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Friday, November 12, 2010

To argue or not to argue

That is the question.  Especially online.  A lot of people seem to think that trading comments in a blog combox with a user named "packersdude" who presents himself in the guise of a hunk of swiss cheese gives them a license to ignore normal rules of polite conversation.   Until we develop some kind of online equivalent to body language and social space, people will say things online that they would probably not say to someone's face.

I gained new appreciation for this after observing and being involved in a recent series of blog comment box exchanges provoked by people's differing reactions and responses to the death of Ken Pulliam, the author of  In life Dr. Pulliam had come to reject the fundamentalist Christianity he was trained in and wrote numerous posts explaining why he believed Christianity was wrong.  His sudden and unexpected death took everyone by surprise.  People began posting condolences and remembrances of Ken on his facebook page and in the comment boxes on the posts that he had scheduled for release in the days after his death. 

A furor erupted over what most took as a hostile, contemptuous comment to one of the posts.  The commenter and his critics filled most of the combox with accusations and insults.  The criticism spread to at least two other blogs on the day Ken's post appeared.  The original commenter then posted commentary about Ken and a defense of his provocative comment on his own blog, and at least one other blog run by an associate of the original commenter posted a criticism of the critics.  People, including me, continued to post comments on all these blog sites either defending or criticizing the original blogger and each other.   I even traded some emails with the original commenter.

Reflection on this set of incidents has led me to some definite conclusions about whether to argue or not online.  If your goals are to learn something, gain and give some respect for good thinking, and persuade somebody that your way of thinking is right every once in awhile, you have to think like a rhetorician.  There has been something of a revival of interest in rhetoric in academia over the last few decades.   This renewed interest dovetails with studies in human psychology that argue emotions often help us to think better.   Usually we associate emotions with poor thinking.  True enough, especially when emotions are intense. But people are people after all, not logic machines.  Our emotions and thoughts are part of a feedback loop; the influence goes both ways and can lead to  better results than if we were merely machines.

I find it ironic that in the recent disputes the evangelical Christians, who supposedly believe we are not machines, were far quicker to dismiss the arguments of critics as "emotional thinking," whereas the atheistic critics, who are supposed to believe that humans are chemically-powered machines (according to one blogger's tendentious reading of Richard Dawkins) expressed more emotional self-awareness and more accurate assessments of the emotional effects of the language used in the exchanges.  If the evangelicals were just as self-aware and accurate they did not express it very well.

At any event, if you want to persuade people you have to take account of the whole person of your audience, not just the coherence of your arguments and the clarity and accuracy of your language.  With that in mind, here are some of my conclusions:

To argue:
  • When you and your opponent's specified intention is to arrive at the best answer to the presenting issue. One or both of you may think you already have the best answer.  That's fine.  If you believe you have already considered all the relevant evidence and arguments, or that some evidence or arguments are so overwhelmingly persuasive to you that nothing new could change your mind, then you have the opportunity to persuade someone else.   If your enemy takes that view, there is still room for useful discussion.
    • She may be willing to consider counter-arguments to some of her supporting points. Consider this example:  If an opponent is totally committed to Biblical inerrancy because giving that up undermines her faith in God, she may still be willing to consider arguments against solutions to a particular problem in the Bible.  You point out flaws in all the arguments she uses to resolve an apparent contradiction in the Bible.  She may say, "You're right.  None of my solutions work.  We will just have to wait for further light."  You may think your opponent is engaging in wishful thinking, but she did give your arguments serious consideration and you won a limited victory.  Many people have abandoned a core belief system in favor of something else after a period of repeated small defeats. 
    • She may persuade you too.  Just because a person is highly resistant to criticism doesn't mean she is wrong.
  • When something in another person's arguments really bothers you and you think the reason it bothers you is that there is something wrong with her argument or her motives in advancing the argument.  You may be wrong.  Arguing is a good way to find out.
Not to argue:
  • When you or your opponent will not admit problems in arguments even when nearly everyone else sees them and can describe them in nearly identical terms.   In this case, something else is in the way.  Better to break off the argument and deal with the interference or wait for another opportunity.
  • When you present a more elaborated and better supported version of a basically valid argument others have previously made to your opponent, and your opponent rejects your argument in virtually the same terms as she rejected the previous versions.  Clearly something else is in the way.  
  • When you or your opponent in the process of pointing out the other's errors makes equally or more egregious errors.   
    • One or both of you has gotten in over her head and need to learn more about the issue under discussion, or
    • The discussion has gotten too heated.  Break it off and give the parties a chance to gather their thoughts.
  • When you and your opponent are fighting to get in the last word, and that last word is intended to put the other "in his place."  
    • This is one of the most common tendencies in blog combox arguments.  Tit for tat is a highly successful negotiation strategy, but only if the parties are willing to engage in proactive gestures of good will at critical junctures.  Otherwise,  the discussion will inevitably become an insult arms race.  The main issue gets lost and people who came into the argument hostile leave with greater hostility. 
    • When you feel the need to criticize someone's personal behavior, you need to be able to stand in her shoes and hear your comments from her perspective.  You may not be able to do this well at all, but you should still try.  If you want the person to act differently (and if you don't, why are you criticizing in the first place?), you have to consider what is likely motivate her to change.  
    • You can awaken guilt and shame in another person and at the same time increase her self-respect.  This tends to increase the odds that she will regard your criticism as a friendly act and be motivated to change.  On the other hand, you can awaken shame in another person and at the same time humiliate her.   This tends to increase the odds that she will regard your criticism as a hostile act and strike back against you or herself.
  • When, despite your best efforts to moderate the tone of an argument and keep the main point in focus, your opponent keeps running the discussion off the rails or becomes increasingly hostile.  Something else is in the way again.  Let it go.
  • When you have been beaten.  If your opponent demolishes one of your arguments and you realize it, admit your error and move on.  If she demolishes all your arguments, maybe it's time to rethink your whole position. 
Since hardly anybody (nobody?) reads this blog, I post this mostly as a public witness against myself should I violate these guidelines in the future.


Brabble Frabbitz said...

Good points.

Dean Dough said...

Thanks for the encouragement!