Bryan Caplan has an interesting post up with advice on how to raise one's social intelligence. (via) I empathize entirely with Bryan's struggle to claw his way up to mediocrity; I've had to go through much the same arduous process myself. His advice isn't that helpful to me, however, because I suffered from the opposite set of weaknesses. In middle or high school, I'd commonly find myself sitting in a group of 5-6 other people and remaining completely silent for upwards of 40 minutes, unless someone specifically directed a question to me. And even then, my responses tended toward the monosyllabic or the cryptic -- e.g. "Nothing especially interesting" in response to a question like "What did you do this weekend?" Not saying what was on my mind, ever, was probably a large part of what I was doing wrong.
I have more general advice to give on this topic of breaking out of one's shell, which can wait until I am not trying to pack for my college fifth year reunion. But I'll confine myself for the time being to the sub-topic of how to talk about libertarianism.
The first thing I learned is that there are generally two categories of people interested in politics: Paragraph types and Spreadsheet types. N.b. that I borrowed this terminology from a David Brooks column about two years ago.Paragraph people tend to see themselves as independent gentilshommes (or gentillefemmes) des belles lettres. Spreadsheet people see themselves as cheerleaders for their team. It drives Pnin crazy because, as he claims, lots of professional economists who work with numbers all day are Paragraph people in this scheme, and big firm lawyers who work on writing memos are frequently Spreadsheet people. I admit I don't find this fact confusing, but I put this up there as a warning just in case.
Paragraph people envision their chosen intellectual movement as something like grad school extended into perpetuity . In fact, most Paragraph Elephants really, really loved grad school; were really, really good at grad school; and really, really didn't to leave. So they wind up in careers, like working in think tanks or at national magazines, where they basically get paid to write papers and sit around tables in nice book-lined rooms trying to suss out Truth. (We also often are paid like we're still in grad school, but that's a whole other story.) In a seminar, there are lots of different voices, nobody agrees 100% with each other, and that's perfectly okay; that's how it's supposed to be.
Spreadsheet people, on the other hand, envision their intellectual movement as a soccer game extended into perpetuity. They're wearing red uniforms. The crazy lefties are wearing blue uniforms. Their goal is to get the ball past the crazy lefties in the blue uniforms into the goal cage. They don't have a lot of patience for collegiate seminar-style fights about where the goal is supposed to be; it's obvious to them. If you do try to push them too hard about these questions, they start to wonder if you're an insurgent, a Team Blue agent in red disguise. They feel that such people shouldn't be standing around the field getting in their way.
Young libertarians should learn to identify quickly if their interlocutors are Paragraph or Spreadsheet people. It's actually quite easy for two Paragraph people on opposite sides of an issue to talk about politics ad infinitum; the only difficulty is that you two might find yourselves closing out the bar, or realizing that it's 9:00 p.m. and you have been sitting in Starbucks for four hours and haven't gotten dinner yet. Things are more difficult for Paragraph people caught in conversations about libertarianism with Spreadsheet people. You will ask detailed and thougthful questions, showing off your presumptions of good faith and reasonableness, and the other person will keep volleying back things like "The Wall Street Journal editorial board is a bunch of hacks." The Spreadsheet left-winger will ask you no questions and show no interest in why you think what you think. If you find this is the case with a particular person, eject. Disengage. You are not going to learn anything or convince the other person of anything; it's not worth your time. You can be friends with this person if you stick to talking about Cook's Illustrated or Indian fiction, but you're best off not bringing up politics or economics again.
Selective undergraduate and graduate schools can be particularly tough environments for left/right Spreadsheet/Paragraph conversation. The few conservatives and libertarians at these schools tend to default to Paragraph mode quickly because they're surrounded by smart liberals. It's hard to be arrogant in such an environment. (There are a small minority of right-wingers who do default into extra-vicious Spreadsheet mode because they resent being overwhelmed numerically by the competition. I suspect college-age conservatives so often get tagged with the "mean" label because Spreadsheet types in overdrive are the most visible conservatives around.) On the other hand, left-leaning students have an easy time avoiding contrary ideas. Spreadsheet types predisposed to slight arrogance become absolutely arrogant. In short, I became a hyper-Paragraph person frequently clashing up against hyper-Spreadsheet people, and I think many young conservatives at similar institutions can develop the same problem.