Wednesday, January 12, 2011

To America: Learn to Argue

Just the other day, we had an argument, Carmen, Dave, Kris and I – a loudvoiced, passion-pushing barnburner. It was in McDonald’s. At one point Dave was defending his position at a loud volume, loud enough to embarrass Carmen and Kris. That was my favorite part (because every other time, it’s Carmen snorting until the kitchen has to ask if there are any loose swine they missed for the pork sandwich special ). Dave made his points forcefully and defended them well. I was on the offensive, drawn out by Carmen’s challenge to state my position on an issue, tackling a subject we have touched before but left on the surface, like an onion waiting to be peeled so its potency can be felt.

What were we arguing about? It doesn’t matter. The point is that we each had a different take, we deeply believed we were right (but not so much we can’t learn) and we never came to full agreement. And we were in the studio the next day, on the show, interacting personally as if it never happened, only with a deep respect for the complexity of each individual and a deeper praise to Jesus for choosing to bring us together as a team and as beloved brothers and sister. I think our country could learn something from our argument.

The political posturing and power plays that followed the tragic shooting in Arizona that left six people dead and thirteen wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is a sign that we-the-people no longer know how to argue. Let me offer a few principles that apply to argumentation in general in the hopes that they will add a sprinkle of sanity to our public discourse:

  1. The principle of fairness – You can’t have a good argument if you are only interested in besting your opponent, no matter who gets slaughtered along the way. A decent argument begins by refusing to caricature your opponent’s position, by granting him or her an interpretation that tries to make sense of the position they are stating. To do this, you should practice re-stating your opponent’s position in a way he or she would agree with: “Yes, that’s what I am saying.”

  2. The principles of sound reasoning – Good arguments can’t be built on passion or rhetoric (verbal flare), so we have to guard against arguments that make points based on:

    a. The threat of force – If we feel strongly, we may express ourselves loudly or in a physically demonstrative way; that is fine, but taking advantage of an opponent by trying to dominate him or her with your voice or body is unfair and unreasonable. (Dave didn't violate this!)

    b. The popularity of the position – It’s easy to take a stand on the majority position, which is why it was so hard for Christians to stand against the Holocaust in Germany. A position is right if it’s right, regardless of how many people think otherwise.

    c. The popularity of the speaker – If this were the basis for making a reasoned argument, Carmen would win every time. She doesn’t (always). Who makes the argument has little to do with how sound the argument is, unless that person is an authority on the subject. Even then, his or her popularity doesn’t make the case.

  3. The principle of arguing for truth, not victory – Jesus argued with the Pharisees. Paul argued with the philosophers in Athens. Arguments are good and godly, provided they are battles waged to bring BOTH you and your opponent closer to the truth rather than blitzkriegs designed for total destruction, where only you are left standing. Whatever I feel about Dave’s position, a perspective he and Carmen share on the issue we attacked, I learned a lot about the strengths and weakness of my own position, and I was driven back to my need to be able to articulate and defend why I believe what I do.

With these principles in place, individuals and groups (like Democrats and Republicans, for example) can argue loudly and forcefully, passionately disagreeing, and we will all come out the victors with the country still intact.

In terms of democracy, the worst thing that can come from the Arizona shooting is a new “politically correct” carefulness (read: censorship) rather than vigorous, even passionate public debate. I do find that very few politicians, entertainers or media commentators take the time or make the effort to argue fairly, reasonably and truthfully. Most are Machiavellian, preferring power to the pursuit of pure, precise propositions. And I don’t really think this blog post will change anything; still, I know things can change. I saw a living example in the argument my team and I had just the other day.


Carmen said...

There are a few things I'd like to argue....

1) We weren't embarrassed. We thought we were gonna git killed!

2) I do win. Often. At least in my own mind I do. What's that you say? I don't really win? I just think I do? I see....


And to think... this wasn't the most heated argument we've ever had!

Excellent post, Bill. Love, love, love it! I actually used us as an example last night with a friend. My most healthy arguments are with you & Dave. Why? Because there's 100% trust AND our hearts, intent & goal is for the utmost good of the other and the show. When you have that .... you're free to say what you need to say knowing that we'll all be stronger, better & closer on the other side of the disagreement.

I love you, my brother!!!

Stephen Barker said...

Wow. Nicely put.

LeonardHBrown said...

First of, I must confess how difficult it is to respond to this post without beginning said response with a carefully selected quip from Monty Python's "The Argument Clinic". That said, this is a tremendous post, and an opinion that I have expressed on many occasions.

If we, as a nation, do not learn how to argue in such a fashion that the parties involved can seek a common ground, or at the very least, intelligently defend their positions, then we are going to continue to have the kind of spiteful discourse that this country has been burdened with.

On both sides of the political aisle, we are beset with people that fail to argue properly. They work only to win, and not to come to a mutual understanding. The very idea of finding common ground seems lost.

Logical debate is one of the pillars of civilization, and we are losing that art form. Thank you for recognizing that fact.