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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Arguing effectively

Case closed.

In case none of you have ever noticed this, I'm a tiny bit hot-headed. I like to argue, especially about topics that I think are of relevance to my everyday life (for example: writing, grammar, religion, evolution and whether or not Han Solo shot before Greedo [he totally did]). Arguing is a fun and constructive way for me to take out my aggression on things that are worth fighting about -but when I say "arguing" and "fighting" I mean something very specific.

I regard fighting and arguing as constructive things. These are avenues to discussion, exploration of ideas, discovery, research and dialogue. An argument is not one person expostulating at length on their opinion, it is a vibrant and respectful conversation between two or more people (or someone with multiple personalities -I'm looking at you, Gollum/Smeagol). When I argue with another person, I take a very specific route. Since a lot of my arguing is done via e-mails or messages, there are certain writing tactics that play into it. These are important tactics, because when you use them effectively you can win an argument by default (what, you thought I was going to teach you to play fair? Come on).

Example: I came across an article, the subject of which was, "What's wrong with American morality today?" The article's only two points were that pornography and gay marriage are destroying the country and taking everyone with them. My mouth fell open as I read it, and I got pretty hot under the collar. While I'm not a fan of porn myself, making the argument that it's destroying the moral foundation of America based on Christian standards is an extremely weak argument at best -what is pornography? Is it just video? Wouldn't that make a whole lot of Discovery channel shows porn? What about art, music and writing? Those topics deal explicitly with sex, often with the intent to arouse. If you look at the case that establishes the laws surrounding obscenity, you can see that proving something obscene (which this writer calls porn several times) is difficult, if not impossible, especially given his lack of defined terms. (The case, by the way, is Miller v. California, [1973]).

Then there was the gay marriage issue. I am pro-gay marriage. If you're not, I'm sorry. I think your position is wrong and untenable, but in the end it basically boils down to this: if you don't want gay marriage, don't get one. Prohibiting gay marriage is against Constitutional law and a violation of the First Amendment (if that prohibition is based on religious reasons, which it often is). On religious grounds, there is no foundation at all for prohibiting gay marriage. If a church refuses to marry a couple, that's their right -the couple simply has to find a church that will marry them; but on legal grounds, forbidding gay couples from getting married is unconstitutional and therefore illegal.

Back to the arguing -I wrote the guy. I explained that his article was biased, intolerant and cited evidence that had been distorted or misinterpreted. I also told him that I felt that of all the things wrong with the country today, porn and gay marriage are way down there on the list. I received a series of more and more irrelevant, offensive and angry e-mails. What could have been a constructive argument about the respective merits of our viewpoints (which I'll get to in a moment), it turned into him calling me names and deliberately twisting anything I said without actually addressing the point I made.

His defenses were this: gays do not have any long-standing tradition of being discriminated against, and allowing gay people to get married and/or have children is "playing pretend" and therefore violates the sanctity of marriage. Porn causes rape and homosexuality.

Um, yeah. Even for people who agree with the guy on gay marriage, those are extremely weak arguments. Without getting snotty, I replied that:

1) Gay men and women have been discriminated against for centuries, both in this country and across the world. There are still areas, even in America, where being public about homosexuality is dangerous to an individual's health, well-being and livelihood. In some countries, being gay is illegal. How does that constitute a lack of discrimination?

2) So, by his logic regarding gay parents, it would be better for a gay person to marry someone of the opposite sex and, oh hey, "pretend" to be straight for their entire lives? What's the difference, other than the misery, bitterness and lies that will cause? Isn't lying a sin?

3) Since when has marriage been sacred? The Biblical definition of marriage allowed Jewish men to marry multiple women (in the Old Testament) and contained information on how much a woman could be beaten, how much children should be sold for and the ways in which women should be subservient to men. In addition, in America alone, theist couples divorce almost twice as often as atheist couples -and (transitioning to porn), the rates of illegally downloaded pornography, unplanned teen pregnancies and STDs are highest in the Bible Belt, where the "traditional marriages" this man lauded are so highly regarded.

4) Porn does not cause rape or homosexuality; that argument is fundamentally flawed from its premise. No research done on the subject has ever shown a link between those things. Porn is used to generate arousal and satisfy weird fetishes that I really don't want to write about, not to encourage people to be gay or to rape one another.

In response to those points, the guy claimed that gay men and women are "unworthy of civil rights" and claimed that I was calling him a bigot based on the fact that our opinions differed.

At that point, the correspondence totally derailed and I lost all interest in even having a discussion with him (to clarify: I did call his viewpoints bigoted, because, according to the dictionary definition they are -he is obstinately prejudiced against anyone who holds a differing viewpoint. I'm not prejudiced against him, I just don't agree with what he said; he, on the other hand, is prejudiced against those who don't follow his opinions and would like to see them stripped of their legal rights. That is textbook bigotry).

So how does this all apply to writing?

If you're not too steamed by the whole conversation I just outlined, I'll tell you: arguing effectively is vital, whether you're simply writing an opinion piece or trying to defend the Constitution from predation by fundamentalists -or writing a fictional story. Characters argue, they're people too. Check it out.

There are a few things that you need to remember when writing an argument (or even speaking).

-Stay on topic. The guy I wrote about earlier could not decide what information he wanted to twist to use in "arguing" with me. He chose to focus on trying to use confusing terminology and refusing to address the legal and moral points I offered to him. Arguing that way is a great way to troll someone, but a truly awful way to actually make a point. If your topic of discussion is, for instance, Gandhi's vegetarianism, don't start writing about the specifics of the Indian tea trade instead -it's not relevant, so why bring it into an already complex discussion?

-Don't name-call. It's not polite and it makes your argument weaker: if you have to insult someone to get a point across, your point is probably unable to stand on its own legs without the crutch of anger. Passion is vital to arguments; anger becomes a detriment if you don't check it. The guy I argued with resorted to calling me, in essence, a Commie hooker (he didn't use those exact words, but he accused me of being an amoral socialist on more than one occasion) -when I said he was bigoted, I directed it at his arguments, not him. Which leads me to my next point...

-If you need to tear something down, tear down an argument and not your opponent. If you start insulting the person you're having a conversation with, you're no longer having an argument, you're being mean. Your issue is with the points they made, not the individual (in some cases it may be personal, but go re-read the first point). Don't let an argument end a friendship or relationship because you began insulting the person instead of focusing on the issue at hand.

-Support your own arguments before tearing apart someone else's. If you don't have a strong argument to begin with, and you start ripping away at the points someone else made, you have to be able to back that up. If you can't, you just look wrong from the get-go. Come to an argument prepared: know the topic, know your opinion, know some relevant information that you can use (without twisting it or lying, because that's shameful and lame and makes you look shady).

-Be willing to listen. You cannot, cannot, cannot have a discussion with someone if you aren't hearing what they say and understanding what they mean. Don't be afraid to ask for clarification. I got into another (much friendlier) discussion with the author of an article about why evolution is bad and wrong (a whole other can of worms, that is) and I asked him to clarify what he meant by his claim of being a proponent of intelligent design. There are as many interpretations of intelligent design as there are interpretations of the Bible, if not more, and I didn't want to argue about the wrong issue. Instead of just barging ahead with my points, I took the time to read and address what he had said before I gave my own reasoning. Not only did that prevent me from addressing the wrong ideas and being redundant, it also gave me a chance to really understand what this guy was saying -and it set an intellectual, friendly tone to the entire conversation.

-Finally, and this applies to writers of fiction, break every one of those rules. An argument that begins and ends with the dismissal of one or more of the above guidelines will be much more heated and reveal a lot more about your characters. When people get angry, really angry, they let things slip. Those slips can move a story forward in awesome ways, so break rules like there's no tomorrow when you're writing a story.

Unless you're actually trying to anger your opponent in an argument, however, following those rules will (hopefully) help keep a lid on things.

And remember what I said about winning an argument by default? What if you manage to keep your head on, make your points in a reasoned and respectful manner, support your argument with solid evidence and logic...and the person you're talking to flies off the deep end anyway? You totally won.


  1. I couldn't agree with you more, here. This is a sad thing unfortunately though that most people are either unwilling to argue or unable to. To often I see people just dismiss things or wish everyone kept their ideas to themselves... and I just think that stagnates things. Yes, of course, many things we *should* keep to ourselves (also following your first rule- keep to yourself irrelevancies), but many things are worth discussing.

    I have to ask one thing, though. By my personal style and preference in learning, when presented with a new idea, I will often look to what arguments can be held up against it. This occasionally (or often) infuriates the person originally presenting to me the idea, as they feel I am either being petulant, ignorant, disrespectful, or dishonest, by changing tacks and jumping from one reasoning of criticism to the next. From my point of view, I would/will bring up counterarguments, even if I don't necessarily agree with *them*, because they seem rational or I don't personally know how to deal with them.

    The reasoning/rational behind this, for me, is that if I'm going to believe something, or repeat it, I want to be as prepared as possible to defend it or respond to the same or similar counterarguments that I'd be providing. Presumably by having this discussion-of-faults first between one who believes and one who is open (our narrator, in this case) rather than between the shaky neophyte we'd become and an openly hostile unbeliever, we can avoid both criticism and being an unintentional straw man.

    Is there sound logic, in this? Or should debate really be between two people who genuinely believe their given sides?

    Besides that, though, I must again say that I really like both your specific points and general premise.

  2. I wonder why people always assume athiests are amoral, or worse, immoral. I've never understood why it's necessary to attribute good moral ideas to 'god', aren't they just good ideas?

    I'm not sure I could be so levelheaded when arguing with a guy who is clearly a jackass. ;)

  3. Dad -I wonder the same thing. I constantly find myself coming up against the thought that atheists have no morals -I just derive my morality from a source that isn't the Bible. It doesn't mean I don't have morals. In a lot of cases, the atheists I know are firmer in their ethical stances and better able to back them up than most Christians. I get really sick of people accusing me of not having ethics because I don't subscribe to their religion; they can believe whatever they want, but the fact that I don't does not make me a bad person.

    I got heated, but I managed not to get rude. Granted, he definitely deserves a good verbal beating, I just didn't want to relinquish my moral high ground. If he writes me back again though (since I've asked him to stop contacting me), I'll give him what for.

  4. I am the sad thing that blouis mentions above. I never argue, mostly because I never know enough on the subject to back up what I'm saying. But now that I know the fundamentals of a good debate(and once I've done quite a bit of research) I wont be so quiet anymore!
    Thanks, Bailey!

  5. You're welcome! I love arguing and debating, so I thought it would be a good idea to share my method. Those techniques have been pretty successful so far, and I like to think I write about some useful things every so often.