn to speak.
Number two, and this applies outside of the world of debate and argument, to be a better human being you need empathetic listening – the idea of putting yourself in the shoes of the other person, trying to understand what they’re trying to say, where they’re coming from, what their purpose or point is. To show that you’re fully paying attention, that you’re fully present.
That’s much harder. It’s the highest form of listening. So I talk about critical listening and empathetic listening in the book, both from a moral perspective. It’s the right thing to do to listen to an audience member, to show that you care about what someone’s saying. But it’s also self-serving. It’s strategic. If I’ve listened to you very forensically. I’m going to be able to pick holes in your argument much better.
Over the years, you’ve interviewed demagogues and autocrats from across the continents. What do they have in common in their debating strategies?
I started doing a show for Al Jazeera English where I interviewed people from across the world in 2012-’13. Around 2017-2018, I was in America doing Up Front, a weekly show out of the DC studios of Al Jazeera English and I was doing my show at the Oxford Union in England for Al Jazeera called Head to Head, on which I’ve had Indian politicians like Ram Madhav from the BJP. One thing I noticed about the Madhavs and the people from Turkey and the people from African governments and the people from Eastern Europe and Western Europe is they all start to sound like Trump.
I’m hearing Trumpian tics from all of them. They’re all saying, this is fake news. They’re all trying to throw a blizzard of false statistics at you and hope you won’t notice. They’re all trying to shout and talk loudly. They’re all trying to attack the very nature of the media and the free pres. I guess success breeds success. Trump won in 2016 with those awful demagogic tactics, that anti-media approach and I guess people around the world said, hold on, if it works for the president in the United States, if it worked for a man like Donald J Trump, maybe it’ll work for me. That was very worrying.
Trump didn’t just have a domestic impact – he had a global impact. When I talk about autocracy, when I talk about the rise of authoritarianism, it is a global phenomenon. That’s why the book is for people across the world to learn how to speak out and push back against people who abuse our language and abuse our public space and abuse our media, whether it’s in Boris Johnson’s England, now Rishi Sunak’s England or Viktor Orban’s Hungary or Vladimir Putin’s Russia or [Recep] Erdogan’s Turkey or Trump’s America or [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s Israel or Modi’s India, they are everywhere and this is not going away anytime soon.
When people say to me again, oh, we’re in a polarised climate, why would you want to further polarise it by singing the praises of argument. Well, the arguments are already out there, I’m just saying here’s how you win them.
From all those thousands of kilometers away in your studio in America, what does India look like to you – the land that your parents left decades ago?
My parents left Hyderabad in the ’60s-’70s, but I used to spend a lot of time there. I used to go to India every year as a kid. I got married in India. I love that country, but it’s depressing to see what’s happening. I’m associated with three countries – my family from India. I was born and raised in the UK and I’m currently a citizen and journalist in the United States. All three countries have been plagued by authoritarianism, by the rise of the far-right, by attacks on the media, by attacks on minorities, including my own community – the Muslim community. It really depresses me to see what’s going on.
India seems to be on steroids compared to even the US and the UK. I look at your media, I look at what’s happened to NDTV recently, which I was a great fan of. Just the other day I was looking at the numbers: in 2002, Reporters Without Borders in their World Press Freedom Index had India at number 80. Today, I think it’s something like 180, which is a crazy shift in just 20 years.
Press freedom is under assault in India. I see it. I saw what happened to the BBC recently with the quote unquote tax raid after it ran a documentary on Modi. I see what’s happening in politics. It’s astonishing when I see what American politicians like Marjorie Taylor Green says. And then when I see what some of your politicians say, they make Marjorie Taylor Green look like a flaming liberal.
So it is very worrying to see what’s happening to the world’s largest democracy from over here in the world’s oldest democracy, as they proudly brag. In both of our countries, America and India, similar things are going on, similar forces are at work and those of us who believe in small “d” democracy, those of us who believe in a free press, cannot keep our heads down. We must engage. We must speak out and we must defend basic principles.
People say, journalists – you must be neutral, impartial. I’m not neutral or impartial when it comes to truth or reality or the very future and existence of democracy.
Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading and Public Speaking (PanMacmillan), Mehdi Hasan.