Argument is… How We Can Have More Constructive Arguments

“I’m right because…”, “You’re wrong since…”, and “How can you believe that?” I’d venture to say that most humans don’t give the process of argument much thought. They just do it – whether debating one of life’s big questions or having it out with their partner. Having acquired a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s degree in English however, I’ve thought about it a good bit. (Partly because I’m the goober that found it interesting; partly because I had to for those fancy pieces of paper.) I’ve researched it, listened to lectures. Years of my life have been devoted to various philosophies and rhetorical theories. This is what you do to be effective, and here’s what you don’t do. Through papers, treatises, and tomes ancient and modern, I have learned two important tenets.

1) Arguments become impassioned because they typically debate beliefs, and beliefs are very personal. Any challenge is often construed as a personal attack.

2) Arguments are horribly unfair. The victor is not necessarily right – just knows how to better employ the tools of trade to shut his/her opponent down. As a result, many who are good at it use argument to manipulate others for personal gain.

Argument is war.
Argument is war.

With all of the negative feelings that surround arguments and the bad outcomes that result, many people dread them or, worse, avoid them all together, but I truly wish they wouldn’t. Argument doesn’t have to be negative, nausea inducing, or socially obliterating. As the process emerged in our human dynamic ages ago, I doubt it was intended to be that way because it serves a very important purpose.

Let me back up and give you some background for this week’s ramblings. Recently, I was fortunate enough to participate in an argument that emerged between two of my friends, one acquaintance, and one person whom I have never met. My friends – I’ll just leave the names out – are diametrically opposed in their worldviews as one is a professed Christian and the other a professed Atheist. The argument focused on morality, and while both of my friends agreed that morality existed, they had quite conflicting views as to its origins. Both of my friends are thinking individuals, and I do not believe they have adopted their respective belief systems lightly. As they are both skilled in argument, the debate was quite lengthy, and fortunately, it was also quite civil and mature (not something one can count on in this sort of discussion, unfortunately).

When students are first introduced to academic argument, one of our first tasks is to learn to master our emotions and to respond respectfully. After all, if one’s head gets muddled with anger or frustration, all strategy goes out the window. Of course, we are also admonished to stick to our point and not yield. We take turns, and so watching/listening to a civil, academic argument is rather like witnessing two martial artists dual. An uncivil one is a catfight. This is the way we have approached argument for centuries. We battle back and forth over details (even if we can agree on certain points), and argument becomes war.

Argument is war.” A select few of you may have read Metaphors We Live By, written by renowned linguist George Lakhoff. If you have, you most likely were/are in a graduate English or Linguistics program, perhaps one in Communications or Philosophy, and you recognize this sentence. It is a metaphor – a way to describe an abstract, intangible process or entity in terms of a concrete, tangible one. And this metaphor defines how we, in English speaking cultures at least, describe arguments. Whether you’ve actually thought about this before or not, you talk about arguments as if they were wars. The evidence is in the words we use.

She won the argument.
His last tactic was his best.
She let her opponent run all over her.
He held his ground.
I’m ready. Shoot!
Hit me with your best shot.
They lost that round.

Oh my! Language, Children. Language! Why you gotta be so violent?

Because we describe argument in these terms, we think about it in these terms, and we act in these terms. And by the way, this and more is in Lakhoff’s book in much greater detail, so if what I say about argument interests you in the slightest, do yourself a favor and read it.

Now, back to my friends. As of this moment, the argument has quieted, and I have picked no clear victor, but even if I could, I could not say the winner was correct or incorrect because of the nature of this discussion. Morality origins and the existence or nonexistence of God cannot be proven with physical data, so the points and counterpoints are simply theories and conjectures. My friends can only attempt to talk each other out of belief (quite the task mind you) or to find flaws in the opposed thought process in hopes of discrediting the opposed and using that to dissuade others who might be listening from adopting that point of view.

To me, it is a funny fact that such arguments stretch on as long as they do. Rather than discussing the similarities in the respective beliefs, we focus on the differences (which, in this origins case, lie entirely in details). One asserts that morality was dictated by a deity; the other asserts that morality was a code that evolved to aid in human survival. Physical proof we have none, and while my friends can continue to debate, they are at an impasse given the current body of human knowledge.

And here’s where it gets fun – the current body of human knowledge. How did our species learn all that we have? We did it through curiosity, by not being content with the given explanations, and by questioning the validity of popular opinion. Argument provides a space rich with conditions that stimulate the growth of knowledge – curiosity, explanations, and questions.

So to my next question – Why you gotta be right? If our knowledge is to grow and the human race advance, we can’t be right in an absolute sense, so it only hurts us to react negatively to a challenge or for our aim to be destroying an opponent. If we are right, then there is nothing left for us to learn and we currently understand the universe. But the fact is we still ask questions and there are still areas in which science, philosophy, and religion provide no answers. What if, rather than focus on how our beliefs differ, we focused on how they are similar? What if we asked, “Now what?” What could we do if we used the ideas others presented to ask more questions? What if we asked those questions and pondered them as a group? Even if we did know everything and all our questions were the product of simple human yearning, the process of exploring them would provide additional understanding, even if it were simply about ourselves. The potential for advancement and discovery is staggering, but unfortunately, humans sacrifice this potential time out of mind in the name of being right.

There is the world according to HannaH Jane. It is the way I see it. It is the summation of years of study, observation, experience, and interpretation, but as much as I study, observe, experience, and interpret, I am too small to experience the entire universe. There is always something new. Personally, I refuse to shut that out simply because it doesn’t fit into my worldview. If it doesn’t fit, I commit to change my view. And believe it or not, I’m comfortable with that. (Wouldn’t have been 18 years or so ago, but hey, live and learn.)

Argument is expedition.
Argument is expedition.

So I will now apply Lakhoff’s theories and research to suggest a new way of describing and thinking about argument – Argument is expedition.

She contributed the most value to the argument.
His last route was his best.
She let her colleague take the lead.
He was sure of that path.
I’m ready. Let’s go!
Show me your best course.
They came to a dead end.

Why does this work as a way to define and describe argument? Well, an expedition is “a trip made by a group of people for a specific purpose, for example, to explore unknown territory, to do scientific study, or to achieve a military objective.” So it is an activity conducted by multiple parties. How does this improve argument when it is defined this way? It changes argument’s objective. Rather than being used to subdue others, argument now enlists others, and we can use that to help advance our knowledge of the world and ourselves. It exposes us to new ideas (those of that person we used to call “opponent”) and affords us the opportunity to make new discoveries by asking what is missing from the discussion. Is it the only other way of defining argument? No. Would it present unique challenges? Absolutely, but can you think of any that would make argument a worse experience when conducted under these terms than it would when conducted under the currently accepted ones? What have we got to lose by taking this approach? Not our values or worldview! We actually run more risk of such a loss using the war metaphor. All we have to lose are our faulty notions about others, an unfounded sense of pride, and that nasty knotted up feeling most people experience when engaged in an argument, especially one that isn’t civil and respectful. These aren’t bad things to lose, and we really have a whole lot to gain.

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