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You can win your argument, but lose your point

Essay by Martha Quillen

Discourse – March 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

THE WAY I SEE IT, arguments are weird and can sometimes get downright surreal. They seldom persuade anyone and almost never resolve anything.

By argument, though, I mean only the dictionary definition, “a discussion in which disagreement is expressed, a debate.” When an argument escalates to a dispute over who threw the first punch or a decibel level calculated to drive out the neighbors, I figure that’s an assault, and thereby an entirely different topic.

Be that as it may, it was once considered rude to discuss religion or politics in polite society because such discussions generally tended toward argument. With religion and politics, plus gossip and sex, eliminated from polite discourse (the latter two prohibited for obvious reasons), conversation did tend to get a little dull, however. So Americans finally resolved that issue by discontinuing all pretense of living in a polite society. That much is clear.

What isn’t clear to me, though, is why people argue.

It strikes me that when a disagreement arises, the participants usually want to get their views across to the other side, but neither side really wants to hear the other side’s viewpoint. So for the most part, people only listen for what they can easily refute, and they seldom acknowledge any other points.

Therefore, no matter how appalling I think an insult or issue is, I usually don’t see much point in arguing about it.

But that, of course, doesn’t mean I don’t argue. On the contrary, in order to quit discussing disagreements, I guess I ‘d have to either start agreeing with everyone or go back to that old Victorian standard of suffering in silence. And I’m not so disillusioned with arguing that I’m ready for that.

Yet in essence, I do think most arguments migrate into some pretty bizarre territory. For example:

Have you ever noticed how in public arguments both sides claim most of the voters support their position — whether it be for or against a jetport, a Wal-Mart, a golf course, or a by-pass?

Or how people love to toss out numbers when they’re arguing, be it on Politically Incorrect or during a town board meeting. But if you look up those numbers later, half of the time they’re wrong?

Or how during arguments many of the points made are untrue, and thus the parties spend most of their energy refuting those untruths and in many cases never get back to their primary point of disagreement.

Or how, in the course of an argument, participants tend to get more entrenched, hostile and unwilling to compromise than they were before it started? (And that seems to be true whether it’s congress, spouses, town boards, or parents doing the arguing).

Or how, if you’re in an argument yourself, you never think of your really good, important points until after it’s over?

Or how arguments have a way of returning, over and over. Take political arguments for instance.

I remember when a friend of mine called to tell me about Roe vs. Wade. The issue of abortion had been decided once and for all, he announced.

Whereupon I expressed my disbelief. As I saw it, Clarence Darrow couldn’t resolve the issue of teaching evolution in the schools forever; and many southerners are still fighting mad because we wouldn’t let them secede back in 1861. (And they’ll probably be just as mad if we tell them, “Hey, you were right. Leave now. We’re over it.”)

Some arguments just don’t seem amenable to resolution. My friend, however, responded with a long and technical discussion of Roe vs. Wade, and won his argument — partly because he knew the nitty-gritty details of the appeal, and partly because he had a doctorate and had once been my journalism advisor.

But mostly, I suspect I lost because — for me — that argument was not quite in a league with another argument I kept falling into back then. That argument revolved around whether everything east of the Mississippi is paved. I suspect it’s a fairly common dispute for those who marry westerners and find themselves surrounded by new friends and relatives who regard all of their ideas as typical, big-city, Eastern delusions. And in retrospect, I realize that mine was a totally insupportable position.

BUT AT THE TIME I was not willing to concede. I especially remember one particularly trying auxiliary argument on that topic about whether, being from the East, I had ever seen a cow. Hey, I have seen cows, I have milked them, I have ridden horses, I grew up in a town smaller than Salida. But I have never won an argument on that subject. Within five minutes of making that point, the argument always came back to, “Now, if that isn’t a typical big-city thing to say.”

Over time, however, this argument has actually tended toward resolution — as I have finally realized that they were right all along; Easterners truly can’t tell a cow from a mule — since it is, after all, really a matter of principle.

As for the Roe vs. Wade thing, the friend was a journalism professor who had worked in Washington for several years and had doubtlessly been drawn into hundreds of awkward discussions on the abortion issue in his classes. Clearly he wanted it to be over, and he’d consequently devised a rather elegant, point-by-point argument proving that it was. Thus, I conceded quickly — after realizing that what he wanted was an audience, not a critic.

And that’s another funny thing about arguments. Often, people prefer to marshal their premises, make their points, and deliver their conclusions to those who already agree with them.

In political debates, it is fairly obvious that the candidates are addressing their arguments to the audience rather than to one another. For the most part they are merely trying to gather their followers together. And I suppose there is some logic in that — since it is far more satisfactory to deliver an address to an audience that applauds frequently. But it does seem kind of silly to spend so much time arguing with the people who agree with you.

On the other hand, an argument with someone who doesn’t agree with you can feel downright futile. If anything, arguments between parties who truly disagree seem more likely to intensify differences than to resolve them. This is especially true in domestic disputes, where the very fact of disagreement — in and of itself — is probably what the parties are upset about. This is the person who’s supposed to love you, understand you, and support you, so how can he — or she — see things so differently?

Not only are arguments strange because they generally don’t resolve anything or persuade anyone, they can also be packed with all sorts of logical fallacies. Logicians have enumerated a number of these, among them:

There’s the argument ad hominem in which an attack is made on the person who makes the argument rather than upon the argument. This is a favorite at Salida City Council meetings where it has often been maintained that anyone who doesn’t support increased expenditures is an enemy of the policemen, firemen, city employees, law and order, progress, or golfers (of course, who or what you’re an enemy of depends entirely upon what the money’s for). In a few cases, city employees have even suggested that those who want to see a more conservative budget actually want to see policemen and firemen die — which leads to the next logical fallacy, the argument ad misericordiam.)

In an argument ad misericordiam — a favorite ploy in courtrooms — instead of relying on evidence, the speaker presents an appeal to the audience’s pity.

An argument ad populum dispenses with logical reasons and appeals to popular attitudes. In an argument ad verecundiam, the spokesman relies on an endorsement by respectable people. An argument ad ignorantiam maintains that something is so because it hasn’t been proven it isn’t so. An argument ad baculum induces acceptance by means of threats.

These are, of course, just a few of the fallacies that logicians identify, but I hope they’re enough to show how someone can win an argument without presenting a single logical premise.

Over the years, I have won arguments that I should have lost, and lost arguments that I should have won. At this point, I am absolutely sure that winning an argument doesn’t mean I’m right, and that losing one doesn’t mean I’m wrong. And that’s a pretty frightening thought in a society in which debate is a principal factor in how juries decide guilt or innocence and city councils decide policy and citizens chose candidates.

Actually, though, I think most people are fairly good at identifying flaws in arguments directed at them.

WHAT THEY DON’T SEEM TOO GOOD AT is realizing that they also employ such tactics. In Science Under Siege, The Politicians’ War on Nature and Truth, author Todd Wilkinson cites numerous unfair and illogical methods opponents use to refute and suppress environmental spokesmen. He submits a list by Thomas Greene, a Washington D.C. attorney:

Tactic One: Make the dissenter the issue instead of the message.

Tactic Two: Isolate the scientific dissenter. “Here the technique is to transfer the “troublemaker” to a bureaucratic Siberia.

Tactic Three: Place the dissenter on a pedestal of cards. A common practice is to give the whistleblower an assignment but make it impossible to complete it in a timely or professional manner.

Tactic Four: Create trumped up charges against the person the agency wants to silence.

Tactic Five: If you can’t make conditions miserable enough so that the whistleblower quits, eliminate the job.

Tactic Six: If intimidation doesn’t work, prosecute them.

Tactic Seven: Substitute “democracy” for the scientific method. Employ the bureaucratic equivalent of mob rule. A group of peers who will not challenge the dysfunctional status quo and who are loyal to corrupt managers outvotes the whistleblower in management positions and thereby subdues him or her.

Tactic Eight: Don’t allow a written record of anything you say to the person you wish to intimidate.

Yet just a few pages later Wilkinson writes, “In the West private interests — loggers, miners, ranchers — erroneously view their use of federal land not as a privilege but as a right. And despite their reviling of government, they have no trouble pocketing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal resource subsidies.”

It would seem to me that Wilkinson’s tendency to vilify ranchers, loggers, and miners is a pretty clear example of Tactic One. Moreover, Ed and I used to live in a logging town, and most loggers I knew were merely hoping to keep up on their trailer rent during the off season. Identifying them with the major industries they work for is in keeping with yet another logicians’ principle, the verbal fallacy.

But perhaps most interesting, Wilkinson writes a long extended argument trying to convince people that science and nature are being abused, yet he alienates those whom he would presumably most want to reach.

So what is the point of an argument?

When it’s not meant to convert or persuade, then is its purpose primarily incendiary — a ploy to rally your troops to your side?

SOMETIMES I SUPPOSE That’s probably the case, especially in politics where arguments often seem to disintegrate into power plays and accusations. But I think, for the most part, people usually get into arguments because they want to resolve a disagreement.

— And it just seems to be another of those weird things about arguments that by the time one is over, the parties involved have probably added several new grievances to their original complaint.

So do I think we should give up on arguing?

Actually, I don’t see how we can. Arguing seems to be a human trait — a behavioral inclination for trying to tackle disagreements verbally — a natural characteristic that we’ve probably employed since the invention of speech.

Should we all learn how to argue more logically and less emotionally?

I suppose it couldn’t hurt, but I don’t think proposing such a solution is any more sensible than your average argument. Humans aren’t machines, and it would be ludicrous to expect them to be assiduously analytical.

Besides, I think Montana’s loggers and Salida’s police officers are entitled to their argument misericordiam. They’re just doing their job — putting in a sometimes difficult day’s work for an honest day’s pay. Yet they undoubtedly get a lot of flack over things they aren’t responsible for and can’t control — like forest service contracts, and rain forest devastation, police brutality in New York City, and no-knock warrant disasters in Denver.

At the same time, I think Salidans deserve a little sympathy, too. The economy is booming, Salida is growing, retail sales are up, but so are rents and water rates, and wages in our region are still lousy. A lot of people are worried about increased expenditures and unwieldy development, and they should be.

The argument misericordiam, may not be the most relevant factor in determining whether to buy new equipment or put in a new sewage plant, but the financial and emotional well-being of public employees and citizens should definitely be a consideration.

Sometimes I think we might argue less and compromise a little more if we remembered that we’re basically all in this together.

If a factory starts leaking toxic materials upstream, loggers and miners will not be exempt. If the mines in the West all shut down, but Americans keep driving bigger and bigger vehicles manufactured from materials gleaned in unregulated third world mines, it won’t save endangered species or curb global warming. If Salida continues to outspend its funds and thus suddenly has to cut back, public employees will undoubtedly feel the effects most directly (just as when our school district slid into a half-million dollars of debt, it was the teachers who had to cope with slashed budgets and minimal materials).

But on the other hand, I’m not sure empathizing with your antagonist is real good advise right now. These days, if you back too far down in an argument, your opponent is liable to appropriate your last drop of water.