Random and Speculative Thoughts Department:
How to Argue in the Absence of Good Will
By Wendy McElroy
Exclusive to The Libertarian Enterprise
[Permission to reprint is hereby granted as long as the reprint is
not for commercial purposes and citations are fully provided.]
In many cases, when you argue with someone, there will be no
evidence of good will on their part. The other person will be rude,
insulting or simply boorish. At this point, handling yourself well
intellectually consists of standing up for yourself in the face of
The first thing to determine about an abusive discussion is
whether this is an exchange in which you wish to be involved. Should
you continue to argue and reason with a blatantly hostile person? In
general, my advice is to walk away. As Thomas Paine once said, to
argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like
administering medicine to the dead. What is the point?
On the other hand, there can be overriding reasons why you should
continue sparring with a hostile person. For example, you may be
involved in a formal debate or a confrontation during a business
conference, in which there is no option of backing away without
damage. Or, the other person may be a relative or loved one, with
whom you desperately want to communicate. Absorbing some abuse may be
a price you are willing to pay to make that person finally understand
your perspective. Another reason for continuing may be that a crowd
has gathered around the discussion and you wish to impress these
third-party onlookers. Or you might want to practice how to handle
hostility in public situations.
If you decide to engage in an argument that has little good will,
make sure you exert control over its circumstances.
Strategies for Guiding the Argument
Ascertaining the following information about the ongoing argument
will give you far greater control of its content and direction:
1. Determine what kind of argument you are getting into.
Is it a factual dispute? For example, are you arguing about
whether women are capable of being doctors and lawyers? The most
effective way to counter such an empirical claim may be with
statistics that prove the contrary. If you are arguing over a moral
point, however, statistics may be inappropriate. For example, whether
or not abortion involves the willful killing of another human being
is probably not a question that can be resolved by statistical
arguments. You will have to address the disagreement on a more
Tailor your arguments to the level of the subject under dispute.
2. Find out what would resolve the argument.
Too many arguments are endless, with no sense of either side
giving an inch on the subject under dispute. You should ask the other
person: what, in principle, would it take to convince you that I am
right? If you are arguing with someone who claims blacks are
intellectually inferior, for example, you should ask him what
evidence would convince him he was wrong. Don't let him back away
from this question: press it. Would high I.Q. scores be compelling
evidence? When you have ascertained what constitutes convincing
evidence to him. then you have isolated a productive direction in
which the conversation can proceed.
Often you find that there is nothing, in principle, which would
change his opinion. He holds this opinion as a matter of dogma, which
is not open either to evidence or to reason. The conversation has
nowhere to go. And -- after pointing this out to third-parties -- it
is probably best to end the conversation.
But...be prepared to answer the same question, because the other
person is likely to ask it. Ask yourself, what would convince me
that my position is wrong?
3. Determine who has the Burden of Proof.
It is a sound principle of logic that the burden of proof lies
with whomever is making the positive assertion, not with the person
denying or questioning it. This has been called 'The Onus Principle.'
If the other person claims 'Y is true' -- e.g. you are a murderer --
by the rules of logic you have every right to request his evidence
for this assertion. On what does he base his conclusion? In the
absence of evidence for a positive statement, you may reasonably
believe the negative.
On the other hand, a negative statement can not be directly
proven. Consider how you would prove the statement 'I am not a
murderer.' The best you could do is establish that there is
absolutely no evidence that you have killed anyone. And, in the
absence of evidence for the positive statement, it is reasonable to
believe the negative.
Equally, if you say 'I have no reason to believe Y is true', you
are not assuming a burden of proof because you are not making a
knowledge claim. All you are saying is that you are not convinced of
something. Here again, however, it is valid for the other person to
ask you: 'what would convince you?'
4. Determine what the end point of the argument should be.
This does not mean determining when you have won the argument
hands-down: that is an unrealistic goal. This does means one of two
a. knowing which point in the conversation, by your standards,
constitutes a satisfactory resolution of the disagreement. For
example, if the other person begins by claiming women are less
intelligent than men and gives enough ground to come around to
accepting that some women are more intelligent than some men...is
this a satisfactory resolution? If not, define what would be? Perhaps
your goal is to convince third-party onlookers and, when you perceive
this has occurred, you feel satisfied.
Whenever you reach the point of being satisfied, the conversation
should either end or move onto another topic.
b. knowing the point at which a satisfactory resolution is
clearly not possible. This is the point at which further discussion
would be useless, either because of ill will between the two of you
or because the argument has deteriorated into repetition. If
discussion is pointless...walk away. Don't waste your time and
The importance of knowing when to end an exchange was
dramatically illustrated to me at a party one night when I was
arguing with a woman. She had announced that a system of morality was
not possible without a fundamentalist belief in the Bible.
In my mind, I quickly reviewed possible strategies. I could have
pointed out that a long history of moral theory stretched back in
history, well before the B.C. years, and that many non-fundamentalist
religious systems exist, such as Buddhism. But I decided not to open
the worm-filled can of comparative religion.
Instead I choose a personal appeal. Having observed how happy her
homelife seemed, I brought up her two young children and her husband,
who was sitting on a couch a few feet to one side of us. I asked,
"Are you telling me that the only reason you act morally is because
you are a fundamentalist? Are you saying that, if you lost your
faith, you might go home tonight and murder your husband and two
I was trying to establish that something else -- the bonds of
humanity and mutual love, perhaps -- keeps human beings from harming
each other. After staring at her husband for a long moment, the woman
said "yes, I might." At this, I experienced a blinding insight. The
conversation was over.
5. Keep a tight leash on the topic.
Most people are not skilled at arguing and their conversation
resembles a stream-of-consciousness that wanders almost drunkenly
from issue to issue. The two of you may start out with a clear point
of disagreement, but then the other people might wander down strange
twisting path which leads nowhere. By the time an hour or two has
passed, you have no sense of where the conversation is going or where
it has been.
If you are enjoying the exchange, this is not a problem. But the
context of the argument I am presenting now is one that you are
conducting solely to convince on-lookers, or for some other purpose
than enjoyment. The point at which the argument runs wildly in all
directions is the point at which you have lost control of the
Rein in the conversation. Don't let your partner drift off the
topic. If you are discussing your company's sexual harassment
policies with a co-worker at a business meeting, don't let the
conversation deteriorate into whether there should be free doughnuts
with coffee in the morning. If the co-worker persists in introducing
an irrelevant topic, politely insist, "That's an interesting point,
but it's not what we are discussing. Why don't we hash out sexual
harassment first and then we can go back to doughnuts?" Keep
returning to the subject under discussion. If your co-worker doesn't
alter his or her wandering ways, bluntly ask "Why do you keep
changing the subject? Why aren't you willing to talk about sexual
6. Ask probing questions of the other person.
A well-timed, well-delivered question can accomplish a number of
a. It can bring the other person's confused thinking into clear
focus. This is especially valuable when you confront a person who is
muddle-headed about an issue. Ask politely, "Why do you believe that
is true? Were you an eye-witness to the event? What is the source of
your information?" If done respectfully, you can make the person
realize how ill-formed and unfounded his opinions are without
humiliating him. On-lookers will see you as being curious and
careful, rather than bitchy.
b. a perceptive question does more than refute an argument. It
can uncover the faulty premises from which the argument sprang.
Perhaps a co-worker is arguing that Mary did not merit the promotion
she received last week. Instead of presenting all the reasons Mary
did, indeed, richly deserve her promotion, you might ask, "What has
she done that makes you think that?" His answer might surprise you.
For example, he might say 'Mary got married last month, which means
she'll be getting pregnant and be unable to give enough time to her
c. A question can effectively derail an abusive arguer who is
trying to press you against the wall intellectually. Imagine that
your co-worker has angrily related an incident for which he was later
reprimanded for sexual harassment. He now glares at you and, in a
commanding voice, he demands to know what the hell it is that women
want from men?
On one level, his question is not a question at all. Or at least,
it is a rhetorical one, not meant to elicit information. Your
co-worker is merely venting his frustration on you.
Don't try to answer him directly because this will only encourage
him to badger you further. Come back with a provocative question of
your own...one that demands a response. For example: "Where would you
draw the line in sexual harassment? At rape?" Put him on the
7. Take your Time in Making Points.
Don't always jump back with an immediate reply to a statement or
question, even if you have one on the tip of your tongue. Count to
three before responding to an argument. The pause will make you
appear thoughtful and it will create anticipation for what you say.
It may also cut off any inappropriate snap reaction, which you might
have a tendency to blurt out in an unguarded moment.
8. Ask a Personal Question.
This is a last ditch strategy before you give up entirely on the
other person and walk away from the exchange. Generally speaking,
personal questions or attacks are in poor taste when you are trying
to sort through the truth and falsehood of ideas. But, in a hostile
argument, good taste and proper respect havealready been breached. If
the other person persists in sarcasm, rudeness and crude dismissal,
you are well within your rights to demand, 'why are you treating me
with such disrespect?'
But, if the conversation has deteriorated to that extent, do not
expect to salvage it.
The above suggestions are techniques for controlling an argument.
But please remember: the purpose of controlling an argument is not to
take advantage of the other person. It is to prevent him from taking
advantage of you. The goal of arguing is not to win, but to get
closer to the truth. However skilled you become at manipulating the
conversation, it is a breach of intellectual honesty to use ideas
as weapons against people. Ideas are tools. Employing them to hurt or
humiliate anyone is a poor use of truth.
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