12/07/2007: "For The Sake Of Argument"
By Janice Peterson
I find it true for many of us on the island that we live so much in the here-and- now that we know little about each other’s past lives. Before I came to this paradise I was a college teacher of argumentation and debate and I learned quite a lot about what works and doesn’t work in the midst of discussions on dicey topics.
Unfortunately, I am often not as good at putting the rules and conventions of argument into practice as I am at offering insights from the sages through the ages to others. So please understand that I write from the position of one who is still learning, still trying to avoid looking like the wrong end of a horse when I jump into the fray on topics such as global warming, the Iraq war, storm water ordinances, and so forth.
1. Where there is controversy, there are at least two sides to the fracas. We may feel pure of heart and dazzlingly smart but good, smart, and articulate people often disagree. A monopoly on Truth ranges from elusive to downright impossible.
2. Suggesting the appearance of an open mind is not nearly as good as actually having an open mind. When we argue, we are too frequently just waiting patiently for our opponents to shut up so we can talk. We do not listen.
3. Despite what your mother told you, conflict is healthy. Forget those notions of, “Don’t rock the boat,” and “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” A vibrant society thrives on differing viewpoints, airing disputes, and searching for resolution.
4. Argument’s partner, “reason,” is vital. Tossing around conclusions that appear out of the thin air of popular and trendy certainties or political correctness, have little validity. They are simply vagrant opinions with no visible means of support, i.e. assertions.
5. Support for a point of view is also important. The three components of a good argument are evidence, reasoning, and claim or conclusion.
6. Allowing strong emotion to get the better of you will usually end badly. Talking loudly and self-righteously, interrupting incessantly, and letting passion rule, collectively add up to a weak argument and, quite likely, an angry exchange. Bullying opponents is not nice and it is not effective.
7. A fallacy of argument called the “bandwagon effect” is poor technique. Just because a majority believes something to be true does not make it true. Ask Gallileo.
8. Stick to the point. Where controversies are complex, it is easy to drift off into irrelevant topics that do not really speak to the issue at hand.
9. If you suspect that you are about to enter a conversational minefield on an occasion that is not appropriate for it or you are too overwrought to behave yourself, or one of the other dogs in the fight is handled by a loose canon, escape gracefully and start commenting on the weather.
10. Avoid stupid and overused mixed metaphors and clichés. (See #9).
11. Let bad enough alone. At times we are plainly out-argued and losing. These are occasions for a polite exit with conciliatory comments such as “You have clearly thought this out and I appreciate your viewpoint.”
12. Brevity has been called the soul of wit and it is often the soul of successful discussion on controversial subjects. Do not go on endlessly. Hogging the stage is boring to others and makes you look tedious.
13. Hold onto your friends. We argue with friends more often than strangers – friends with whom we have happy histories and the promise of pleasant future relationships. Differing opinions are not worth jeopardizing a friendship.
14. Try to aim at John Stuart Mill’s good advice: “It is one thing to show a man he is in error. It is quite another to put him in possession of the truth.” (Mill said, “man” so forgive the gender specific reference). It is a lot easier to complain than it is to get off our soap boxes and devise solutions.
What all of this amounts to is simple. Be a person of good will who listens to opposing opinions, talks sensibly, and behaves like a mature adult.
Thank you for reading my essay.