Monday, July 11, 2011

How to Win an Argument and Still Keep Your Friends

For a rhetoric geek like me, one of the biggest crimes against persuasion is the logical fallacy*. As Aristotle is my witness, I find argument fallacies the tools of the weak-minded and lazy, those who know they have lost but refuse to give up the battle gracefully. Those who would prefer to derail a perfectly reasonable discussion with dodges and equivocation (yes, that’s one of those pesky fallacies) just so they can pretend they “won” ... something. Those who know they don’t have an argument, and yet refuse to either gird themselves for the next round with real support or better yet, concede the point.

When I talk about argument, I’m not talking about the kind of argument that happens when a bunch of guys sit around the neighborhood bar after work every night drinking Buds and out-yelling each other over whose football team will win the play-offs this year. Nor is it the kind of fights you still have with your brother or sister about who mom loves more. Nor is it about whose turn it is to clean out the cat box.

In my world, the reason for argument—also known by its kinder, gentler name, persuasion—is to further knowledge, to deepen communication, to negotiate understanding in order to persuade one person to take a certain action or adapt a belief. It's not, used ethically, a way to manipulate someone into doing something he doesn't want to do or believe. It's a way people can come to an understanding, even if that understanding is simply to disagree. One “side” isn’t necessarily right; and often there are several valid points of view, not just the two sides commonly known as point/counterpoint. The purpose should be to bring those sides closer to understanding through honest communication, not to create conflict. So when I use the word “argument,” this is the definition I’m operating under.

Of course, any good argument is sufficiently documented with reliable sources that can include anything from personal narrative to scientific study results to expert testimony. A good argument never starts and ends with “because I say so.” And a decent persuader isn’t concerned with who wins and who loses. In other words, the thrill is in the well-played game, not in the beating down of an opponent. It’s not a knock-down, drag-out, which is why I have so little regard for any piece of writing that’s riddled with argument, or logical, fallacies…and I see a lot of to disregard out there in Internetsland.

Do a search for logical fallacies and you can find long lists of them, some that conflict and others that are difficult to tell apart. Many have Latin names, so if you memorize a few and can call people out on them, you can sound really smart—if your audience understands what you’re saying and cares. (Not everyone will be impressed if you leap up at your favorite watering hole and shout, "That's a post hoc, ergo propter hoc argument if I ever heard one!")

One reason they’re called logical fallacies is because they appear on the surface to be reasonable arguments. Sometimes it's hard to determine why an argument doesn't make sense, because these little obfuscators take crazy turns and circle around to catch you from behind. It’s only when you examine them critically that they turn into the lies and smokescreens they really are. Knowing and naming some of these fallacious moves can make you feel less crazy when you're trying to communicate with someone who uses them.

Here are my top three logical fallacies that are guaranteed to put a halt to any reasonable attempt at communication and turn it into a brawl between the ignorant, should you decide to stay in such a low form of debate.

1.  Ad hominem means an argument that is “to the man.” In other words, it’s an attack on a person, not on ideas. I call this one the bar fight of the fallacies. It’s probably the easiest to spot and yet the most commonly seen diversion from an authentic argument. It’s also, I think, the most despicable. If you can’t do better than the ad hominem, just shut the fuck up. You don’t have a dog in this fight. Here’s an example:

Jimmy says, “Green Bay scored more touchdowns this season than any other team, and their defense held every team under 48 points.  They’re a shoe-in to win the playoffs.” (I made up those stats.) Bill, a Steelers fan, replies from the other end of the bar, “Jimmy, you’re a fucking idiot. Green Bay’s got nothing but a bunch of pussies on their team this year.”

So Jimmy made an attempt at communication, but Bill changed the topic on him. Jimmy now has a number of choices if he’s going to continue the discussion by responding to what Bill said: he can defend his own intelligence or he can defend the masculinity of the Green Bay Packers; he can just ignore Bill or he can break a pool cue over Bill’s head or he can just go take a piss and hope Bill has passed out when he gets back to his stool. None of those options have anything to do with what he was talking about, but if Bill has successfully diverted the conversation, then Jimmy can forget about having a real conversation about who might win the play-offs and why. One of the reasons I hate this logical fallacy most is because it’s such a chickenshit move.

Anybody can call names**, and if you really just want to end the conversation, or even the relationship, do that. What’s harder is to enter into an authentic dialog with someone who says something that feels threatening to you, or even someone who just doesn’t seem to agree with you, and attempt to learn something from his or her point of view, find the common ground. And maybe at the same time learn something about yourself and your own opinions and beliefs by the very act of having to explain and support them. It’s so hard to be a grownup sometimes, isn’t it?

2. The either/or argument fallacy sounds pretty obvious and it is. But it’s still one of the most common mistakes people make, and it’s one that can close off a lot of perfectly good choices. Adults use this one on kids a lot, and then those kids grow up to be rigid adults who can’t come up with creative ideas for solving problems. This one says you can either have chocolate cake or ice cream for dessert. It doesn’t leave room for eating a small amount of each. Or going somewhere else for dessert. Or making something else from scratch. Or not eating dessert at all. It’s the one that says you can choose the red shirt or the blue shirt….and, no, boys don’t wear pink so that’s not an option. Kids have to go to school or they can’t get into college. The possibilities for narrow choices are endless.

When my daughter was little she hated cooked peas so much they made her gag. She would eat them frozen though. So when I made peas for dinner, I poured some frozen peas on her plate and the rest of us ate cooked. We were visiting my mom during this phase, and I had cooked dinner for all of us. As we sat down to eat, I pulled the bag of peas out of the freezer and poured some on my daughter’s plate.

“Why are you doing that?” my mom asked. She rarely challenges my parenting decisions, but this one raised her hackles.
“She doesn’t like them cooked,” I said.
“Well! She needs to eat them cooked the way the rest of us eat them,” she said, looking at the frozen peas with disgust. “Peas are supposed to be cooked.”
“Why?” I asked.
Silence. She stared at me and narrowed her eyes. “Because that’s how we eat them.”
I said, “She won’t eat them at all if they’re cooked. She doesn’t like them cooked. What’s wrong with frozen? It doesn’t cause more work for me and I don’t have to fight with her.” I sat down to eat.
Long silence. “Oh. I never would have thought to do it that way. I guess it really doesn’t matter, does it?” She laughed at herself and sat down. (I will vouch for her and agree that she never would have let one of us eat frozen peas. We ate what was put in front of us and liked it. Period.)

The temperature of peas really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we are rarely limited to only two choices: cooked peas or no peas. But there are a couple of reasons person A would throw this one into a discussion with person B. One is to limit the negotiation to only the choice person A wants and something nobody really wants. Another is to create the impression that a workable solution to a problem can’t be found. No, we can’t go ahead with the project because we only have these two choices and neither of them will work. That shuts down the discussion, doesn’t it? And a third is because person A learned, probably as a child, to only see the either/or in a situation.

I find this one particularly annoying because I just don’t live in those black and white areas of life. I live almost entirely in the gray. So if somebody says to me, “it has to be this way or that way,” I want to know what’s in between. Especially in the relationship area, where this kind of fallacy tends to crop up so easily. I will say again, just like with the ad hominem, that I think many people make these fallacies because they’re afraid to enter into an authentic negotiation; they have a mindset where if they move off their position, they chance losing something. And they really might lose one of those polarized choices; but they might also gain a choice that’s better.

Two choices are easy, though, comfortable. Finding common ground in the gray area….it gets kind of foggy sometimes. It can take a while to find each other in there, muddling around with the possibilities. I find that holding hands can really help in that case, if both parties are really willing to be in that place and find each other there.

So beware if anybody tells you there are only two, polar-opposite choices. It’s probably not true (because it’s a fallacy, duh), and something in between might work better for everybody. It sounds so simple when I say it, doesn’t it?

3. This final one is a little more complex, but it’s so very common and tricky and frustrating: the straw man. The straw man can make you feel like you’re crazy, like you’re saying one thing and something entirely different must be coming out of your mouth, something distorted or exaggerated or not even part of your real argument, because the person you’re trying to communicate with seems bent on arguing against something you didn’t even really say, much less intend to say. He will set up a fake argument (straw man) that he represents as your argument and then knock that argument down…even though you didn’t make that pitch. Which means you can’t continue with your own cogent, well supported argument because suddenly you’re in the position of defending yourself against something you didn’t even say. Yep, you’re in the logical fallacy Twilight Zone.

Back in the day when homeschooling was rare, some of us spent too much time on the infant internet defending our choice to highly critical public school teachers and parents when all we really wanted to do was find support from like-minded people who were interested in authentic dialog about our families’ lifestyle choices. Here’s how a message board conversation about problems in the schools might go:

Me: We started homeschooling because my son was being bullied in school—often by his teacher or the lunch lady (yes, there’s a story)—but mostly because he learned more and better at home. There are real problems in the schools with crowded classrooms, overworked teachers, boring or ineffective curricula, and even violence among students. Textbooks are often outdated and teachers spend more time on crowd control than on teaching. And don’t get me started on state-mandated testing! The system didn’t work for us and I don’t think it works for a lot of kids.
Detractor: You homeschoolers just want to isolate your kids. You’re all crazy Christians and you don’t want your kids to be around normal kids. All kids need to be socialized.
Me: No, I don’t isolate my kids. And I don’t know how you define “socialized.” We went on a field trip to the zoo with our homeschool group today and stopped at the grocery store on the way home. Tonight my son has Boy Scouts and my daughter has a piano lesson. Tomorrow a reporter from the local paper is coming to interview us for an article. They are far from isolated.  And we aren’t Christians. I thought we were talking about the problems in the schools here.
Detractor: The problem is that you only want your kids to learn what you want them to learn. Kids should learn about evolution, and btw there’s no place for prayer in the school.
Me: I didn’t say anything about school prayer. I think we agree about that. And my kids do learn about evolution and believe it. Weren’t we talking about the problems with the education system? Do you have anything to say about that?
Detractor: You’re a terrible mom. Your kids should be in school with other kids. And if there are bullies, they should learn to take their knocks like the other kids do.

I wish I could say it’s easy to just walk away from a conversation like this where communication breaks down entirely and the only option is total defensiveness. It’s even worse when more than two people are involved, taking sides, playing off each other, ganging up on both sides to further confuse the issue. Here’s what I would try to say to the Detractor:

Me: “I’m talking about very real and pervasive problems in the public school system, but you keep changing the subject. I suspect that’s because you can’t defend a position against what I’m saying and it’s very uncomfortable for you to admit I might be right. But let me be clear: You don’t think I should isolate my children. I also don’t think I should isolate my children nor do I think I or any other homeschooler should isolate children. In fact, I haven’t been isolating my children. I may not report back to a school “authority” every time I take my children out, but I do not isolate my children. We agree on that non-issue. Now can we talk about the real problems?”

Would that work? Probably not. There’s a reason why the Detractor doesn’t want to engage in the real topic. There’s a reason why he wants to derail the conversation from the more important issues, and focus on something irrelevant and possibly even false. Maybe the real issues seem overwhelming, unmanageable. Maybe he feels too much pressure from society or family members to even consider such a radical choice as homeschooling. Maybe he’s not skilled at the art of rhetoric and can’t convincingly present his views, so he relies on attack instead. Maybe he really does think I’m crazy; maybe he dislikes me so much he can’t see past his own prejudice about me. Or maybe he agrees with me, and agreeing with me feels terribly threatening. What might he have to lose if I’m right about the problems in the schools? People can have lots of reasons for setting up a straw man and then trying to knock him down.

OK, those are my top three argument fallacies, for no reason other than a top ten would have been even longer than this, and because I think they’re the most common. I could be wrong. Others such as the slippery slope, poisoning the well, circular reasoning, over simplification, or hasty generalizations are all too common as well.

Of the three, the last one is the hardest to move past if you really want to engage in honest communication. An ad hominem argument is not so hard to divert. Go on. Call me a bitch….or even a crazy bitch. I’ll probably agree, as long as you don’t call me a dumb bitch. Of course the proper response, which I learned sometime during 30 years of marriage, is, “Yes, I am and you’re the one who made me that way!”

An either/or argument can be mitigated by introducing more options or even sincerely asking why there are only two, polar-opposite choices. If the other person is open to honest communication, that often moves the discussion past rigid beliefs into the negotiation zone. If both parties want it to happen. If one party simply wants control, then it’s possible nothing can be done.

That last one…it’s hard to get past. Often the straw man shows a level of either defensiveness or disrespect or fear that’s going to torpedo any attempts at respectful, authentic communication, which is why I dislike this one so much. An ad hominem attack may seem more personal, but people throw out names without really feeling that much disdain for the other person. But someone who insists on twisting another person’s words—especially someone who is trying hard to be earnest and sincere—probably doesn’t want real communication….or a genuine relationship. It might not matter on an internet message board, but in your favorite bar or with family and friends you love, it really does matter.

Have I been guilty of all of the logical fallacies I’ve mentioned here and some others I can’t even pronounce? Hellz yeah! But I really try not to do that. I try to catch myself because that isn’t the kind of relationship I want with anyone, even someone I don’t really like. I'd much rather take on the challenge of supporting a real argument that does all of those things I listed in the third paragraph.

And that is your English lesson for today. In a few weeks, some poor, innocent freshmen at a university in the Midwest will get the same lesson…and then they’ll have to write an academic argument that doesn’t contain any of these. Who’s signing up

* Simply a dressed-up phrase that means the same as “diversion from the truth” or “sneaky lie.”
** The ad hominem can be gender specific. Women are (crazy/fat/fucking/insert your own adjective) bitches. And men are assholes. Once you’ve determined that, the argument is over, right? You’ve made your point.

1 comment:

  1. Losing arguments gracefully is an acquired skill.