Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Wisdom for My Son: How to Dissect an Argument

Thanksgiving is coming around, which means: table talk…. and turkey. 

After the touching moments about gratitude at the beginning of dinner comes either extensive napping or the sometimes heated conversations with extended family or friends about politics, religion and everything controversial. Before heading into such a situation, take a second to brush up on some important speech and debate skills.

The art of gracefully disagreeing with others that shows up so often in books and plays of times past has gone by the wayside with Internet trolling. The web's anonymity has emboldened the public to launch vulgar, impersonal comments back and forth online, resulting in emotionally charged, thousand-post long comment threads that no one will ever read. This is no way to cultivate understanding. Malcolm Gladwell recently said, "[It's] your responsibility as a person, as a human being — to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible. And if you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking."

Helping someone change his or her mind on a topic requires sincere two-way communication. In some ways, it's like dancing with a partner. Each person picks up subtle cues, respects suggestions by acknowledging them, and then presenting a lead of his or her own. When the music ends, the dance ends and should be left on the dance floor. It'd be silly to allow a poor debate spoil a friendship.

That being said, it is my firm belief that most of what we think and believe was picked up along the path of life. Debating with others should bring both of the parties' belief histories into a new light and expand understanding.

So, to have a great debate, remember these five steps.

1. Verify assumptions
Assumptions are the taken-for-granted basis of a claim. For example, Aunt Harriet says, "Judy wouldn't have gotten a bad haircut if she just paid more money for it!" Yes! An aunt now calls another aunt's haircut into question! The aunt is trying to say, "You get what you pay for." But, to make that claim, she says "Judy wouldn't have gotten a bad haircut." The assumption here is that Judy's haircut is bad. If it isn't bad, then her conclusion has no legs.

2. Verify the inferences
Inferences are logical conclusions drawn from a statement of fact. Uncle John says, "Aunt Harriet sure spent a lot of time on the pie this year!" The factual statement is quite bland, just that the pie took a long time to make. But, the inference is the pie will taste delicious because of Harriet's extra dedication. This inference doesn't necessary hold water. It is set up like this equation:

Pie's quality = time spent on pie.

What if Uncle John said, "The best pie your Aunt Harriet ever made took eight hours! And guess what? Her pie tonight took nine!" 

Inference: The pie tonight will be even better than the eight-hour pie of the past. Not necessarily true. Even if the eight hours were the key factor to last year's delicious pie, the extra hour in this case could have made it disgusting.

Besides, the assumption is that the eight-hour pie was delicious, which may or may not be true. It could have made Cousin Billy sick for days.

3. Check for persuasive devices
There are a plethora of persuasive devices out there, but according to Kenneth Burke, there are five different factors to look out for: agent (who), scene (where and when), action (what), agency (how), and purpose (why). Each of these five elements have a different influence on the persuasive appeal of a point of view. When combined, they can present a very compelling argument. (click here for an adorable explanation of these five elements).

For example, 
A man shot a man. (Agents and Action. This doesn't really pull on the heart strings much.)
A man shot a man in the supermarket in broad daylight! (Woah! Just adding a scene made it very interesting!)
A man shot a man in the supermarket in broad daylight with a super-soaker! (Adding agency here completely flips it around!)
A man shot a man in the supermarket in broad daylight with a super-soaker because he kidnapped his child! (Adding purpose here might even invoke some sympathy on the poor man, who can only avenge his child with a super-soaker!)

Burke's five persuasive elements can then be broken down into Aristotle's three persuasive appeals: pathos, logos, and ethos.

Pathos is an emotional appeal, which can be incredibly powerful, albeit susceptible to abuse. When people start throwing in agent or agency elements that make tears sprout from the eyes, it's time to pay attention to the legitimacy of the emotional appeals they are using for persuasion.

Logos is a logical appeal to reason. This should be a baseline requirement. If an argument is illogical, there isn't much point in entertaining it further until some corrective reformulation happens.

Ethos is an appeal to authority. This is really easy to recognize. I did it to you a few paragraphs ago when I quoted Malcolm Gladwell. Appeals to authority are important, but they often fall prey to a couple of problems.
1. Opinions and ideas are often attributed incorrectly.
2. Just because an idea comes from someone who sounds authoritative doesn't necessarily give the idea more clout. It just sounds like it has more clout. That connects well to an idea called social jurisdiction (blog post coming soon to elaborate that idea).

The overall takeaway is: pay attention to the different elements someone uses to persuade you to their opinion.

4. Cut the fluff
In every argument there is superfluous stuff that doesn't contribute to the strength of a claim. An aggressive debater would use superfluous material against an opponent to expose an argument and leave him or her bare. This includes things like repetition, illogical inferences or conclusions, ad hoc emotional appeals, or statements that take the conversation off course into a new topic. Sometimes there can be so much extra stuff that the actual point is lost. It can be exhausting. The task is ours to cut the extraneous details down to the core issue.

5. Question the conclusion
Have you ever listened to an argument only to hear the speaker reach a head-scratching conclusion? Watch out for arguments that base themselves on a conclusion instead of the reason it took to get there. Too often we have a conclusion we feel is right and to bolster it we invent reasoning to go along with it. This is backwards thinking. More noble by far are the conclusions which have fully matured through questioning and re-formulation.

Follow these five steps and you will be a force to be reckoned with at the Thanksgiving table. It's called rhetorical literacy. It takes thought, effort, and practice, but the freedom it affords is beautiful.