By Patrick McAuliffe
Steven Crowder is a Canadian conservative YouTube personality that posts videos such as “Why Generation Z is So Conservative” and “Top 5 Reasons Elizabeth Warren’s a RACIST FRAUD!” What most people know him from is the “Change My Mind” meme, sparked from a picture of him at his table for his “Male Privilege is a Myth: Change My Mind” video. The premise of these videos is that he goes onto college campuses with controversial topics like that one or “there are only 2 genders” or “socialism is evil” and asks to have conversations with people about why they might disagree and whether or not they can change his mind. I have no issue with him doing these videos, and sometimes minds can even be changed for the better. However, his claims about his methods don’t quite line up with what he actually does in his debates.
Crowder covers some of his more belligerent videos, such as confronting leftists calling for violence at their place of work or even the premise behind his “Change My Mind” videos, with the claim that he is engaging in the Socratic method of argument. This method goes all the way back to its namesake in Ancient Greece, when Socrates would systematically dismantle people’s beliefs merely by “asking a few questions.” Socrates does not posit any ideas of his own for much of the time he talks to his opponent, instead asking questions and making sure their beliefs are ideologically and rationally consistent. Socrates is by no means perfect in achieving this; he will sometimes ask questions just to make his opponents look stupid or, in dialogues written with more of Plato’s influence, to argue from the theory of Forms. Even Socrates did not perfectly use the Socratic method! Nevertheless, starting from the humble position of not knowing anything and working together with one’s opponent is much more conducive to actually discovering the truth than seeking to win an argument.
Steven Crowder doesn’t do this. While “Change My Mind” videos can start off this way, and he is less combative with people just seeking to get more information on his position, the discussions usually descend into cringey attacks with no minds changed and nobody learning anything. Neither Crowder nor his college student opponents are concerned with either finding solutions or discovering the truth (is socialism actually evil? Is male privilege actually real? Is abortion actually murder?). This is a heuristic form of arguing, while the true Socratic method is more along the lines of a dialectic discussion. (For another, broader look at this difference, see Mason Carteri’s article “Debate vs. Discussion”).
Which method leads to more productive discussion? As Mason says, debates are usually not to convince one’s opponent of a particular position but to appear more thoroughly prepared to an audience. Discussions are among friends, or at least people that have the common goal of finding a particular truth. Each type has its usefulness in a certain setting, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.
I personally try to engage with people in a dialectic discussion more than trying to debate them. My father told me about “winning an argument without losing a soul”, or being willing to listen to someone’s positions and trying to find common ground. Even if you don’t actually win the argument or no conclusion is reached (a common ending to some Socratic dialogues), you haven’t turned them off from your position or those that hold similar positions to you. In a religious context, you have preserved your chances of eventually converting them and haven’t “lost their soul”.
All of this brings us back to Steven Crowder. His “Change My Mind”s have the common description “…taking to the streets to have real conversations with real people…”. He pitches these videos as working towards finding truth with everyday people, not politicians or philosophers. However, watching any one of these clearly shows his claim to using the Socratic method is a cover for his audience. They can look beyond these criticisms of his methods by citing his asking questions and confounding his opponents as fulfilling his continuation of the Socratic tradition. In fact, this is a dishonest claim. Crowder is first and foremost a comedian, and epic smackdowns of college liberals sell better than honest conversations. If members of his audience want real conversations with real people, they need to look to have them naturally. For example, the College Republicans, Libertarians, and Democrats (who dropped out) had a debate on immigration and gun control last month. Despite the similarities between the Republican and Libertarian positions, we had a very good conversation with both each other and our audience. Everyone wanted solutions to real problems, not to hide behind an ideology for its own sake. Crowder does this despite his “Socratic method.” I enjoy his channel and his political analyses, but he needs to be more intellectually honest in his methods.