Portals and Flags

The point of complex debates is not to prove your side right and the other wrong. Smart people make this mistake most often, and end up losing before they ever get started. The point of complex debate is always seduction: winning-over rather than winning. You do this not through logic or even novel insight, but by demonstrating a more fertile way of thinking. One that promises to throw up an indefinitely extended stream of surprises within an ever-widening scope. 

Such intellectual seduction settles the original issue not by establishing an unassailable position around it, but by turning it into a portal to a hidden universe of thought. You cannot win over everybody, only the adventurous. But winning over an adventurous minority that joins you in passing through a portal, on a journey of discovery is enough. It allows you to eventually overwhelm those who prefer to plant a flag on a conquered hill of browbeaten minds, and sit around by it awarding each other medals of honor. Because adventures tend to yield riches that make whatever was originally being contested seem worthless by comparison.

There is a role for logic within a seduction: but it isn’t to dismantle arguments. The role of logic is to undermine seduction efforts that offer more predictable increase of pleasure and decrease of pain, rather than unpredictable adventure and surprisal. To show such false seductions to be simple arrangements of carrots and sticks. That is the larger purpose of fallacy-spotting in particular: demonstrating the poverty of a promised land. There is also a role for novel insight, but it isn’t to surprise the opponent in the sense of a clever, “gotcha” reframing judo move. The role of insight — a “seeing into” — is to expose limiting assumptions and motivations that people may want to voluntarily abandon upon recognition.

In other words, logic is for warning people against simple temptations and fears, insight is for liberating them from self-limiting patterns of thought, and visibly modeled fertility of thought is for seducing them onto intellectually adventurous paths. There is nothing adversarial about any of these motives. But that does not mean they will not be resisted, because taken together they are an invitation to give up power and control, which is usually the scariest thing humans can attempt to do.

And perhaps most surprisingly, this kind of seduction does not take much skill, wisdom-of-age or intellectual depth. I’ve seen young, inexperienced and rather shallow people do it very well. All it takes is giving up the desire to “win” and the innate openness to experience that allows you to signal a readiness for adventure without even being conscious of it. Even children can do it. In fact children are often really good at seducing and winning over much smarter adults.

So next time you find yourself in a complex debate, decide what your intent is: to seduce through a portal, or to plant a flag.


Endnote: originally posted this on Facebook. Two interesting links were posted in the comments: a Farnam Street compilation of resources on winning arguments (HT Mick Costigan), and a link to an online translation of Schopenhauer’s Die Kunst, Recht zu behalten (The Art Of Controversy, HT Jean-Luc Delatre).

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. A related concepts is that of *dismissal*.

    To dismiss an opponent’s argument is a means of planting a flag: a way to avoid engaging with the substance of the argument by explaining how that particular line of thought is not worth engaging with. One example would be to a fundamentalist religious fanatic, to whom all opposing religions or atheistic worldviews are clearly the temptations of Satan.

    I think there is a portal version of dismissal but I can’t think of a good name for it. Basically showing how the opponent’s worldview is an explainable pattern within your universe of thought. Saying “Ah yes, I too used to believe X”, without being condescending.

    One possible example is within Marxist analysis, where all ideologies and worldviews are the product of emergent economic forces. But this can also be a means of dismissal, e.g., stating that all right-wing thought is not the product of rational minds, but of brains corrupted by neoliberal special interests.

    A better example would be Nietsche’s analysis of the origins of Christian morality – exploring a new universe of thought where moral ideas arise from the fundamental ego dynamics of the psyche.

  2. So is the portal or flag only applicable within the man-vs-man dialogue (with or without audience) or does it hold sway in some broader form when established “facts” are at sway (e.g. at a committee meeting to resolve a problem)?

    • Holds in group settings too, but easier to slip into pathological kinds of seduction with groups. Cf: Simpsons monorail song.

  3. I identify deeply with the idea of expanding someone’s map of the world by adding more mental models, or by reframing a particular thought patern. There’s a whole practice of exposing limiting mental models and challenging stuck patterns through reframing. It’s called slight of mouth and if you do it with the purpose to expand instead of to win, you create a portal. So thanks for the metaphor, I’d forgotten all about it.

    • Do you mean “sleight” or “slight”?

      • It’s “sleight of mouth” – it’s a neurolinguistic programming thing.

        I once went to a talk on “sleight of mouth patterns”, after which someone I know asked me was neurolinguistic programming actually was. When I glossed it as analysis of the effective use of language she said “Oh, so you mean it’s rhetoric?” At which point I had to admit that one of the patterns described in the talk was called “reduction to the absurd”. The speaker had suggested that we pay attention to what politicians say, as apparently they often use these patterns.

        Who was it who said: “It is not that there is nothing new under the sun: it only looks as like it as damn it”?

        • Actually, NLP is a great example of creating portals from existing ideas:

          Rhetoric already exists, as does study of unconscious or ambiguous language use, both practical (psychoanalysis and hypnotherapy), and in terms of analysis of ambiguity in language development.

          NLP uses neurology as a way to refresh this space and create a position of expertise over it for it’s advocates. It’s not just rhetoric and psychoanalysis, it’s about neurology, never mind that very few of the theories deal in neurological structure with any specificity, instead they tend to work on higher level structures of cognition and just preface their discussions with “this is how your brain works”.

          Then you have the idea of programming brains, an attractive idea to any tech or marketing focused person; the idea that you can use special expertise to turn the more complex domain of multi-actor social interaction into a non-interactive domain of one way technical mastery.

          From this basis, NLP can integrate a number of different ideas from these different fields, and make them accessible to people within this paradigm.

          It’s not specifically a con, but more a translation device, a machine that takes on ideas for social interaction and structures of speech based on their consistency of application and their efficacy, and then packages them as neurological hacks.

          The problem with this, (flag of course), is that within this paradigm, by it’s very nature, it is difficult to define ambiguous social relationships without prescribed end goals. There’s NLP techniques to do this to someone, or even to yourself, and less focus on gaining understanding of yourself, with the paradoxical effect that you could end up doing daft things trying to break down your own implicit resistance to something you probably shouldn’t be doing, build motivation for things that fundamentally you don’t want etc.

  4. Yes it’s sleight of mouth, and described correctly by Robin above

  5. If anyone’s watching your debate, the best strategy is to ridicule and belittle your opponent so that the observers will want to side with you.