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Saturday, December 15, 2012

The art of arguing


I was asked yesterday if I was going to post something on my blog about the tragedy in Connecticut. I said the last thing the situation needs is another half-baked opinion. I stand by that. A thirty second tour of the internet and media outlets will give you every side of every argument, no matter how sensible or crazy. This post isn’t about Connecticut, but it is inspired by it. In the wake of the tragedy, the arguments for and against gun control have already begun. I want to talk about the way those arguments are going to proceed.

What’s the ultimate point of arguing? Some people get off on the conflict; they just enjoy a good row. Others like the intellectual challenge of a debate. At its core, however, an argument exists because one side wants to prove that they are right.

So how do you do that? The easiest way is to prove that the other side is wrong. By default, if the other guy is wrong, then you must be right (or at least “more right,” which amounts to the same thing in the end). To paraphrase the vanilla vs. chocolate ice cream argument from the (phenomenal) movie Thank You For Smoking, I don’t have to prove that vanilla is the best flavour, I just have to show that chocolate isn’t.

So how do you do that? Coherent, reasoned, well-researched, factual points to prove the validity of your point of view, of course. That’s if you like working AND you also have facts and reality on your side. If you’re lazy and/or reality might not be 100% in your favour, this path to victory isn’t for you. It’s important to realize that in any moral or ethical debate, reality is almost NEVER 100% on anyone’s side, so relying on so-called “facts” to win an argument, even if you put in all the work in the world, is a risky proposition. Since you theoretically care about your argument and really want to win, you need to hedge your bets. And the more you care, the more important the issue is perceived to be, the more hedging you’ll feel is justified.

So how do you do that? Well, remember, you don’t have to be right if the other guy is wrong. Personal attacks work wonders here. If you can prove the guy espousing the ridiculous doctrine “sky is blue” is a Holocaust-denying pedophile, who’s going to believe him? At least, who’s going to publicly declare they believe him, no matter what their heart secretly holds onto? And in a public forum, if no one stands up to be counted in defense of a position, they lose by default. Belittling the qualifications of your opponent can also be effective. “He’s just a musician, what does he know about international relations?” Maybe nothing, maybe everything, but the point is, because he isn’t famous for his skill with international relations, you can make him look like a buffoon when he comments on them.

Insults and mud-flinging aren’t your only recourses, however. As any good magician will tell you, distraction is key. Delay, misdirection, and obfuscating the issue can all work to derail an otherwise deadly opponent. Misinterpreting facts can also be a key strategy.

Let’s see how it all comes together. We’ll use smoking as an example, to keep with the theme suggested by the above movie reference. You want to keep smoking legal. Your opponents want it outlawed, placed in the same category as pot. Go!

“Is now really the time to have this debate? The American economy is lurching on the edge of another recession, and you want to talk about crippling an industry worth billions of dollars? It’s amazing how some people just want America to fail. Do you want to drive us into a depression? Our economy just can’t handle a change of this magnitude, and it’s in pretty bad taste, to be honest, to even talk about something so damaging.”

“More government control isn’t the answer. Responsible use of cigarettes, leaving the choice in the hands of the consumer, that’s the way to deal with this issue. What’s next? Taking away my bacon because it’s got cholesterol? No more apple pie because it’s too high in sugar? Where will it end? I think folks are smart enough to make their own choices. God gave us free will for a reason, after all, and it’s not government’s job to take that away.”

“Smoking has health benefits, too, but of course you anti-tobacco lobbyists never want to talk about those. They calm frayed nerves. Do you realize the suicide rate of air traffic controllers jumped more than 30% when their workplaces went non-smoking? Are you aware that non-smokers are eleven times more likely to suffer Alzheimer’s than smokers?”

“We live in a society where one in every ten people is unemployed, and you want to waste time talking about cigarettes? What about solving the real problems we’re facing? Or maybe you don’t want America to continue being the best damn country in the world.”

And so forth. It’s pretty easy, really, particularly if you use a lot of volume. I’m not arguing for gun control or against it, or for any other particular stance. I’m not an expert on the multi-layered causes of a violent outburst like what happened in Connecticut. All I’m saying is that I’m sick beyond belief of the garbage tactics used by opponents in their arguments. Carry the day based on the validity of your position, not on parlor tricks and bullshit. Better yet, wake up and realize winning your case is less important than SOLVING THE PROBLEM!

So get to it. Quick. Before the next tragedy comes along.

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