If you’ll allow me a few minutes of your time I would like to argue for the sake of arguing. No I mean it. I am arguing on behalf of the vitally important lost art of argumentation.
Arguing has gotten a bad rap. We tend to think of arguments as verbal fights, mean-spirited personal attacks where the louder we speak the less we hear. Arguing sounds ugly and rude; it’s not the kind of thing that respectful and decent people do in civilized society. Well I intend to demonstrate to you that we not only could stand to do a little more arguing. I want to convince you that the passionate and responsible exchange of ideas is utterly necessary to personal growth, community development, and it is the lifeblood of any free-society.
I grew up arguing. I’ve seen the good kinds of arguing and the bad kinds. I’m the youngest of three siblings, with an older brother and an older sister. And I honed my own arguing skills largely by disagreeing with them. I learned quick and efficient ways to get attention. For example: When you are losing the argument, just pull your sister’s hair. Something entertaining is bound to happen. If your sister is annoying you, just shout really loudly ‘Stop it [insert name].’ And make sure you yell loud enough till your parents wake up and promptly discipline the offending party. Again, entertaining things are bound to happen. And she’ll probably get time-out. I also learned how to get my brother and sister fighting with each other, as that was entertaining too.
All of those are examples of bad arguing. I’m no fan of bad arguing. We need less of that. I don’t want to encourage you to do any of those entertaining things that I did. No matter how entertaining they may be. No matter how much you want to belittle the other person, embarrass them, make them feel bad. No matter how mad they may make you feel, and even if it’s your sister, that is not the kind of arguing that helps make you a better person or the world a better place. Good arguing makes both parties better. Good arguing is not between enemies, or it doesn’t have to be. Good arguing is between mutual truth-seekers, with mutual respect, and even love.
How do you know if your argument is a bad one?
It might be a bad argument if you are attacking the person. That’s called an ad hominem, literally ‘to the man.’ You are missing the claim they are making and the evidence they are offering because you are busy calling them names are attacking their character, intelligence, mother, sexual orientation, etc.
It might be a bad argument if you are just using the evidence that agrees with you and ignore the rest. This is called cherry picking or special pleading. If your position only works by ignoring the opposing evidence, then it’s not a good position. Well informed positions can account for the evidence for and against itself, and stands just fine. But a bad position only works with selective evidence and tenuous details strong together in isolation from the rest of the data.
It might be a bad argument if you have to misrepresent the opposition to make yours look better. This is called the “straw man” fallacy. Picture a prize-fight boxing match between you and . . . a scarecrow. It’s no fight at all because you don’t have a real opponent but a fabricated, easy-to-defeat, practice dummy. In the real world of ideas, there’s usually some evidence for even the weirdest most absurd ideas, and if you can’t imagine why anyone would hold to the views they do, then you probably don’t understand those views. You are likely operating on a straw-man understanding of their view. And your view is the weaker for it, since its over-inflated with confident ignorance.
It might be a bad argument if you have no evidence for your position but to restate that position. Evolution is true because evolution is true. Democrats are right because they’re never wrong. Or the Bible is true because it says its true. This is what’s called circular reasoning or petitio principi, literally, ‘begging the question.’ There are many different ways an argument can go wrong.
There are faulty appeals to authority, prestigious jargon, straw man. But I don’t want to focus on the negative here. I want to suggest that there is a responsible way to argue, without going there.
But first we have to address another alternative before we get to “good arguing.”
Somewhere, somehow, it seems that much of society has condemned all arguing as that bad-kind of arguing. One cause seems to be political correctness. There are many reasons for not being brash, foolhardy, or offensive when you don’t need to be. That is the “bad kind” of arguing. In that sense, I’m fine with being PC. But sometimes people are offended by important issues, by truth and goodness, or discussions of life-or-death ideas. Not everyone’s “Offended Meter” is tuned properly. In those cases, you might need to break custom, risk offense, and try to persuade the person to agree with you. The tendency to be PC has led a lot of people to feign agreement, when they do not. That is not resolution, it puts off problems without fixing them, and it trades truth and goodness for comfort and compromise.
Another possible cause is the educational system. There once was a time when students had to master logic, grammar and rhetoric before they could advance to ‘high-school’ subjects. Every student learned argumentation and debate. Every student had to know how to think well, write well, and speak well as these were the prerequisites for everything else. In this ‘classical model,’ classes are usually small, teachers are hands on, Q&A drives the discussion, and students swam deep in the waters of argumentation before they were even teenagers. This model is not common today. Multiple choice tests and quizzes, opinion writing, and completion grades are standard fare now. And the art of argumentation is no longer prioritized in most schools. Students have subtly replaced “argument” with “opinion,” and perhaps further, “feeling” for “thinking,” and “validity” for “truth.” A lot of people don’t argue well because they never had to learn how.
Another big cause seems to be isolation. You may come from a broken home, or have a mean or selfish person in your life. If so, there’s a good chance you saw a lot of arguments, a lot of fights, and you were never taught how to fight fair, how to argue respectfully, or how to diffuse conflict while resolving the problem, or else you were conditioned against those things through an abusive relative or mate, or just a selfish mean person in your life. Also, affiliation with organized religion is declining in the U.S., Community involvement is pretty weak. And the relationships we do have are digitally filtered. But the art of arguing is an interpersonal, complex, and sophisticated art. When you need to disagree with a person about a dangerous political theory he holds, or he is trying to join a cult, or he’s promoting some dangerous ethical position, you will find it goes over much better if he knows you love him, he trusts your judgment, and you’ve earned the right to speak into his life.
And for the love of God, don’t break up with a person via text message. All that’s good in the world dies all over again whenever that happens. Seriously though, social isolation makes those important arguments strained or impossible. Good argumentation is hard to do sometimes, and it involves risk that pays off much better if your “opponent” knows you love them and has come to trust your words.
The Art of Argumentation
We can’t fix everything but we can fix one thing. If we can find here a few tips on the art of arguing, then your life and our world can be a better place.
Pick your Battles
Not every fight is worth having. Choose your battles wisely. Some battles are important but the timing isn’t right. Other battles might be good practice, among trusted friends who likewise enjoy a fair and honest exchange–such as the classic dormroom debate over which superhero is the best. In the right settings you can practice argumentation, such as a classroom debate, or a persuasive speech. But often, the fight is not worth having, and nothing terribly important is at stake. Now don’t use this tip as an excuse to avoid conflict. Any loving couple, be it romance or friendship, will have conflicts and there needs to be a lot of practice and mutual respect in learning how to express needs and interests without escalating conflicts into fruitless fights. Sometimes we are not in the right frame of mind to express ourselves respectfully, or to listen respectfully. In that case we need some time or space to settle down. Other times, a “little thing” is the straw that broke the camels back and it is a real and important conflict that should not be swept under the rug, and needs to be addressed pronto before it gets worse. Be brave, not letting fear or cowardice push you away from conflicts that need to be resolved. But also be wise, not pressing for unnecessary conflict or poorly timed poorly handled conflict.s
Organize Your Case
State your claim. State your Argument. Offer your evidences. It is not enough to have an opinion. Everyone has opinions, so what? But when you can offer a reasonable argument and evidence for you opinion, you set yours above other opinions. You should have a reasonable, supportable, explanation for why you think what you do. Sometimes you don’t know yourself very well or you don’t know your reasoning very well. That’s normal. We all are like that. But pressing yourself for reasons, and a responsible argument to support your conclusion–that is a habit we could all stand to develop. Your thinking gets clearer, your thoughts more organized, and insights more penetrating when you’ve developed the habit of identifying (or demanding) the structures of thought. In making your case you can use all sorts of evidence in support of any number of arguments. There is no “one” structure demanded of a good thought, but make sure it’s clear, understandable, and well supported, preferably, with the kinds of evidence and argument that you opponent respects.
Address the Person
We are not talking about a feud you had with your laptop last night, but a disagreement with a person. Keep your argument and evidence relevant to the person you’re speaking with. Maintain civility just as if you were addressing this debate to the most important person in the world. Put another way, you can’t understand the question without understanding the questioner.
Be a learner
Approach arguments with the humility and courage to learn from the exchange. There is no learning till you admit you didn’t already know it, and you are courageous enough to face it. Argumentation is a great way to correct errors in your own perspective or frame of thought. And if you have that motive you don’t have to come off as a pushy know-it-all.
This is a sophisticated point, but the gist is not hard to grasp. I like the way the Bible describes it: “Always let your conversations be full of grace, seasoned with salt.” Be ethical, well-meaning, gracious and so on. Don’t pick at emotional scabs. Don’t escalate the tone. Wait till you both have cooled down. Drench your words with encouragement. Focus on points of agreement first. If they need to take a break, let them. If you are not in a healthy or collected mood, then save the debate for later. But always plan a time to get back to these important disagreements that need to happen.
Why We Must Fight
Coming to the end of all this, what does it really matter? So what? If we never learn how to argue well, what have we really lost? I think we’ve lost a whole lot, a lot of ourselves, a lot of our future, and a lot of good in the world.
Argumentation Can Discern Truth
Take the simple innocuous phrase, “Open mind” for example. We are encouraged all around to be “open minded.” There’s good to this. We should not be preemptively judgmental or closed off to truth, goodness or beauty that may come from new or unexpected sources. But why should we be open-minded? Are our minds supposed to be so indiscriminately inviting that they are open sewers? Collecting whatever waste-water, excrement, or refuse dribbles down into it? Surely that’s not what open minds are fore? An open mind is mere liability if it cannot also clamp down on truth or otherwise filter out lies. Argumentation is one of the chief filters for truth where we can test our ideas against those of other people’s. We can learn from their perspective and they can learn from ours. We can pit ideas against each other to see which have better evidence and support and which better reflect reality. Sometimes we are wrong, sometimes we are right. But we need that passionate exchange of ideas precisely because opinions aren’t always true, or good, or beautiful. Some ideas are downright deadly and we’d never know it except for they brave soul who risks telling us what they can see in our blind spot. Where we are in error, we lack a major means of correction. Truth is sometimes hard to come by.
Argumentation Can Correct Errors
Sometimes we are firmly entrenched in a bad or wrong idea. If we only engage in bad argumentation we are liable to drive people off and calcify our misguided commitment to that bad idea. But good argumention is an invitation to correction. Good argument invites a clear and well-supported counterpoint. sometimes we will never let go our bad ideas until we clearly see a better idea. If we are humble enough to admit when we’re wrong–a life-skill if I’ve ever seen one–then a healthy argument can help us see the truth in a better light and persuade us away from our bad ideas.
Argumentation Can Polish Good Ideas
Sometimes we do not so much have a “bad” idea as we have a bad grasp of a good idea. With some argumentation skill, we can refine and filter good ideas, distilling or polishing them till we have a good understanding of their depth, implications and applications.
Argumentation Fosters The Vital Courage of Conviction
To conclude, and what might be the most ferociously important cause for argumentation is that is a vital instrument for regaining the courage of our convictions. It has been say that there is one thing that the reigning teachers of tolerance cannot stand, they cannot stand conviction. I tend to agree, since the only way to get everyone to “agree” seems to be by either rigging the system (so no one has access to contrary evidence) or by watering down our convictions till no one believes much of anything strongly, all ideas seem equally valid, objective truth is replaced by relative usefulness, and the former realm of convictions is hedged in by shouting school mams pleading for careful agreeable dispassion. I don’t want this rant to sound like a Pink Floyd video but you get my point. There is a vital role for courageous convictions within a free-society. Robust democracy requires that people have convictions about truth–lest they not contribute their part of it to the world. We would not need a democracy if all the good ideas were properly found and suitably managed among aristocrats or kings. But our democratic republic turns heavily on the belief that individuals have something to share, something that would be lost if they were all pressed into agreement with the powers that be. For these reasons it is absolutely vital that we learn the art of arguing, that we have safe-havens for the free-exchange of ideas, and that we as concerned citizens and family members are finding ways to engage in and submit to healthy argumentation. We have ideas that need to be shared, and we need other ideas we haven’t heard yet.
In conclusion, I have argued that the passionate and responsible exchange of ideas in the form of an argument is utterly necessary to personal growth, community development, and it is the lifeblood of a free-society. If you disagree with me, then lets hear it. The comment sections are below. If you agree with me, then go out and start arguing!