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27


THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 27, May 1, 1997

Random and Speculative Thoughts Department:

The Strategy of Arguing

By Wendy McElroy
mac@headwaters.com

Exclusive to The Libertarian Enterprise

[Permission to reprint is hereby given as long as it is not for commercial purposes and a full citation is provided.]

         Here are a few of the many principles and techniques I have used to good advantage when arguing with those who fundamentally disagree with my position. It is in response to Louis James' unwarranted self criticism as 'not being good enough at arguing' to convince a correspondent that voluntary service must never be coerced, as Bill Clinton is suggesting for students.

Preparing to Argue

         Before engaging in an argument, you should ask yourself these three questions (at least):

         1. What do I want to accomplish by arguing?

         Too often the unacknowledged goal of arguing is to convince the other person that he is wrong and you are right. The unstated goal is 'to win'. This is a self-defeating goal because other people's reactions are not under your control.
         No matter how effective you may be, there are situations in which you will not convince the person to whom you are speaking. For example, the other person might have an unshakeable emotional investment in what seems like a purely intellectual position: you might be arguing evolution with a fundamentalist for whom agreeing with you would constitute relinquishing his religion. Or you might be at a crowded party, replete with interruptions, and with only ten minutes to construct a complicated argument. It is destructive to enter the conversation with the presumption that, if only you are good enough, you should be able to convince the other person.
         Yet, as ridiculous as it may sounds, this is a common standard by which people judge whether or not they have succeeded or failed at arguing. Did I convert someone from a Democrat to a Republican over coffee and a danish? Did I make a fundamentalist accept the theory of evolution during the elevator ride this morning?
         Using a conversion experience as a standard of success is absolutely unrealistic. Successfully contradicting factual beliefs is a relatively trivial matter, which happens constantly in conversation, but changing deep seated beliefs is rare. To realize the futility of this goal, ask yourself one question. What ten minute discussion at a party would entirely destroy any significant conviction you hold?
         Answering for myself: a single argument could never accomplish this. I don't care if the other person used unassailable statistics, impressive flow charts, quotations from God, the latest CNN poll... or naked brute force. I've arrived at my basic beliefs over a long period of time and through a complex process of reasoning. They were not adopted capriciously; they won't be abandoned in that manner either.
         BUT such a ten minute conversation can shake my confidence in a belief and cause me to read and think further about whether I am right or wrong. It can make me doubt and question, and this process could lead to a fundamental change in perspective at a later time.
         The point is: be realistic about what you can accomplish in any one intellectual encounter. And be specific about your goal. Perhaps you want to learn what the other person's position is. Perhaps you want to practice a specific technique -- e.g. the Socratic method of posing probing questions. Or perhaps you want to plant a solitary seed of doubt in the other person's mind. Don't set yourself up for failure by demanding the impossible.

         2. Do circumstances favor the achievement of your goal?

         Among the circumstances you should consider are:

                  The Environment:

Where and when will the argument be taking place? A loud crowded party, where people will be drinking? Over coffee at work, with half your co-workers listening in and phones ringing off the hook? Or on the train ride home, when the two of you have half-an-hour of uninterrupted time? Try to choose an environment that promotes success.

                  Your Level of Skill:

How much experience do you have in arguing? How much does the other person have? If he is used to giving presentations at work or belongs to Toastmasters, for example, you might be out maneuvered in the argument. Don't take this as anything other than a reflection of skill that the other person has developed through experience. Steal some of his techniques.

                  Your Level of Knowledge:

How much do you know about the subject under discussion? Are you comfortable arguing it with this person? If he lectures on genetics at the local university and you've read only one book in this area, you're probably not prepared to argue the technical aspects of genes. Use your conversation as an opportunity to practice asking questions.

                  The Psychology of the Other Person:

Is this someone from whom you are ever likely to get the acknowledgement or response you wish? Many people cannot even recognize a good argument, let alone give you visibility for having presented one. Others, who may be dazzled or confused by your presentation, may be totally unable to give interesting counter-arguments. Is arguing with this person worth your while?

         3. What constitutes a satisfactory ending to the argument?

         The ideal ending is for the other person to humbly acknowledge his error and salute your brilliance. Short of this, what would satisfy you? Do you wish this person's respect? Is the goal to have clearly stated your own position? Know when to end the argument and on what terms. Otherwise the discussion is likely to deteriorate into an exercise in futility.


A contributing editor to Liberty magazine, Wendy McElroy has published widely in feminism beginning in 1983 with Freedom, Feminism and the State (CATO) and most recently in 1995 with XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography (St. Martin's Press). Her articles have appeared in such diverse publications as National Review and Penthouse. Her 'day' job is writing and editing documentaries, some of which have been recorded by Walter Cronkite, George C. Scott and Harry Reasoner.


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