To argue or not to argue, that is the question

 I am told so often that an argument is a discussion. It is not. ‘The aim of argument or of discussion’ wrote the Epicurean Joubert, ‘should not be victory, but progress.’ This position implies two ideas. The first is that the purpose of discussion is progress, measurable through some sort of metric. The second is that argument seeks only victory. But why can this distinction be made and why is this distinction important?


Quillon suggested ‘an argument [is] an exchange of ignorance’. Indeed! We have all suffered at the hands of an argument. We might not know what an ad hominem argument is, but we all know what it sounds like; someone is cruel therefore you should not listen to their advice.


Likewise we might not recognise a tu quoque (you too) argument, but again we know what it is; I may be a thief but you are a liar. And then there are generalisations, all politicians are bad and you are a politician, recourse to the popular and so on. Even worse are the tautological argument; let me just clarify videogames are not art, almond milk is not milk, gif is pronounced with a soft G and coca cola is better than pepsi.


The point is that an argument is intellectualized pushing and shoving. It does not seek to educate, but to dominate. It is an indicator of a failed dialogue.


Discussion by contrast as Quillion glowingly writes is ‘an exchange of knowledge’, a free and fair interchange of ideas between willing participants. The question is how does this exchange take place and why is this not an argument.


There are I think two general rules that apply to discussion:


  1. We need to prepare. The best illustration of the benefits of preparation can perhaps be see in Jim Slater’s theory the Zulu Principle. When watching his wife read books on Zulus, Slater noted that as she learnt more about her subject, she was more and more seen by those around her as an expert on that subject. The point is that knowing a little more than those around you makes you more convincing. The more convincing you are, the more persuasive you are and the more likely it is that your position will be adopted by others. Conversely, an argument fails because although it also seeks to persuade us, it does so without an effective recourse to explain why, it merely seeks to intellectually bully.

  2. We need to share. We are after all inherently social. We do not want to dominate or overpower other ideas. Rather we want others to find, as did we, that our position is ‘logically’ correct. If during a discussion only one voice is heard, something has gone wrong. We enter discussion determined to share, and by extension we are tolerant of those who do likewise. It is validating to be heard by another, and to have them respond to what we say.


Indeed discussion should be empathetic as it helps us to see the perspectives of others with whom we can collaborate to create a new level of understanding. In argument such an empathetic process is not present; we seek not to understand the point of view of another, but rather to overwhelm that view with our own.


Ultimately the group that benefits from discussion are the other participants in the dialogue. Discussion teaches us to be respectful to those around us. In a discussion we must listen first then speak. We should respect all views and never see them as wrong, merely propose alternatives that will supercede them or not on their own logic. But perhaps more importantly discussion encourages people to work together to extend their own learning. In this respect discussion is the foundation of helping us to become citizens in a global world. Argument in contrast seeks only to teach us the negatives, to forcefully assert what we think and not what we know.


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