It seems society today operates on a vicious cycle:
We have low self-esteem. We overhear an offensive comment. We are threatened. We feel the necessity to argue our position, which of course, is always right. We are either revalidated (if we make a good point) or depreciated (if our opponent happens to make a better point).
This is the vicious cycle of today. Perhaps we should focus on the root of the problem: why people feel the need to validate their own opinions. Or maybe: why there seems to be an epidemic of low self-esteem plaguing our nation. These are very good questions—ones I may consider addressing in a future post. However, I fear the insatiable desire to argue one’s point will remain a part of the human condition for the foreseeable forever.
So how to argue right and win. Isn’t this what everyone wants to know? Well, we want to argue and we want to win. But does it really matter how we argue as long as we’re crowned victor? Um, yes it does. Do the ends justify the means in debate? Uh, no.
Here’s the thing: I have left many (what should’ve been friendly) arguments/debates feeling frustrated and disrespected—sometimes even after I’ve “won.” But what is winning? When I convince someone to change their opinion? Or perhaps when I leave my opponent speechless? Or maybe when I use more snide, smart, or sarcastic comments than them? This is not winning. All participants of a debate should leave educated, enlightened, and respected. Like I mentioned earlier, I have experienced the sense of feeling both disrespected and extremely upset because my opponent argued so idiotically (I tried to use better terminology to describe the situation, but alas, I feel no other word does my sentiments justice). In a state of full disclosure, I admit that I was not exempt from this form of arguing, and often “won” my debates in such a manner. Yet, it was not satisfying. I had often degraded my friends—and for what? To make a point? To reinforce my opinion? To prove that I was intelligent? It wasn’t until I began studying policy debate that I learned how to argue right. As I participated in my first formal debates, I understood that no one appreciates or respects loudmouths who constantly shout their opinions while simultaneously degrading their opponent. In fact, this form of arguing causes debaters to lost points—it’s not even allowed in true competitions. Besides being extremely annoying, no one enjoys this form of arguer. No one feels inspired or enlightened or even inclined to change their point of view afterwards. So what’s the point?
I’ve decided to dedicate this post to arguing right. When you argue right, you’ll win. Always. When you argue right, one of three scenarios occur. 1) You decide your opponent holds a valid opinion you have never before considered. You make a decision to reevaluate your position and research the topic more thoroughly. 2) Your opponent decides you hold a valid opinion they have never before considered. They are inspired to reevaluate their position and research the topic more thoroughly. 3) You and your opponent leave on good terms—agreeing to disagree—but both educated and enthused.
Doesn’t sound like a win to you? Well, it is. The point of a debate is to educate and enlighten all who participate—not leave them feeling degraded, disrespected, or offended (although admittedly, there are certain individuals who will be offended by anything you say, no matter how respectfully you say it—I probably just offended a bunch of people by saying that. Oh well.) So let’s dive in.
The term “logic” encompasses a variety of different principles. A simple definition of logic: the art of using reasoning and correct thinking as well as correct communication to investigate truth.
Aspects of logic:
- It requires the art of reasoning
- It requires correct thinking
- It requires correct communication
- It requires an investigation into truth
Logic is absolutely vital in making a case for or against any particular issue. Having the ability to spot false logic is also a necessity.
A few typical forms of false logic:
- Fallacy of Composition: Each member of the club is excellent; therefore, the club must be excellent. Using individual aspects (each club member) to pass judgement on a whole (the entire club).
- Fallacy of Division: The club is excellent; therefore, all members of the club are excellent. Exactly the opposite of Fallacy of Composition, this form of illogic applies the characteristics of the whole (the club) to each individual aspects (each club member).
- Slippery Slope: The idea that a certain event will set off a chain reaction of subsequent events leading to an unintended consequence. If the government doesn’t ban all guns, criminals will use them to wreak havoc on America, and future generations will live in constant fear of being brutally murdered and will never venture outside. The lack of vitamin D will send our country into deep depression, and the Germans will overthrow our government.
- Hasty Generalization: Cats are cruel creatures, or dogs are friendly. This generalizes all cats as being cruel, and all dogs as being friendly. This is a common fallacy. Many people have the tendency to make hasty generalizations.
- Ad Hominem Attacks: In Latin, Ad Hominem means “attack on the man.” This is when one party focuses on the opponent as a person rather than the argument in question. For example, “Individual A would benefit from lighter gun laws as he owns three pawn shops that sell rifles.”
- Appeal to Pity: This fallacy plays on an individual’s emotions rather than logical evidence for an argument. “Officer, I was speeding because my wife is about to give birth!” The fact that your wife is on the verge of giving birth doesn’t negate the speeding law.
These are only a few forms of logical fallacies you are likely to encounter—not merely during a formal debate/argument, but also as you engage in day-to-day conversation. To be able to spot a generalization, “Women are overly sensitive!” or a slippery slope, “My family will get sick and die if government-funded health care is revoked!” or any other fallacy will allow you to respectfully point out the discrepancies in your opponent’s arguments and restate your case.
But how do you make a case?
Stephen Edelston Toulmin was a 20th century British philosopher, writer, and teacher. He devoted a lot of time to developing practical arguments. His claim to fame was the identification of the six vital parts to a rational debate: claim, data, warrant, backing, qualifications, and conditions of rebuttal. To form a strong argument guaranteed to “win” you will need to consider these six aspects when forming a case.
- Claim: The argument you are trying to prove. For example: Goldfish are unintelligent creatures.
- Data: Evidence (from a reliable source—if you want a reliable argument. Non-reliable sources lead to an additional logical fallacy: Appeal to Authority—which is citing from a non-credible witness who is unqualified in the topic under discussion). For example: Research shows that goldfish have an extremely short memory.
- Warrant: A bridge between the claim and the data. For example: Goldfish are unintelligent creatures (claim) because research shows that goldfish have an extremely short memory (data) and the length of memory is an excellent measure of intelligence (warrant).
- Backing: Hard evidence to support your reasoning (credible sources that back your claim).
- Qualifications: Exceptions to the rule. Qualifiers make your argument more difficult to disprove. A qualifier is the opposite of a generalization. For example, instead of saying “Goldfish are unintelligent creatures,” one would say, “Most (or some) goldfish are unintelligent.”
- Conditions of Rebuttal: Address any way your opponent could rebut any aspect of your argument (and no, a completely fool-proof argument does not exist. There will always be room for a rebuttal). For example, one could attack the Goldfish intelligence warrant by arguing that length of memory isn’t a measure of intelligence.
Arguing and debating right is an art and a skill which should be developed in individuals of all ages. In simpler terms, arguing right is persuasion. It can be used to convince a crowd, to respectfully share an opinion, to sell a product. The reason debate is so often viewed with skepticism is due to the fact that too many people do it completely wrong. Unfortunately, in this day and age, the “victory” often goes to the member with the quickest and shrewdest tongue—the one with the greatest supply of witty remarks and sarcasm.
But imagine if every argument included at least the first three Toulmin principles: claim, data, and warrant. You would be forced to research your topic before participating in any form of debate. And who knows? Maybe you’ll decide that proving your point on certain subjects just isn’t worth the time. Your arguments will be prioritized. You’ll choose your battles wisely. You’ll use your persuasion and influence for the greatest good. You’ll also discover that the majority of controversial topics have two valid sides to them. What’s more, as you study and educate yourself on the current issues facing our nation, you may realize that a large percentage of subjects that create division have been argued wrong all along. And maybe, just maybe, by arguing right and winning (respectfully educating all involved parties), you’ll change a false system of debate and bring truth back America.
So go argue! Fight for the truth! Research, study, understand. And remember: today will be amazing!