Random and Speculative Thoughts Department:
The Strategy of Arguing
By Wendy McElroy
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
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:
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