Open Your Mind
Have you been on social media lately? Maybe you posted something you thought was pretty benign like, “My daughter is really struggling with depression. I think we should consider having some in-person sessions of school this fall.” After a few thumbs up and heart emojis from close friends, your co-worker posted about an increase in deaths from COVID-19 after Korea reopened their schools and said, “This is a stupid idea.” Their best friend replied with an article about a child who just died from COVID saying, “You never consider things like this”. Your aunt broke out the ALL CAPS to say, “TEACHER’S LIVES MATTER” and your cousin’s mother-in-law said, “you’re heartless, you don’t care who dies.” The final straw was your dad who chimed in, “This is all Trump’s fault.” You ended up lying awake in bed all night fuming, thinking you should just delete your facebook account.
I’ve been trying to post well-reasoned information on social media only to be met with what my grandmother would have called, “downright meanness.” I try very hard not to get defensive, and I usually succeed, but it’s got me thinking about how much energy we expend fighting, when we could perhaps be learning something from a well-reasoned discussion. In this article, I’m going to challenge you to open your mind. I’ve got some examples and ideas and I hope you’ll keep them in mind the next time you respond to an article.
Who Taught You How to Argue?
I’ll bet it was your parents, and I’ll bet most of them weren’t very good at it. My parents argued. A LOT. When they were unhappy, they yelled at each other. My mother would yell at my dad for being lazy and then slam her bedroom door. We’d hear her crying in there and feel just terrible. Maybe there was a well-reasoned argument for why my dad should perhaps get a job…but I never witnessed it. I’m also learning that what they were doing wasn’t “arguing” – they were “fighting” and typically this is the only example most of us have for how to deal with differences in opinion.
When I think about effective argument, I think about lawyers and the techniques I see on television and in the movies. They typically use well-reasoned arguments to make a case, though for dramatic effect, you often seem them yelling and getting emotional. I wonder if they do that in real-life? Is it effective to get emotional and raise your voice? Does cutting down your opponent, name calling and “ornery-ness” win an argument? From personal experience, when someone yells at me and calls me stupid, I tend to shut down and walk away. It makes me want to “delete my facebook account.” And everything that goes with it.
In the dim recesses of my memory, I know I learned the elements of a good argument in school, but I can’t recall if it was high school or college and I don’t remember many details. Several phrases have been popping up in my brain as I strain to recall useful details. “Straw man argument; appeal to emotion; ad hominem” Do any of these phrases sound familiar?
You might have been exposed to argumentation in debate club, or maybe you took an argumentative writing course. I think I learned about it in philosophy 101 in college, but I’m not 100% sure. Luckily for us, there’s the internet – always available to refresh our memory if we know where to look.
What is a Logical Fallacy?
It’s a fancy name for an error in reasoning. There’s a long list of logical fallacies and they include “Straw man and ad hominem” (I’m pretty excited that I remembered something from my college days!)
I won’t go into detail on all of them, but let’s unpack a few of the most common.
Ad hominem means “against the man” and is the exact terminology you want when describing a personal attack or shouting match. When you get called “stupid” on social media, logical argumentation has been replaced with attack-language unrelated to the truth of the matter. You are rejecting another person’s view on the basis of personal characteristics, background, physical appearance or other features irrelevant to the argument at issue. It’s not just an insult, it’s an insult used as if it were an argument or evidence in support of a conclusion. You might know it as “mudslinging” in politics. I’m thinking of how some folks have been making fun of our president for slurring his speech. You can Google lists of insults against politicians - I won’t list any here so as not to detract from my argument that we can learn to argue effectively.
Ad hominem signals to me that instead of arguing we are now fighting. In the above example, it’s when the original poster was called “heartless” or when their idea was called “stupid.”
But I didn’t say that!
In the strawman argument, someone attacks a position the opponent doesn’t really hold. It’s an easy way to make your position look stronger than it is. Often this type of argument is accidental because the offender doesn’t realize they are oversimplifying a narrow, cautious claim as if it were broad and foolhardy. In the original post about going back to school, the original poster (OP) wanted to look at the idea of re-opening. The “straw man” is that the OP suggested schools should reopen “no matter who dies.”
Some of the others…
Appeals to ignorance – claiming that because something hasn’t been disproven then it must be true. Example: “There’s no evidence that kids can spread the virus, so it’s okay to reopen schools.”
False dilemma/False dichotomy – either-or fallacy limits the options to two when there are in fact more options to choose from. Example: “We can either reopen schools and kill people or keep them closed and save lives.”
Slippery slope fallacy – moves from a seemingly benign premise or starting point and works through a number of small steps to an improbable extreme. It suggests that unlikely or ridiculous outcomes are likely when there’s not enough evidence to think so. Example: “If you reopen schools, millions of teachers and caretakers will die.”
Circular argument – when a person repeats what they already said and doesn’t arrive at a new conclusion. If A is true because B is true, B is true because A is true. For example, “My daughter is depressed, and reopening schools will help, so we should reopen schools.”
Hasty Generalization – a general statement without sufficient evidence to support it. The statement, “You never consider things like this.” is an example– using always or never is a generalization. A simple way to avoid this is to add qualifiers like “sometimes”, “maybe”, “often” or “it seems to be the case that…”
Red herring fallacy – a distraction from the argument with something that seems to be relevant but isn’t really on-topic. It’s common when someone doesn’t like the current topic and wants to detour into something else instead. Derailing the topic of possibly re-opening schools with a comment about President Trump is a good example of this strategy.
How to Argue Effectively
Know when to argue and when to walk away
Think about how you’re saying what you want to say
Know your audience – what kind of argument might they find convincing?
Watch out for logical fallacies
Maintain relationships – when in doubt ask the person to explain their thinking
Admit weakness – acknowledge when you are wrong
I’m looking forward to your comments about arguing vs. fighting. Maybe you’ll share some examples I’ve missed, point out some of my errors or share frustrations or successes. As always, thank you for reading!
The Proper Way to Argue: The purposes and pitfalls of arguing - Psychology Today
Logical Fallacies - Purdue University