How to Argue
The strangest thing about the low quality of Internet argument is that effective argument isn’t really so difficult. Sure, not everyone can be Clarence Darrow, but anyone who wants to be at least competent at argument can do it. Here are a few guidelines.
I’ll start with a hint: note the qualifier in the preceding paragraph: “anyone who wants to be.” I have a feeling most people who suck at argument believe they’re actually good at it. They’re not, and in fact they’re not even arguing — they’re masturbating. Good argument is intended to persuade another. Masturbation is intended to pleasure the self. It’s the people who can’t tell the difference who mistakenly think they’re good at argument. I hope this article will improve the effectiveness of people who are interested in good argument. And I hope it will help people who until now have been masturbating to recognize what they’ve been doing, and to stop doing it in public.
Also, please note that word, “guideline,” which is not the same thing as a rule. The points I make in this essay are primarily applicable to comments in blog posts and other one-to-one exchanges. A blog post itself, which isn’t typically addressed to a single person, offers more latitude for, say, the use of ridicule or sarcasm or other techniques that, deployed against an individual, would inhibit that individual from coming around to your point of view. It’s a matter of audience, and of intent. There are plenty of other exceptions, too — but before worrying too much about what they might be, we’d do well to understand the general principles.
1. Insults and the Golden Rule. The most important guideline when it comes to argument is the golden rule. If someone were addressing your point, what tone, what overall approach would you find persuasive and want her to use? Whatever that is, do it yourself.
Let’s get a little more specific. When someone addresses you with sarcasm, or otherwise insults you, has it ever — even once — changed your mind? I doubt it. Now, it’s possible you’re uniquely impervious to having your mind changed via insult, while, for everyone else, insults happen to be an excellent means of persuasion. But it seems more likely that your personal experience is representative of the way people work generally, and if you extrapolate just a bit, or if you take a moment to consider whether your own insults have ever persuaded someone else, you should be able to realize that an insult is a useless tool of persuasion. In fact, it’s been my experience and observation that insults not only fail to persuade, but have the opposite effect, because they engage the recipient’s ego and consequently cause him to cling more tightly to his position.
Let’s use a non-Internet example for a moment. Ever see an irate driver flip someone off and yell, “Hey buddy, learn to drive!” or the like? Probably. Now, do you think the recipient of the advice has ever reflected, “You know, that fellow does have a point. What I did was careless and I should probably enroll in a remedial driver education course.” So what was the irate driver hoping to accomplish with his insult? If your answer is, “He just wanted to insult the other guy!”, you might be right, and if the irate driver was clear about his real goal, at least he’s using well-tailored means (though, I would argue, his behavior is still pathetic and childish). But if the irate driver really believes he’s doing something persuasive, he’s obviously deluded.
Because even the most elementary common sense demonstrates the futility and counterproductivity of insults as tools of persuasion, we have to ask why so many people choose to employ them. I see two possibilities: (i) the people who are doing so are shockingly stupid; (ii) the people who are doing so aren’t actually interested in persuasion, but instead insult others primarily to pleasure themselves. Neither of these possibilities is attractive.
Here are a few common insults I see on the Internet. I think the people using them aren’t aware these comments are insulting. Their ignorance is likely the result of: (i) a failure of golden rule imagination (unless they feel respected when people offer them equivalent advice); or (ii) such blind certainty that they’re right that on some level they honestly expect the other person to respond, “Oh, good point! I really was being stupid there, and I’m grateful to you for pointing it out.”
Wake up and smell the coffee.
Stop drinking the cool-aid.
Um… (Seems innocent enough, right? But does it pass the golden rule test? No — because the subtext is, “You just said something so stupid that I’m hesitant to bring this up in response, but…”.)
And then there’s sarcasm. I’ll tell you what I hate about sarcasm. First, it’s self-indulgent. Its intent is to make the user feel superior. Second, it’s unproductive. Its effect is to irritate the recipient, after which things tend to get less substantive and more personal (see the section below on Your Ego is Your Enemy). Finally, it’s chickenshit. The people who employ it from the safety of their keyboards wouldn’t dream of doing it in circumstances where there could be consequences.
Also see the section below on Sham Arguments, which, in addition to their other shortcomings, are almost always insulting.
A hint: adjectives and adverbs, while not necessarily automatically insulting, are usually not your friends in argument because they tend to make you sound bombastic while adding nothing of substance. Include them in the first draft, and then take another look to see if your argument will be stronger and more dispassionate, and therefore more persuasive to your listener, without them.
2. No One Cares About Your Opinion. It might be painful to admit it, but no one cares about your opinion (or mine, for that matter). It would be awesome to be so impressive that we could sway people to our way of thinking just by declaiming our thoughts, but probably most of us lack such gravitas. Luckily, there’s something even better: evidence, logic, and argument. Think about it: when was the last time someone persuaded you of the rightness of his opinion just by declaring what it was? Probably it was the same time someone changed your mind with an insult, right? And like insults, naked declarations of opinion, because they can’t persuade, are masturbatory. And masturbation, again, is not a very polite thing to do on a blog.
If you think about it, believing a statement of your opinion alone to be persuasive is fundamentally narcissistic. Now, maybe a hotshot celebrity with a million Twitter followers can sway some people to her opinion just by uttering it. Doing so is still narcissistic because it depends for its effect on who is talking rather than on what is being said, but at least the celebrity has a basis for her narcissistic belief. For those of us more ordinary types, though, remember — the sin of narcissism is worse when committed by someone lacking even the underlying beauty to justify it.
The most egregious example of this kind of useless narcissism I can remember was from one of those old American Express ads, where Annie Leibowitz would photograph a celebrity and the facing page would do a quick Q&A. There was one with writer/director M. Night Shyamalan. The question was, “Favorite movie?” Shyamalan’s response: “The Godfather. Period. End of conversation.” I remember thinking, “End of conversation? That should be the beginning of conversation! Who cares what movie you like? I want to know why you like it!” Unfortunately, Shyamalan thought what he liked was more significant than why he liked it. This outlook is childish and self-indulgent, of course, but but more importantly for our purposes, it’s useless. Disagree? Then ask yourself this: have you ever found yourself persuaded by a bumper sticker?
Here’s a simple exercise. Try to get in the habit of using the word “because” after a statement of an opinion. “I like The Godfather because….”. “I think M. Night Shyamalan is a good/bad writer and director because…”. Using “because” will naturally encourage you to provide evidence and reasoning, the objective underpinnings that turn subjective opinions into effective tools of persuasion. And not incidentally, the offering of evidence is an inherently modest, respectful, and therefore persuasive tactic. Someone who tries to persuade you with no more than an opinion is necessarily implying that he’s tremendously important and you’re in thrall to his awesomeness. Conversely, someone who takes the time and trouble to offer you evidence and reasoning is implying that you are a logical being worth the effort of attempting to persuade.
To put it another way: First comes your opinion. Next comes the word “because.” After the “because” is your evidence — the facts on which your opinion is based. In writing, an opinion is often known as a topic sentence. Here’s a simple example — note how useless it would be without the evidence that follows it.
Where can you find evidence? Well, if you don’t have any to begin with, you might usefully ask yourself what your opinion is based on and why you hold it. Regardless, in the age of Google and Wikipedia, there’s just no reasonable excuse for failing to minimally research your position. The only explanations are laziness, an onanistic objective, and narcissism, none of which I’d want to cop to if I could just do the research instead.
3. Your Ego Is Your Enemy. One of the primary causes of ineffective argument is the emotional attachment people develop to their opinions. A Martian might expect that humans would only develop opinions in the presence of supporting facts, and that the strength of opinions would correlate with the strength of supporting facts. But we all know the Martian would be wrong. Most people develop opinions for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with facts: I’m a Republican, I’m a Democrat, I live in a certain city, I was born of a certain race or religion, my parents taught me this, etc. And once we’ve taken a position, we don’t want to modify it, lest we implicitly acknowledge that the opinion had no sound basis in the first place. If your opinion is based on facts, new facts can easily change your opinion. If your opinion is based on other than facts, you’ll be motivated to maintain that opinion no matter what the facts.
So how do you stay out of ego trouble? First, by not getting into it. If you have an opinion, ask yourself why you have that opinion. What’s it based on? And whatever factors it might be based on, how much do you really know about them? In intelligence, you’re taught to distinguish between what you know, what you don’t know, and what you think you know. Do this as honestly as you can with your opinions and the evidence behind them.
Second, and at least as important: don’t get personally engaged. If you insult someone (see the section above on Insults and The Golden Rule), either in the first instance or in response, your ego is engaged. Once your ego is engaged, your primary motivation shifts from persuasion to ego protection. This is a waste of time. If you hadn’t put your ego at risk in the first place, you wouldn’t be forced to protect it now.
But how can you you resist the temptation to respond to an insult in kind? Well, you can find strength in the knowledge that people who ignore Internet insults and respond substantively appear mature, self-confident, and sane, and are therefore almost always more persuasive to people following the conversation, for one. You can find a way to take pride in following a personal code, for another. Third, you can recognize the danger of the Fundamental Misattribution Error, and know that the person who just insulted you thinks he’s a great guy, and that therefore, if you insult him back, he won’t find it justified the way you do. Finally, you can ponder what Ghandi meant when he said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
Here’s a little tactical trick. When someone insults you, try to rephrase in your mind what the person would have said if he’d been trying to be polite, and respond to that instead.
4. Good Argument is Good Conversation. A few years ago, I read a terrific Russell Baker review of a book called, “Conversation: A History of a Declining Art,” by Stephen Miller, in the New York Review of Books. I’ll quote three paragraphs from the review here because they’re applicable to effective argument, too.
Both participants listen attentively to each other; neither tries to promote himself by pleasing the other; both are obviously enjoying an intellectual workout; neither spoils the evening’s peaceable air by making a speech or letting disagreement flare into anger; they do not make tedious attempts to be witty. They observe classic conversational etiquette with a self-discipline that would have pleased Michel de Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, or any of a dozen other old masters of good talk whom Miller cites as authorities.
This etiquette, Miller says, is essential if conversation is to rise to the level of — well, “good conversation.” The etiquette is hard on hotheads, egomaniacs, windbags, clowns, politicians, and zealots. The good conversationalist must never go purple with rage, like people on talk radio; never tell a long-winded story, like Joseph Conrad; and never boast that his views enjoy divine approval, like a former neighbor of mine whose car bumper declared, “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It.”
Underlying this code of good manners is the assumption that good conversation is not a lecture, a performance, a diatribe, a sermon, a negotiation, a cross-examination, a confession, a challenge, a display of learning, an oral history, or a proclamation of personal opinion.
Regarding “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It,” see the section above on No One Cares About Your Opinion — specifically, the part about narcissism.
5. False Binaries. A false binary is a false either/or. Examples would be, “Either we wage war on Islam or we’re all be forced to convert!” “We have to fight communism in Vietnam or we’ll be fighting it here at home!” “We have to keep drugs illegal or America will become a nation of addicts!” And my personal favorite: “What are we supposed to do if we can’t torture prisoners for information, feed them tea and crumpets?”
False binaries are the result either of sloppy thinking or of deliberate attempts to mislead, neither of which is well calculated to persuade. They’re usually caused by a conflation of means and ends. If you look at war as a tool, for example, you’ll understand it’s just one way (and usually not a very good one) for dealing with an enemy, or of otherwise getting what you want. If you conceive of war as the end and not the means, on the other hand, you’ll have a hard time seeing other ways of achieving whatever it is you tell yourself you’re after. Similarly, if you feel drug prohibition is itself the goal, you won’t be able to see past it. If you realize instead that the goal is to keep usage and addiction rates at levels society can manage (as we do for alcohol), possibilities other than prohibition will become apparent.
Watch out for the weasel words in false binaries, too. “We have to fight militant Islam,” for example. Okay, but… is there really no way to fight an ideology other than with, say, invasions and drone strikes?
As for the torture vs tea and crumpets argument, my usual response is, “Really? Those are the only two ways of acquiring information from a prisoner that you can imagine?” Because so many other possibilities are obvious — what do police do? What did World War II interrogators do? — it’s pretty clear that people who try to narrow things down to torture on the one hand, tea and crumpets on the other are more interested in torture than they are in information.
False binaries are worth avoiding because they make you look stupid, and, aside from the indignity inherent in looking stupid, stupidity isn’t usually persuasive (though I admit that in politics there are lots of exceptions). If someone offers you a false binary, the best counter is to politely expose how silly it is, chiefly by pointing out how many alternatives are in fact available.
Above all, remember: you’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists.
6. Sham Arguments. A sham argument, in the guise of straw men, platitudes, cliches, and what a website I like calls glittering generalities, is a truism trotted out in arguments’ clothing. Here are a few examples, all taken from the real live Internet:
“The president can’t just wave a magic wand and fix everything.”
“America has real enemies.”
“In politics, sometimes you have to compromise.”
“Freedom isn’t free.”
“You can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs.”
“It’s as simple as that.” (I actually like this one. I always read it as “I’m as simple as that.”)
Anytime you argue a truism, your implication is insulting because you’re suggesting the other person can’t see something blindingly obvious and requires some sort of remedial lesson from you. Ask yourself, why are you making such axiomatic observations? Because you really believe the other person doesn’t know these things or that he would argue the opposite? Or because you’re trying to insult the other person by implying that he doesn’t realize something any child would understand?
The key to recognizing a sham argument is knowing no one would ever take the contrary position. Look at the examples above and restate them as their opposites. No one would ever take such positions. “The president has a magic wand.” “America has no real enemies.” In politics, you never have to compromise. “Freedom is free.” Etc. You might as wall try to persuade someone that “sometimes it’s sunny, sometimes there are clouds.” The person’s already persuaded — so what’s your point? Making such obvious, unimpeachable points just makes you sound stupid and/or condescending. Indulging stupidity and condescension never feels respectful, and what’s perceived as disrespectful almost always fails to persuade.
7. Cliches. I mentioned cliches above, but decided to give the topic its own heading here because although cliches are a species of sham argument, they’re pernicious too because of how effectively they block actual thought. Sunlight is the best disinfectant… better tried by twelve than carried by six (which is also a false binary, BTW)… If you argue with cliches, you’ll come across as a thoughtless, unoriginal automaton. I could be wrong about this, but I’ve never seen anyone persuaded by a thoughtless, unoriginal automaton, so why would you want to act like one?
8. Digressions. If you want to be listened to, it’s best to keep your comments on point. Using a post about Obama’s broken habeas corpus promises as a jumping-off point for your thoughts on why you don’t like Obama’s environmental policies is apt to be unproductive (see the Russell Baker excerpt in the section above on Good Conversation). Someone else’s post isn’t just a grand excuse for you to offer up whatever else happens to be on your mind, and overriding the topic at hand with your own priorities isn’t spam, exactly, but it has a similar flavor.
Look at it this way (and this is advice is applicable more generally, too). In the real world, would you walk up to several people you see engaged in conversation, listen for a moment, learn that they’re talking about baseball, and join in by offering your thoughts on the benefits of the Paleo Diet? Of course not, because you know this would be boorish and would encourage polite society to shun you (I hope you know this). Well, look, if it’s rude in the real world, chances are it’s rude on the Internet, too.
If someone asks you a question, answer it. If someone makes a point, respond to it. A great way to keep yourself honest is to quote the other person’s exact words. I know how obvious this sounds, but so many of the comments in blog comment sections are contrary to this elementary advice. Ignoring the other person’s attempts to engage you makes you come across as wormlike and gelatinous, leads to unproductive exchanges, and is never persuasive.
9. Separate the Subjective from the Objective. Remember the exchange in the movie version of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, where Todd Louiso says, “Well, I like the new Belle & Sebastion album,” Jack Black cries out, “Bullshit!”, and John Cusack then says, “How can it be bullshit to express a preference?”
Exactly. “I like the new Belle & Sebastian” is subjective — that is, not subject to persuasion or proof. It’s neither right nor wrong and no one will be able to persuade the speaker that it isn’t so. Similarly, “I love America!” is subjective. “America is the best country!”, on the other hand, is an objective statement because it’s (at least theoretically) amenable to persuasion and proof. Presumably there is some basket of criteria for what makes a country good, and the country that has the most such criteria could be declared the best (though is there a sillier argument than an argument about America’s bestness?). For more on this critical difference, here’s an exchange on my Facebook page about whether America is the best country to live in. It’s also a good example of what happens when ego, in this case, nationalism, is driving an argument and has pushed reason into the back seat.
10. My Tenth Point. Why do I feel the need for ten entries in this post? I blame George Carlin.
To sum up: if you agree that good argument should persuade, you’ll argue with intent to persuade. “Intent to persuade” (sounds almost like a legal definition, doesn’t it?) means: (i) providing not just an opinion, but evidence in support of the opinion; (ii) attempting to separate subjective and objective factors; (iii) a respectful tone; and (iv) generally speaking, an approach that you would find persuasive if someone else were using it and you disagreed with that person’s underlying point.
I think this list is a good start, but I’m sure it’s incomplete. Please feel free to add your own thoughts on how to argue effectively, and then help make this advice go viral through Facebook, Twitter, your own blog, and whatever other means are available to you. Together we can improve Internet discourse, and who knows where that might lead? Thanks.