How to Argue
This may sound strange to say in this polarized age, but people have forgotten how to argue. In fact, they’ve forgotten what an argument is.
An argument is the expression of a viewpoint based on evidence. It is not mere assertion. It requires the garnering of facts and the marshaling of evidence in an ordered manner so as to convince and persuade other people.*
Case in point:
Several days ago I was listening to an issue-related radio program on Jacksonville (Florida’s) NPR station. I tuned in late and cut out early (I was taking Debbie’s car to the shop to get a new battery) so I don’t know what the program was. And, really, for the purposes of this demonstration, neither the name of the program nor the subject being discussed really matter. What matters is the way the two combatants in the conversation approached the subject.
The first person told a touching story about her mother who single-handedly and ingeniously raised her young family, making sure that they knew they were loved, had shelter and food on the table, and that they had a sound basis for life-long learning. After her mother’s death, and the sale of her mother’s home, the daughter began a program in her mother’s honor. Through the sale of the home which had increased in value greatly during her mother’s life (the only actual material wealth she possessed), the daughter accumulated enough capital to provide a nice (though not excessive) lump sum of cash that could be awarded to several young people when they turn eighteen. She intends the money to be used by them to begin a life of enterprise and innovation. She sees it as a tool of personal liberation and advancement for some kids who lack inter-generational family wealth.
There’s no argument made for her venture. She relates a deeply felt personal experience which inspired her to try something she hopes will have positive results.
Several years ago, Elizabeth Lynn, daughter of Robert Wood Lynn, long-time leader in philanthropy with the Lilly Endowment, Inc., described this sort of venture as “a wager.” Elizabeth said it is the kind of thing that philanthropists and philanthropic endowments engage in regularly. Based on some experience or some assumptions, one “wagers” that a program or an initiative may do some good. One devotes some money to the initiative. One studies and evaluates the results, and determines whether it is helping. It’s a kind of private enterprise experiment.
The woman on the radio program explained her “wager” and what motivated her to make it. She didn’t mount an argument in favor of her venture, but she did lay the groundwork for how the program could be evaluated. And, if she gathers evidence that it worked, then she will be able to make an argument in its favor. If the evidence shows the program didn’t work, she will know that too.
The talk-show host invited another person to speak in opposition to the woman’s venture. At this point in the radio show, I expected the opponent to mount an argument against the woman’s initiative based on evidence drawn from similar social experiments. But he didn’t.
He led off with the comment, “Well, I have a feeling that if you asked most people if it is a good idea to give $50,000 to eighteen-year olds, they’ll agree with me that it is not.” I thought this was a sort of mildly humorous remark. But, of course, this was not an argument against the woman’s “wager,” just a simplistic caricature of her idea.
He then launched into a long series of assertions each of which began “I think” or “I believe.” Now, let’s leave to one side for now whether or not he knows what thinking or believing consists of (because neither thinking nor believing is just the expression of feeling or preference**), his “arguments” weren’t arguments at all. He cited no evidence to help his hearers understand why her idea wasn’t a good one. He marshaled no facts in a logical way to convince his hearers of a point of view. And he provided no experience (beyond the most superficial level of hypothetical anecdotes) to persuade his hearers.
Neither side featured on this radio show, in fact, argued.
In the end, I came down mostly on the woman’s “side” just because it’s her money, and if she wants to wager her wealth for the benefit of others, I say, “Go for it!” But I do hope she will carefully monitor the process to see if the program produces the results she hopes it will. Others may want that information.
Our media is saturated with talking heads talking past one another. Sometimes they are highly emotional. Sometimes the emotions actually aren’t faked. But seldom, very seldom, do we hear arguments being mounted.
Assertions meet assertions in a free-for-all that is about as productive as a cheap fireworks display. I often hear people say they are exhausted by the endless arguments in our culture. Frankly, I’d love to hear a real argument. It would give us something to think about. Instead, what we witness is the venting of spleens, and we are all just tired of being spattered with bile.
I grew up with lawyer uncles in a family that revered my late great uncle whose law office still stands (three generations of family attorneys later) on the local courthouse square. Atticus Finch watched over my shoulder when reading, Perry Mason instructed me on the tube, and I thought it was recreational to read the classic, “The Art of Cross Examination” (it is fun, btw!). And I had it drummed into me that one of the best ways to arrive at truth is through a process of reasoned argumentation.
One adversary (not enemy) puts forward an argument based on carefully selected evidence; another adversary advances a counter-argument based on the evidence s/he thinks will convince a disinterested hearer. Each lines up their statements of facts in a way in which they can be tested for validity (if it is an honest argument). And in the very best examples of rational argument, the truth either emerges in the process or new and better questions come to light that require further investigation and thought.
This is hard work. It requires thinking, carefully and critically, and with a view to understand. And this is why the Federalist Papers deserve reading over two centuries after the original arguments gave us our U. S. Constitution, and it is why the Cambridge debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, Jr.*** is still worthy of study as we face the continuing struggle of our country to come to terms with its history of racism, while the bumper stickers and tweets, sound bites and talking points of today’s pundits and politicians will line the metaphorical birdcages of tomorrow.
*One good way to test whether you’re arguing or just asserting is to notice if the only people saying “amen” when you talk are the ones who already agree with your way of seeing things.
**Indeed, “having thoughts” is not the same as “thinking.”
*** Nicholas Buccola, “The Fire Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, Jr. and the Debate Over Race in America (2019) provides a detailed and fascinating exploration of their debate at the University of Cambridge in 1965. The arts of persuading and convincing are on full display, and can be analyzed in detail in the transcripts included in the book.