How to Hold an Argument

(Note to readers: from time to time I'll mention "kill files" in the article below. This is old geek-talk for a file which you fill with the names and email address of people whose online posts you don't want to see. It's a way to filter out lunatics and to make your online reading experience more pleasant. No violence is involved.)

An awful lot of people seem feel that stating their mind as rudely as possible is brave and shows a steadfast unconcern for everything but the Truth.

This is nonsense. Not only does being rude not support the truth, it has little to do with truth except by accident.

It's not clear to me that anyone who really needs to read some of what I have to say will. On some online forums my voice is conspicuous for its absence in certain debates, and I hope to direct people to this page when they ask me why I'm not doing my part for The Cause, whatever it might be at the time. I don't want to type my reasons up too many more times.

I'm going to lay out a quick definition of an "honest argument." I'm not going to cover the full field of rhetorical and logical errors, but instead will focus on a few particular errors that seem to come up an awful lot. This "honest argument" terminology is a little strange, I admit, but it's the best term I've come up with so far to describe the process I use to judge someone's words when they're disagreeing with me about something.

Just to be clear, I'm using the word argument in the sense of a verbal debate and discussion about some matter. I'm not talking about yelling matches about whose turn it is to do the dishes.

Finally, even though I'm about to make a long list of reasons I'll avoid arguments, I like arguing. Even if I don't change my mind about something, having to defend a position makes me think about it more deeply. I even have a suspicion that having a lot of different opinions in the world — even ones I find incomprehensible or morally offensive — might be a good thing in the long run, not only to keep us honest about our competing opinions, but also perhaps in an evolutionary sense. There are a lot of crazy ideas floating around, and some of them might be useful some day. I'm sure many will never be useful.

Argument Assumptions

Of course hidden assumptions in an argument are always trouble, but I'm talking about the assumptions that are behind even having an argument in the first place. In an ideal world, when someone voices a disagreement with me, he does so because we're both members of some community trying to improve our understanding together and he has information that helps in that goal.

So, I assume in that an argument is an attempt to change someone's opinions. This may seem obvious and banal, but when you look to media figures like Michael Moore or Anne Coulter you see that you can present entertainment as an argument. Both of these authors are completely over the top. They tend to express themselves with a lot of fire and bombast, with a known, erm, flexibility in handling facts, and usually in ways that are incredibly offensive to the other end of the political spectrum. As far as I'm able to tell, the indended audience for these authors' books are people who already agree with the authors' positions.

There are many ways to present information. I could go through an actors' exercise, cycling through moods and emotions behind a simple statement, "your shoe is untied." Interruping a complete stranger with, "Excuse me, Miss, your shoe is untied" is going to elicit a different response than "Hey, you snotty air-head, your shoe is untied." It is true that the factual content of both statements is the same, but is is extremely disingenuous to insist that the tone of the delivery doesn't matter. There's no way to know what would really motivate such an aggressive warning about an untied shoe, but it's clear there's more going on that just an urge to communicate a simple fact. In the same way, prefacing a statement of fact with things like "you whining liberals" or "you greedy conservatives" is going to influence how the fact is received. To pretend otherwise is a cheap rhetorical stunt. In the technical language of rhetoric, attacking the person rather than the argument is called an ad hominem attack.

Padding a statement with insulting language is not part of an honest argument; it is merely abuse. So, if I see someone on a public forum who is in the habit of expressing him or herself rudely I will add that person to my kill file. I will certainly not engage these people in any debate. (Special dispensation for well-executed satire.)

Commentary (2009): It is common enough in polemical writing for the writer to bestow upon opponents names, attributes and convictions they themselves might dispute. Since first writing this document in 2003 I've come to accept that a certain amount of name-calling is a normal rhetorical strategy. I am more tolerant of such behavior so long as it's happening in an argument that is heavier on facts and logic than on insult. That is, such language must be merely rhetorical decoration — and relevant decoration, at that — on a solid argument.

Sadly, many people do not have the wit and judgement to do this effectively. You run the risk of undermining your argument if you indulge too heavily in such stunts.

Mind Reading and Authority

A debating technique that is all too common is mind reading. No one calls it this, of course, but that's what it is. We cannot know the mind of another human being. People can tell us things, and we can adjust our behavior and attitudes toward a person based on their actions, but there is no way to know for certain what is going on inside another person's head, not even when they claim to tell us their motivations. So it is illegitimate to argue against someone by making claims about their motivation. "You're just saying that because you hate chocolate ice cream" is as irrelevant an argument as "you're just saying that because you hate Christians." Mind reading is just a subtle kind of ad hominem attack.

Variation 1: Assertion of Perversity. Wearyingly common in religious debates is the assertion that someone is arguing for a view not because he thinks it's true, but he knows it to be false but is just arguing to be contrary. It is very difficult — if not impossible — to argue productively with people who claim to know my own mind better than I do. I avoid talking with them when I can.

Variation 2: False Consciousness. Sometimes used in religious debates, but most often wielded by the far left and some less bright progressives, is the assertion that you are incapable of even thinking correctly until you adopt certain views. These are the people who say, "but you're not really happy, you just think you are." This again amounts to mind reading. Flee debates with those who make this claim seriously.

An idea is good or bad on its own merit; why someone holds an idea has no bearing on the quality of the idea. This also means you cannot argue for or against an idea by listing people who also hold the idea. You cannot say an idea is bad because Hitler believed it. I'm sure Hitler thought indoor plumbing was a good idea. Eugenics is a bad idea on its own. Further, good and wise people are just as capable of holding foolish ideas as anyone else. No one is immune to occasional foolishness and stupidity. I hope ever reader can think back in embarrassment to previously held convictions.

Of course the opinions of experts and authorities are relevant to an argument. If I'm going to make some point about, say, Homeric textual reconstruction, then of course I should cite the work, and even the opinions, of M.L. West. But I cannot simply say, "this is true because West says so." Many people disagree with West's approach to Homer. Quoting the opinions of an authority is sort of like having another participant in the debate, but you have to have more evidence than simply the opinion of one person, however smart that person may be. In the best case, the person you cite has marshaled a substantial collection of facts.

Just as the opinions of a single expert aren't sufficient, neither are the opinions of the mass of humanity. Just because a lot of people believe something doesn't mean it's true. Of course, just because a lot of people believe something doesn't mean it's necessarily false, either, which vanguardist thinkers sometimes forget.

Emotional Blackmail

Emotional blackmail, yet another variation on the ad hominem attack, is a well-developed propaganda tool. I suspect it's a technique most people have mastered by the time they're three years old. It is possibly the most pernicious rhetorical stunt there is, since it can be very hard to argue against it without looking like a monster... which is why this approach is so popular and effective. You can make your opponent look pretty awful while at the same time you manage to avoid having to actually justify anything.

Say, for example, you're arguing with someone about G.W. Bush's war in Iraq. You make some argument for it. Your opponent says, "so, you support killing civilians!" Or, say you argue against it, a supporter can come back with, "you're dishonoring the soldiers who died for our country!" Both of these opposing statements are completely irrelevant to any debate about the Second Iraq War and the policy associated with it. Such charged statements are very good at completely derailing useful debate because even the most rational person can be stunned into addressing these horrible, emotion-laden charges being brought against them.

Emotional blackmail is incredibly common in naive religious debates, from both sides. An atheist might say "you're too cowardly to live without a Big Daddy to coddle you" and the theist might say "how can you deny God who has done so much for you." Both statements are pointless in an honest argument.

I am especially happy to ignore people who use this technique.

Door Slamming

Another very popular stunt in online debates is the Tirade with Coda for Slamming Door. Basically you respond to a few points someone has made, often in a high dudgeon, then finish with some comment along the lines of "but you people are too stupid/blind/programmed to understand, so I'm not going to bother with you any more" or "you don't need to respond to me, I already know how you'll answer." Then why bother to say anything in the first place?

People who play this childish stunt belong in every healthy kill file. They certainly end up in mine.

The Pyrrhonic Fandango

This is a two stage gambit. First undermine epistemology. This is usually done by requiring a standard of evidence it is impossible to meet. This may be done by demanding increasingly detailed definitions for the most basic terms ad infinitum, or by proposing thought experiments which show absolute certainty is impossible. The question "but how do you know" will be frequent. The possibility of partial or statistical knowledge will be dismissed.

If this were the extent of it, we'd be dealing with Pyrrhonism, and that'd be the end of debate. But once all possibility of true knowledge has been trussed up and dragged out the door there are two possible subversions of the argument available. One can either shift the argument to purely emotional terms or claim evidential equivalence.

My unfriendly summary of the emotional argument: "since you can't prove your view is right" — according to impossible evidential criteria — "I am justified in believing whatever I choose." Further emotional appeals will be offered. Anyone disagreeing is being churlish. This is a common new-age stunt.

The evidential equivalence trick is used most often by postmodernists and some theists. The postmodernists claim all knowledge is political so they're simply offering a different political view, and all possible counterarguments are also purely political. Some theists will assert all knowledge claims are a sort of religion, and therefore the opposing arguments are actually a form of missionary work.

Anyone who claims it's impossible to be certain of anything has no business offering arguments in the first place. Debating them is useless because nothing you could possibly say will be taken seriously, by their own admission. Flee debate with such people!

Advanced Reading

I have started in on a collection of rants about annoying habits in argumentation that aren't strictly speaking logical errors: Arguing Correctly: Commentary.

I've collected several links relating to the mechanics of argumentation below. Most of them have to do with identifying flaws in an argument.

There are many excellent introductory books on rhetoric and logic as well.

Copyright (c) 2006-2022 William S. Annis