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How Not To Argue
And when will our society end?
Everyone wants to be right! We forget that most of life lies in the space between right and wrong. Even in the court of law, one hopes for a verdict won "beyond a reasonable doubt." Which is to say, certainty eludes us most of the time. Yet, we want it and seek it. And we argue about it. Striving to convince, sometimes the end justifies the means. At other times, we fall victims to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, overly confident in our expertise. As a result, we upset friends and ourselves. No one likes to lose an argument any more than to lose face. Here are a few ways NOT to argue if you want to keep your friends, dignity, and integrity. Also, you're likely to turn an argument into a productive discussion and learn something while you are at it.
When discussing one of today's highly charged emotional subjects, don't use the straw man strategy. That's what happens when people try to replace the point of discussion they cannot refute with another, superficially similar point which they can, then get busy "knocking down the straw man" they just built. To spot a straw man, look for clues. Phrases such as "so, what you are saying is…" and "so, you think that…" "so, it's OK with you that…" can lead to distorting a point and shifting the focus, even attempting to put words in the opponent's mouth. If I say, "I think the government could cut back unnecessary, overblown defense spending." And you say, "So, you think our country should be defenseless," you just erected a straw man. I would simply respond, with "No, as I said, I think the government could cut back on defense spending, which is different than not spending at all. If you want to have a productive defense spending conversation, let's look at some possible examples of where we can cut back, wasted resources, and what we need." In arguments where one person uses this strategy, the other person feels unheard and pretty much swindled, dragged down a different road than the one they set on first. Absolutely nothing good can come of this unless the goal is to make a frustrated enemy. If you find yourself in this situation, simply restate your point and avoid going down the straw man direction. Literally, leave the conversation if the other person continues. You will see a lot of this happening on social media, some deliberately trolling others.
Please, don't ignore unfavorable facts for your own argument. It's called special pleading. In this case, the person finds special reasons why their claims don't seem to hold up. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, a local gym took the stand that people don't get sick at the gym. When pointed out to them that the cleanliness of gyms is always a challenge, crowded exercise classes, sweating on equipment and not wiping it down, showing up to workout when already sick, and forceful breathing due to high exertion promote the spread of germs, they used special pleading. They claimed that the only time people get sick after going to the gym is when their immune system is down. People party late at night, eat poorly, and don't take care of themselves, they said, implying that patrons are at fault regardless of gym cleanliness and germ exchange facts.
A variation of this theme is the no true…does… no true Christian kills, except during the Crusades, or sectarian violence, of course. No true Trump supporter endorses violence. But what about January 6th? Well, these folks were terrified at where they saw the country going, so they found themselves compelled to commit violence. These must be regarded as exceptional circumstances.
Often bad arguments start with what about-ism. There's a famous story from the Cold War. Americans criticized the totalitarian, communist regime of the Soviet Union, oppressing people and growth. When asked about that, apologists famously responded, "But what about the way Americans treat their Negros?" Clearly, there's more than one thing wrong with this statement, but the attempt to liken Americans to Soviet Union totalitarians is more than obvious, implying that oppressing people in the Soviet Union is OK because Americans are oppressing blacks at home. We saw a lot of this going back and forth during the last elections and generally around all elections these days. When someone raises a concern about a politician, perhaps wanting to discuss misconduct of some sort, the answer usually is, "but what about…" and something else is brought up about their opponent. On and on, things go in circles without anyone answering for anything they've done!
Whatever you do, don't engage in ad hominem. That's when instead of addressing an issue, a bad arguer attacks the person raising the issue. You've done it! I've done it! We've called the people who disagree with us "idiots" and called it a day. Media opinion hosts have mastered this. It's the best way to stir up some outrage and get ratings up. Donald Trump was a godsend with his blunders and gaffes, giving liberal commentators plenty of material to attack his persona and avoid discussing policy. Now conservatives are doing the same to Biden, calling him "Sleepy Joe." I guess everyone ignores the fact that these two guys are old. They are likely to fall asleep at meetings, and as we all know, the older you get, the less your social filter works. I don't want to defend Donald Trump because I am absolutely not a fan, but I do want to stay as objective as possible and argue policy, not just persona, when it comes to who leads this country. I also encourage you to avoid this strategy when arguing with a significant other. It will earn you a well-deserved night in the doghouse.
You also can't fairly assign guilt by association just because it helps you rationalize your point of view. How would you like it if you are placed in the same category as someone you know or used to work with who got convicted of fraud, domestic violence, or found to be a pedophile? People's paths cross in various ways. Sometimes circumstances complicate matters. Did you know that Nazi scientists discovered the carcinogenicity of cigarette smoke? Should we discount its validity because it's Nazi science? Well, that's exactly what tobacco companies did early on and were able to keep health concerns and regulation at bay for a while.
As tempting as it may be to pull tricks to win an argument, you lose credibility in the process. You probably won't get invited to the next party. Approach arguments as they do in court – a process in which the two sides present their facts, and the judge keeps order, moderating according to the applicable laws. Before you say something, ask yourself if you will hear a sustainable objection and follow the laws of arguing fairly. Remember that you do not know everything because no one does, even if you are an expert in what you argue. Arrogance is a major turn-off and should not be confused with confidence. Confident people do not need to argue dirty because they are more interested in learning something and engaging in a productive discussion than preserving their image or point of view.
Will the world end in 2040? Apparently, in 1972, MIT scientists modeled various scenarios accounting for natural disasters, geopolitical factors, resources distribution, and economics and are pretty sure that's our society's expiration date. While contemporary scientists believe it may be sooner. Unless, of course, we do something about it. Watch this 19 min video by Economics Explained (Australia) about the science, various possible outcomes, and the criticism of their findings.
Imagine this is true. It's less than 20 years in the future! How would you live your life today if you believe you'll be dead soon?.. Because you could be!
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