The art of arguing

I was having a lovely discussion with a lovely coworker at lunch about an issue that is fairly polarizing. (Never talk politics and religion?)

It really was a lovely discussion — and in the end we agreed to disagree. And that’s fine. Because in the end, at least we understand where the other comes from. And that’s the thing: we all come from different places. We all have different world views shaped by different families and thought processes — and if we ever want to figure out what is objectively the right thing to do, then we first need to listen.

And he listened to me – and even said an, “I can see that…” a time or two. And I listened to him, and said an, “I get where you’re coming from…” a time or two. What it came down to was a fundamental world view difference — and that’s a hard thing to debate, and so we didn’t. But we did listen.

And that’s where politics really frustrates me. As a not-very-political person (though we should all be aware), I watch these talking-head shows with my husband and I’m like, “How in the world am I supposed to know who to believe? They’re not even listening to each other. This isn’t a discussion — it’s two monologues muttering practiced sound bites.”

Sure, I know there are a lot of ways to understand a core issue and to know whom to trust, etc — but in a world of 2-second sound bites, where is the art of arguing? Where is the dance of debate? Where is the: “I listen when you talk. Then I digest. Then I provide a thoughtful response based on something you said.” RATHER than: “I wait for you to stop talking so I can start talking. And what did you say, anyway?”

But the art of arguing first starts with the practice of listening — and the willingness to really want to learn from the other person. And who really wants to do that when we already know that we’re right.

After doing a bit of research on the subject, I stumbled on some political commentary for wannabe presidents on with the headline: 10 rules for winning a debate.

(Note: not one of them was about listening. But thus is the crux of “debating.” It becomes only about winning.)

Perhaps the most-telling of the political landscape was number #2:

2. 20 questions, 20 answers, one message. This is not “Jeopardy,” where you’re at the mercy of the topics Alex Trebek (or in this case, Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill, Tom Brokaw and Charlie Gibson) select. There is really only one question in an election: Why should we vote for you and not the other candidate?

Your answer to that question — your basic message — should be marbled throughout your substantive answer on everything from Waziristan to Social Security.

John McCain’s basic message, it seems to me, is, “I’m experienced, Obama’s too risky.” Barack Obama’s, on other hand, is, “I’m for change, McCain is more of the same.”

Each answer to each question should be a variation on that theme. A good debater introduces or ends lots of answers with “That’s another example of why we need change… (or experience, or whatever it is he or she is running on) …”

And it’s true. To “win” a televised debate is to answer each question with the variation of your campaign slogan. And I guess that’s why it’s so… political. And why it’s so hard for the large percentage of American people who don’t spend all that much time researching every little issue and every little candidate — and who instead, go with what’s most popular with the people around them.

When I want to understand an issue, I love watching two, educated, rationale people debate both sides of it. Because – if it accomplishes what it should – it usually pushes us all a bit closer to the truth.

And isn’t the pursuit of truth something we can all agree on?

“Be calm in arguing; for fierceness makes error a fault, and truth discourtesy.”  – George Herbert



  1. Andy Warner

    Great Observations, Lauren ! I am so frustrated with the talking heads spewing their rhetoric and talking points while not responding to the actual question they were asked. Until we start having a real CONVERSATION in this country about the issues, and including listening and responding to the last response from the other person in the CONVERSATION. I have an idea for a political talk show that is called something like “Point- Counter Point” or “Straight Talk” where the participants on both sides of an issue have a fixed time to speak, UNINTERRUPTED! (or they are penalized with a response-time penalty). They would be judged by a bi-partisan panel as to 1) how well they addressed the question by the other side, 2) how well thought out their argument was, and 3) how convincing their argument was. They would be allowed to respond back and forth for fixed time periods, again UNINTERRUPTED, for 1 minute, say 2 or 3 times. In the end, the American people call in like on American Idol and decide who wins the argument in their opinion. That format would work for me very well ! What’ya think ! I believe the show would be in HUGE demand !

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