In recent years, hasn’t it just felt like people don’t know how to talk to each other about controversial topics anymore?
Seems like there’s no end of online screeds, rants, polemics, fights, and the occasional incitement to riot.
It’s one thing to be bad at talking to each other, in a private sense; person to person conversation about whatever. It’s another, entirely, to not be able to converse on the salient topics of the day in a form of government that is, ostensibly, based on the populace coming to terms with one another.
In a democracy, we must be able to discourse on public matters, and to do so reliably.
In short, if we can’t talk with one another about the problems facing our nation, and possible solutions to those problems, in the not too distant future we will have no nation left to worry about.
And I understand why we’re bad at it – the talking thing.
Unless you were in debate club or had a really good teacher somewhere down the line, or – in the rarest case – actually had to take Civics in high school, you were likely given no training in how to have these types of important and sometimes delicate discussions.
And you damn sure didn’t learn how to do it by watching politicians of the modern era.
They don’t argue.
And they hurl accusations, and they jockey for political position. They’ll filibuster for 14 hours straight for political theater, but they don’t know how to construct an argument, or when it is necessary.
(Unless you were raised by hard-core academicians, you probably didn’t learn how to properly argue from your parents either.)
So, by way of an introduction to the concept, lets talk a little bit about what an argument is -and isn’t- when and where it’s appropriate to employ, and maybe a bit more about why you should learn how, the proper way.
What an Argument is and isn’t:
First off, an argument is not a fight.
If you find yourself personally offended, or if your intent is to be personally offensive, you’re not in an argument, you’re in a fight.
Name calling. Derision. Rhetoric meant only to evoke an emotional response. Outright dismissal of an opponent’s legitimate point. These are all hallmarks of a fight.
We’ve gotten so comfortable using the word argument in this blanket way that we’ve lost the thread about what a real argument is, and why it’s a good thing.
(and in the case of our democracy, a necessary thing.)
As a general rule, if you’re intention is to hurt the other person in some way, you’re not arguing, you’re looking to fight.
And, let it be known, I’m all for fighting. Just approach it with some fucking honesty, if that’s your goal.
So, all that being said, what is an argument?
(Definitions are always tricky.)
An argument is a conversation between parties where a topic is discussed, from different points of view, logically, and in regards to the merits and flaws and possible repercussions of the subject matter.
In less academic speak: at least two people, talking about a topic from different sides, using reason to come to a consensus, or failing that, some amenable conclusion. As a bonus, if you are engaged in an actual argument, it is a chance to learn something. That might be only a clarification of what you believe on the subject, or it may be more, but if you’re giving the argument its due respect, you will come away from it knowing more than you did when you went in.
The point in all this that often trips people up is the “logically” part.
Don’t get shook. Logic is fairly simple, and in most arguments, you’ll be using the easiest forms of it. We’ll get a little more into logic, properly, in a later post in this series.
Alright, you may ask, when should I do this argument thing?
When to do the Argument thing:
The truth is, outside of politics, religion, or philosophy – or unless you’re a lawyer – argument won’t play much of a part in your daily life.
You argue things that matter.
Good argument should be devoid of personal attachments.
As such, argument should probably be saved for matters that are not strictly personal; not exquisitely personal, at any rate.
You don’t argue about where to eat dinner, or which sports team is the best, or whether or not Soundgarden was better than Nirvana (they totally were, fight me). In fact, if it’s a matter of personal preference, it’s not really a topic for a proper argument. Preferences, like opinions, vary and often are not obedient to logic. They are things of feeling, and that is a separate subject altogether.
Here is a brief – and not at all exhaustive- list of things that matter, in the terms of arguing:
Aspects and actions of Government.
Crime and punishment.
Directions for future endeavors.
Metaphysics (the nature of reality – it’s the most likely kind of philosophical argument you’ll have, unless you’re an actual philosopher.)
(all of these can be broken down into innumerable sub-categories, and those can be further broken down into sub-sub categories, and turtles all the way down, I suspect.)
These topics, and all the ones I haven’t mentioned here, all deal with who we are, as a society, and how we deal with each other and the world around us. And all of these subjects are integral to having a future in which we – and subsequent generations- can flourish.
Because that, in the end, is what we want: a world where we can flourish.
(no, you can’t engineer a society for happiness. It’s too ephemeral and subjective. But we can engineer one that helps us grow healthily and well.)
Truth is, maybe you don’t care. There’s bound to be at least 10% of the populace that couldn’t be persuaded that it will help them, or their nation, to be better and move forward.
Some people just don’t give a fuck.
I suppose that’s their choice, and I’m fine to leave them to it.
But for the rest of you, the 90% remaining who might actually care, here is another list, (definitely not exhaustive), of the benefits to learning how and when to argue.
- It teaches you how to think, (that’s the logic bit we’ll get to some other time.)
- It teaches you how to listen, really seriously listen. (if you’re trying to poke holes in your opponent’s reasoning/ argument, you’re going to need to listen closely to it. And that’s something that gets better when you practice.)
- It will help you understand both yourself and your own beliefs better, (seriously, even if you “lose” an argument, you’ll come out more knowledgeable than you went in.)
- It will make most people think you’re smart, (well, smarter than you look anyway.)
- It helps you learn to think on your feet, and quickly, (also makes you faster with comebacks.)
Is that enough?
Ok, one more thing:
IT MIGHT JUST HELP YOU SAVE THE WORLD!
Not a bad goal, that.
There are probably better introductions to the realm of argument. My guess is, if you’ve read those, you’re probably not reading my half-sane ramblings on a regular basis. But hey, who knows?
And this is just the briefest of overviews. There are entire post-graduate degrees based on this stuff. I’m not going to go into that much detail.
This is just a quick and dirty guide to get you started, and maybe send you out into the world a little better armed than you were before the reading of it.
To wit, the other armaments I’m looking to place in your arsenal:
(more in this series of posts…)
Pt 1: The Basics. (logic, logical arguments, syllogisms, how to tell if an argument is crap, etc.…)
Pt 2: Pitfalls. (informal fallacies, deconstructing an argument, the principle of charity, who not to argue with & why)
Pt 3: Probably some closing thoughts, if I can work up the energy.
So, that’s what you’re in for, if you choose to stick around. There won’t be any TL; DRs here. Pretty much everything is going to be as distilled and as simplified as I can make it.
My hope is, by the end of this series, you’ll have at least a fighting chance out there.
YOU MIGHT JUST SAVE THE WORLD!
Until next time…