Billed as a manual of sorts, it is also very informative and the British-born journalist had a lot to say about politics, political discourse and how he sees the future, when we met him in London…
HE IS ONE OF the most recognised current affairs broadcasters on US television right now – is British, by upbringing – and has just published his first book about his craft as an interviewer.
‘Win Every Argument – The Art of Debating, Persuading and Public Speaking’ came out last month and on a whistlestop publicity drive to the UK, from his home in the US, and a short stint away from his MSNBC programme, ‘The Mehdi Hasan Show’, he squeezed in some time to speak to www.asianculturevulture.com about his latest work.
He also talked about the general political situation in the US – and this was before the recent Fox News-Dominion Voting Systems settlement – his career more generally and the culture wars that seem to underpin a lot of what constitutes political debate in the US.
‘Win Every Argument’ isn’t simply a book about techniques, methods and strategies – though that is there if you want it.
It also has history, anecdotes and perhaps most appealingly of all, experiences and recollections from Hasan’s own career as a journalist.
“People who know me my entire life tell me, this is the book you were born to write.
“I’ve been identified, both professionally and personally, with the art of arguing and debating for a long time,” he told acv, sitting inside a small library room in a Soho members club in Central London.
So that provided the starting point but more urgently, Hasan has been concerned about the state of political debate and democracy itself – working in the US, where divisions have become far more polarised and increasingly tribal.
“It’s also the political climate, where I see good faith debate and disagreement under fire from bad faith actors – and I thought I want to write a practical book that will enable people to push back and equip them with the skills to do it (argue) properly.”
But is anyone really listening to smart folks, such as Hasan?
“Some people have given up, it’s true to a certain extent, maybe 20-30 per cent, maybe, are beyond approach and persuasion – say, if you are in a bubble and watching Fox News (right-wing Trump supporting news channel in the US), but the majority of the Americans and Britons are still open to factual and reasoned and persuasive argument,” he asserted.
Hasan shows in the book how you could go about persuading people you’re right and win an argument.
“My point is that you cannot simply throw a bunch of facts at people and think that will work. It isn’t how you persuade people – you need to understand the importance of an emotional argument.”
He sets out different debating challenges – how you persuade 12 jurors in a courtroom will be different to how you might argue at the pub or at a dinner table with your friends or family.
The book is divided into three sections – the first deals with the fundamentals and goes back to the first debates in western civilisation – the Greeks and concepts of logos, pathos and ethos, and associated themes.
The middle section deals with what Hasan calls is a section that is, “spicier – the tricks, and techniques to get you out of a hole and I reveal what I do”.
The last section is about, the behind the scenes, and covers such subjects, as how do you prepare; practise; how to build up your confidence and how you stay calm in difficult arguments or when you feel you are losing.
In the book, he talks about deploying rhetorical judo moves.
“You’re not beating someone into submission – but trying to use their energy against them and knock them off balance when they least expect it,” he explained.
“It’s better just to concede, sometimes and say, ‘you know what, that’s a fair point but have you thought about this?” he chuckled. “And argue on your terrain, not theirs”.
Hasan graduated from Oxford University and worked in a number of UK publications, including the New Statesman, before moving to become a chief interviewer for international broadcaster Al-Jazeera and then moving to the US with his wife.
Today, he has his own show on MSNBC streaming channel Peacock and it goes out at primetime nightly.
Talking about the move, Hasan said: “I’ve always been fascinated by American politics and I happened to marry an American, and she had spent a decade in the UK and we wanted to try a couple of years in the US, and it’s become a decade.
“I say this quite openly, I don’t think I would have been able to achieve here (in the UK), what I have achieved in the US – the American media for all its flaws, is more open to outsiders.”
He cites his friend Oscar-winning actor-producer, Riz Ahmed as another example of someone British, brown (Muslim) who has made it bigger in the US.
“America has many faults and there are bigger racism issues with black people (than they are in the UK) but here is the asterisk, I do think the arts, the media, and Hollywood, is more open to diversity and outsiders, and new voices and is slightly more meritocratic than the British media – which to borrow a phrase is hideously white. As an immigrant to the US, I can’t say I haven’t done well.”
He fears division and political strife are only likely to get worse before they get better – both in the US and the UK.
“As a person of faith, as someone who tries to see light at the end of the tunnel, I am optimistic.
But there is darkness in the way before you get to that light and I think things will get worse before they get better and we are in for a rocky time.”
He feels too many on the Left veer away from the culture war debate and says this isn’t the best strategy.
“If others start a culture war, it’s your job to win it. The best way to win a culture war, is to lean into it.”
He also wants to dispel the idea that there is anything very special about what he does and the purpose of writing such a book he says, is to encourage and enthuse people about debating and arguing.
“I want to equip people with the right skills, so that they can have productive arguments and I want to help build people’s confidence. I don’t want people saying that’s not for me, ‘You’re a public speaker’ – I want to break that idea. Anyone can do this.”
His previous titles are ‘Summer of Unrest: The Debt Delusion’ and ‘Ed: The Milibands and the making of a Labour leader’, both published in 2011.
Win Every Argument by Mehdi Hasan published by Pan Macmillan February 2023 – https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Mehdi-Hasan/Win-Every-Argument–The-Art-of-Debating-Persuading-and-Public-Speaking/27064066