Fair fight

A few weeks ago, some friends of mine travelled abroad for a European city break. When they returned and we’re telling me what they’d got up to, they giggled at the memory of one evening, spent sitting in a restaurant and having a fine meal and a lively conversation. Apparently the more vigorous their discussion became, the more uncomfortable the couples around them looked. In the end, one table shuffled away a bit, clearly fearing a stand-up fistfight was about to ensue. My friends had not raised their voices particularly, nor (based on observing and participating in such debates with them) were they likely to have looked anything other than engaged and keen to put their points across. No shouting, no table banging, no angry faces. They were, as it happens, arguing about open access publishing. But presumably the majority of the patrons didn’t speak English, and thus couldn’t possibly have known that.

'On one hand' sticky noteIt has struck me recently that many people are very bad at arguing – and indeed coping with argument – in a meaningful way. Whether it’s a classroom debate, a public discussion or a dinner party, arguing is a crucial method of communication. It not only gives us the opportunity to try to persuade others around to our point of view – it also gives us a chance to clarify just what, in fact, our point of view is in the first place. Maybe we’ve never really articulated it out loud before and it still needs work. Maybe, on expressing our view to another, we come to realise that we don’t actually hold that point of view at all, but have never previously examined it closely enough to realise that. Maybe we find another’s take to be more persuasive than our own. Maybe we don’t, and can close the debate in the sure and certain knowledge that our angle on the matter is both correct and rationally bombproof.

'The other hand' sticky noteWhatever the outcome of an argument, it is a means of testing all parties in a way which should encourage the development of lines of thought, rather than shutting them down. Posting a snarky comment on Twitter, for example, is not arguing. It’s ironic that the immediacy of online conversation seems not to encourage people to converse at all, but rather to fire off short, unhelpful remarks at each other and then run away like a game of Knock Down Ginger. And in certain circumstances, we seem to want to bypass attempts at actual debate altogether and simply block an opposing viewpoint from being presented. That, I fear, is very dangerous indeed – because without confrontation and attempts at resolution, the problem remains at large.

I could spend the rest of this post musing about a whole range of things people are currently arguing about (in some cases not very effectively) – from Donald Trump to English National Opera. But rather than doing that, I thought I’d hazard a few points worth bearing in mind the next time you fancy an intellectual fist-fight. You might not agree with them, of course. And as ever, feel free to argue with me. So long as you do it properly…

  1. Start from a position of mutual respect. Yeah, ok, the reason you’re arguing might be that you think the other person is being stupid. But if you can’t prove that rationally, then you’re already on a losing wicket. Because anything less than rational deconstruction effectively means your argument consists of ‘but that’s SILLY and I’m BETTER than you.’ Which is seldom super-convincing. Or, you know, how adults are supposed to behave towards each other. If you end up with their drink in your face, don’t say I didn’t warn you…
  2. Make your points as clearly as possible. If the other person is in fact stupid, this will make it easier for them to understand the brilliance of your logic. Seriously though: being able to articulate your own perspective clearly is both a more convincing means of swaying your fellow debaters, and also demonstrates the clarity of your own thoughts. People who try to argue about stuff they haven’t thought through properly tend to take longer to get to the point. This is why the closer you are to completing your PhD, the better you are at being able to explain what it’s about in a sentence that’s less than 18 clauses long. I speak from experience. [A little aside here: it’s also fine to argue something you haven’t thought through just to see where it gets you, and how you really feel about a certain subject… but choose your opponents and your audience wisely. This only really works effectively amongst friends, ideally with a little alcohol to help the discussion along.]
  3. Give proof/examples wherever possible. I mean, we could all just take your word for the fact that blue moon cabbage tastes better than the regular kind, but some people are surprisingly suspicious about such claims. Can’t think why. Could Tim Peake maybe back you up?
  4. Be willing to listen as well as to speak. Crucially, arguments are their best are dialogues, so don’t just blast on with the same old points and turn a deaf ear to what your opponent is saying. If you continue to find their point of view invalid, you can adjust your own line of argument to match it. Or it may even be the case that, the more your opponent talks, the more you find yourself convinced by what they have to say.
  5. Lose as gracefully as you win. If it turns out that you find yourself wowed by the indisputable logic of the opposing side, say so and be nice about it. If not, either take credit where it’s due (if you managed to convince them over to your point of view), or accept a stalemate as respectfully as you can.

If you’re thinking that these points sound all well and good for structuring an undergraduate essay plan (students of mine, take note), but pretty useless when confronted by an impending visit from Roosh V… think again. The more repugnant the viewpoint being expressed, the more necessary it is to fight it with rational argument, and in as public a forum as possible. Because even if the troublemaker is too full of his/her own self-importance or blind sense of power to listen to a logical riposte, others will. Every single person who hears a convincing argument against injustice or cruelty is being given the opportunity to understand that point of view and pick it up themselves, so that they can make that same argument – developed, nuanced and appropriately couched – to their circle. They can do something about it now, using the arguments they’ve heard. And I’d say John Stuart Mill put it rather well when he said: ‘Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.’

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