Tag Archives: argument

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Regaining a Capacity for the Rigors of Dispute

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We seem increasingly comfortable shunning forums that allow advocates time to develop their contrasting views.

There is frequent talk about a sharp American divide, with polarized and partisan groups shouting at each other across a wide chasm.  MSNBC analysts fret about the “MAGA crowd” in Congress.  Citing “progressives,” Fox News returns the favor. Anger on both sides spills out on Twitter and comments to countless blogs, news sites and mega-media like the Washington Post.  Even legacy news organizations of all sorts condense ideas to present facsimiles of what the other side has said on issues related to abortion, the behavior of our former President, or what our grade-school kids are permitted to read. Our cultural map looks like an endless chain of Tetons: a landscape of sharp peaks that leave little room to sit astride a place that would allow a view of all sides.

Part of our current dilemma is our withering sense of how to engage in a civil society. Various media platforms have made it easy to carve out connections with mostly like-minded others, leaving us underprepared for the work of making coherent arguments to those with different views.  In place of the agora—an ancient place where the public met and interacted as one body—we now see others mostly at a distance, via the narrow shooting galleries of media opinion makers with platform-specific ideologies. In the process, we’ve lost all or most of our abilities to sustain a discussion made of fleshed-out arguments and counter-arguments.

As noted in these pages several years ago, an argument can take many forms. But its basic structure is simple,  containing at least two parts: (1) An assertion or claim and (2) supporting evidence or good reasons. In schematic terms it can be laid out like this:

Claim: American Elections are Mostly ‘Clean’

(Evidence:  Because. . .)

    I. There are few documented cases of modern election fraud.
   II. Nearly all recounts confirm the original result.
  III. Election officials from both parties rarely find fraud.

That’s it. In its most basic form, an argument is an assertion supported with statements of proof to back it up: perhaps expert testimony, representative examples, solid research, statistical summaries, and so on.  By itself, the asserted claim is not enough, unless it is so obvious that no one would disagree. But we are focusing here on consequential assertions that others have doubted or denied. For these, we must relearn a basic tenet of civil affairs that a claim by itself is insufficient.  Repeating the same claim does not make it true.

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For example, consider the claim that “the 2020 presidential election was stolen.” If someone stops there–using a formal term of argument—it lacks “force.” To be sure, we are only too happy to display our opinions like flags. They signal our attitudes and beliefs. And we have a knack for mistaking variation of the same assertion as “evidence.” But controversial assertions alone have no logic to bind the open-minded.  That can only come when someone cites relevant evidence–logically tested by the insertion of the word “because”–using a source that is worthy of belief. When the assertion and the evidence flow together as a coherent argument, we are beginning to build a reasonable case.

It’s not enough to take aim on the true believers via the shooting gallery that fires out disparaging names. This short and convenient solution of using ad hominem language (i.e., “The fools who have made a career out of claiming election fraud are motivated by money and fame”) lacks force.  Ad hominem comments attack an advocate rather than their ideas. While we get pleasure out of calling our ideological opponents clowns, the rewards are self-serving, substituting personal invective for ideas that should be able to stand up in a democracy’s ‘the marketplace of ideas.’

Ironically, we generally shun the obvious format that allows for adequate public testing of ideas.  Simple debates where opponents speak, and then are given enough time for follow-up and offer refutations, can help those who want to understand what the preponderance of evidence supports. A true debate does not need a newsperson gumming up the works by turning the process into a joint interview. True debates only require two or three advocates, a moderator to keep things on track, and a clock that controls for equal time.  Using this format, the debaters soon learn that they will have to add substance to their claims: they know they will need “good reasons” more than more repeated opinions.

Schoolkids easily learn and enjoy this format. They like to document their views with evidence. In past years, programs of straight debates used to run on PBS (The Advocates and Firing Line, to name two).  But now we mostly choose to live in echo chambers that let us hear variations of our own views.

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The Unsung Virtues of Restraint

[Among the most viewed of the nearly 400 short essays posted on The Perfect Response is this from 2014, suggesting that there are sometimes advantages to not replying to another’s rebuke. We assume every arrow aimed at us needs a quick counter-response. But the psychological rewards of angry replies can be overrated. As noted here, even a brilliant retort is not likely to force an errant advocate back on their heels.]

For many of us the urge to enter the fray to correct or admonish others is a constant. It is always tempting to think that we are being helpful when we explain to the misguided how they have failed to notice their mistakes. It’s a self-fulfilling process. If others offer corrections or criticisms of our ideas, the least we can do is return the favor.

Aristotle was one of the first to formally describe how a person should defend their ideas when challenged. He equated the ability to make counterarguments to the realm of sometimes necessary personal defense. Though the great philosopher used other words, he essentially noted that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be pushed around; our arguments should strike back. This was about 380 B.C., demonstrating that some things never change.

Even so, it has perhaps become too easy to fire off a rejoinder or a personal attack. Most of us find it hard to be in a public space and not encounter cross-court slams from an ideological opponent that need an equally aggressive return.

The digital world easily brings this kind of escalating indignation to the fore. Many websites make the mistake of accepting comments that are protected by anonymity. Are we surprised that they are often rude? And it isn’t just the trolls that are rattling on about a writer’s sloppy logic or uncertain parentage. In private and public settings everyone seems to be ready with a hastily assembled attitude. The felicitous put-down is so common that screenplays would wilt in their absence. What dramatist could write a scene about a family Thanksgiving dinner without including at least a couple of estranged relatives rising to the bait of each other’s festering resentments? To add to the fray, some of us get paid to teach others how to argue, with special rewards going to those who are especially adept at incisive cross examination.

Sometimes saying nothing is better than any other alternative: less wounding and hurtful, and the best option in the presence of a communication partner who is out for the sport of a take-down. In addition, the psychological rewards of verbal counterpunches can be overrated. Even a brilliant rejoinder is not likely to force an errant advocate back on their heels. You may be itching to set the record straight in no uncertain terms. But they are probably just as determined to ignore you.

And there are costs to becoming shrill. Harry Truman famously sensed this. The former President had a hot temper. Even before he came to office in 1945, he had more than his share of critics.  But his approach to doubters made a lot of sense.  In the days when letters often carried a person’s most considered rebuttals, his habit was to go ahead and write to his critics, often in words that burned with righteous indignation. But he usually didn’t mail them. The letters simply went into a drawer, which somehow gave Truman the permission to move on to more constructive activities, such as a good game of poker.

Not responding to someone else’s provocative words has several advantages. One is that your comments probably won’t be received anyway. It is our nature to ignore non-congruent information, a process known in the social sciences as “confirmation bias,” but familiar to everyone who has ever said that “we hear only what we want to hear.”  Another advantage is that rapid and heated responses to others can carry the impression that the responder lacks a certain grace. Not every idea that comes into our heads is worth sharing. And fiery replies sometimes indicate that we weren’t really listening: a result when disgust or hate drains away our capacity for clear-headed thinking.

Time gives us a better perspective. It allows us to better anticipate how our responses will be judged. Most importantly, it helps us break the spiral of wounding responses that pile on top of each other.