Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How to have a bad argument

"Ugh. You're NOT LISTENING."
My weekly Sydney Morning Herald 'Life and Style' column is up today, 'How to lose an argument before you've really started'.

The point of the article is simple: to highlight some common phrases that suggest a bad argument is happening. A sample:
Nothing will overcome spite or pettiness. Still, for those with goodwill but bad habits, here are some choice phrases that suggest the debate has degenerated. Each is an opportunity to slow down, adjust our intellectual spectacles, and look again. 
Perhaps the most common: “That's just your opinion.” This phrase makes two mistakes. First, the "just". Opinions are not trivial. They can be wise or naive, precise or vague – but we cannot do without them. Second, the "your". Of course it is my opinion. The point is to demonstrate what kind of opinion it is: true or false, profound or shallow, clear or vague. And for that, you need to do the work. 
“You're not listening,” is another common reply. It can be spot-on: someone is deep in denial. But this phrase often means something else: "You don't agree with me." It's a conceit: that anyone really listening would automatically agree with us. Yet often this is the problem: we're unpersuasive precisely because we've not reflected clearly enough on our own ideas. A better reply: “What is my argument, in your own words?” This will reveal whether or not someone is listening, and can help to cultivate common ground.
(Image: Vidal's 'Cain', photograph by Alex Proimos)

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