It Takes Two to Argue

Check your pulse! One of the first things my father-in-law explained to me about working in construction was- in an emergency, don’t do anything before stopping to check your own pulse. The principle here, of taking one second for reflection before doing something that could possibly kill you (or someone else) applies in all sorts of situations.

In the Heat of the Moment

People Arguing ImageHave you ever thought that our various communities handle some controversies like a collection of feisty eight-year-olds? We have an alarming inability to effectively argue… about anything! The brief but important question we should all ask ourselves before engaging others on weighty matters is, “What if I checked my pulse before launching this attack? What if we took an extra four seconds to think before we ‘stick it’ to that moron on Facebook?” Here are three things we must remember to stop and ask ourselves:

  1. Why am I engaging this person? Do I want to inform this person or persuade them to understand and accept my position? Am I seeking to persuade the audience of the discussion? Or do I wish simply to show everyone how goofy this person is? Deciding this in advance will direct how we argue. Our ‘why’ gives shape to our ‘how’.
  2. Are we arguing to discover and embrace truth? In the classical Socratic tradition, the interlocutors (in their very roundabout way) were aiming to discover the truth through a process of presentation, critique, refinement, etc. With Socratic humility we could seek to put forth our ideas with a view to actually seeing how well they hold up in an argument. We may actually learn something we didn’t know!
  3. Am I arguing in the spirit of Romans 12:18? Paul encouraged the church at Rome: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” I’m aware that there are large pockets of our culture that find it offensive to disagree with someone. But notice the qualifiers that Paul provides: “if possible”, and “so far as it depends on you”. Christians have a sacred responsibility to speak the truth and to do so with an earnest desire to maintain peace if at all possible. Even a precursory reading of Acts will show men and women committed to the bold exclamation of (carefully argued) truth in the spirit of meekness.

Walking before we run 

I want to get to discussing the weightiest matters that face us in our current situation. Trust me. I really do. Before we go there, however, we would do well to check ourselves and examine what it is exactly that we want to accomplish. I’ve heard many times that ‘those people’ who defend [enter controversial item here] will absolutely not listen. This may be the case. I’ve made this complaint myself. In my own case, at least, I wonder if this statement is used to cover up a lack of effort at arguing well, presenting my opposition fairly, and understanding them clearly. How often do I remember that “a soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1)? Let’s form a culture of men and women who reason clearly, cogently, and winsomely. What are your thoughts on how to interact with those with whom you have significant differences? Do you think that, in the end, the manner in which we argue will really matter? Comments are welcome!

2 thoughts on “It Takes Two to Argue

  1. It’s true that entering into conversation is sometimes difficult. We are polarized in ways that are disorienting to those of us who remember a time before 500 channels and the Internet. Although, oddly, it is redolent of the time before, say, World War II, when all media outlets were partisan. The idea of objectivity and of being non- or trans-partisan is one of recent vintage, a relative historical anomaly, and one of many historical norms to which we may be returning, for better or worse.

    There is a tendency, again especially common now, to see hyper-partisanship and insularity in a time when greater interaction is possible than ever before (I explore this here, see note at the end

    You are right in that engagement requires a sort of humility that is less common in this era when we all think we are experts because we visited a few sites that confirm our biases. The problem is that this hardens the lines sometimes, so that there are a large number of “those people” who will not listen. In the same way that any presidential election is a competition for about 8 percent of the electorate, any argument that looks to change minds has to find a magic median.

    Another problem is that there ARE bright lines. Consider the conversation that introduced us, on abortion. We can dicker over when abortion should be allowed but THAT it should be allowed is, in my mind, non-negotiable. Any conversation that starts with making abortion illegal is a non-starter unless you can make a secular, scientific case for doing so. There are other issues where this would be the case. How do we have meaningful conversations when compromise may not be possible.

    Those are my initial thoughts, and I hope they make sense. I’m not really composing, more spitballing.


  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Michael. I couldn’t agree more about the partisanship and insularity that our various communities evince. This reality is an especially tough pill to swallow for my generation. Getting our feet wet in the world of ideas is particularly difficult when entire discussions are already streamlined like this. C’est la vie. Also, just to be clear, I want to make sure to avoid giving the impression that I idealize an ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ starting point. If any good came out of the Nazareth of post-modernism, I would posit that the deconstruction of this sort of epistemological starting point would be it.
    I’ll definitely need to write a post on the issue of abortion. As our short exchange evidenced, it does require a significant amount of initial groundwork. In many ways, it does exemplify the sort of polarity we’re discussing. As far as the bright lines go for that particular issue, they interestingly cross all sorts of ideological boundaries. The late Christopher Hitchens was a personal favorite for me in this regard. Perhaps an introductory post or so on how we find common ground with regard to structuring the arguments. Your final question about meaningful conversation in the context of such a disparity in agreement resonates the most with me. In fact, this blog was born in the hopes of playing a part in wrestling with this as a serious cultural difficulty. Once again, I appreciate the spirit in which your comments were offered, Michael. I look forward to more spitballing. We both know it’s more fun.


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