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:
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.