Taming the ‘Argument as War’ Beast

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calvin and suzie shouting at each other, no captions

There’s a joke that goes:

How do you start an argument online?

1. express an opinion

2. wait

As anyone involved in organisational, community change work, or public life in general will know, argument online or in person is inevitable.

In this context, I don’t mean the kind of arguments one gets into about domestic tasks or family dramas – I mean argument as in clash of perspectives and worldviews.

But why do we argue? Why do we try to convince others? Who benefits? What do we expect to achieve?

In his talk For Argument’s Sake at TEDx Colby College, philosopher Daniel H. Cohen asks these and other thought-provoking questions about the nature of a typical argument:

…what do good arguers win when they win an argument? Why do we try to convince other people to believe things that they don’t want to believe? And is that even a nice thing to do? Is that a nice way to treat another human being, try and make them think something they don’t want to think?

Cohen identifies three models of argument:

  • the dialectical model, or ‘arguments as war’ – Cohen acknowledges this is a common and entrenched kind of argument in which:  ‘…there’s a lot of screaming and shouting and winning and losing’.
  • arguments as proofs, which relates to ‘argument’ as it is understood in philosophy, mathematics and logic. Rather than an adversarial exchange of dialogue, this kind of argument is used to determine if a proposition is true; if a theory is sound; does the conclusion follow from the premises, and are the premises themselves valid?
  • arguments as performances, such as debates that occur in front of an audience, where the arguers are trying to convince the audience about their position; one variation of this model is the rhetorical model, where an argument is tailored to the audience eg. a political speech, an argument made to a jury

Cohen acknowledges that of these three models, the ‘argument as war’ model is the dominant one. The language of arguments itself is militaristic – we refer to arguments that ‘pack a punch’, that are ‘on target’, that are ‘killer’ arguments.

This mindset shapes not only the way we talk and think about arguments, but how we argue, and our conduct during arguments. Cohen is concerned that this approach has a detrimental effect on what should be an important social technology because:

it elevates tactics over substance – ‘argument as war’ means you have to understand all the plays people make to try to win arguments in order to counter them. It is cognitively taxing, and detracts from dialogue around the issue at hand.

it marginalises other ways of arguing – precisely because it is adversarial and polarising, argument as war hamstrings the possibility of conversations that are centred on negotiation, compromise or collaboration.

it equates learning with losing – by its very nature, ‘argument as war’ implies that there must be a winner and loser, triumph for one side and defeat for the other. Yet as Cohen points out, if someone ‘wins’ an argument with him – if they manage to convince him to change his belief after satisfactorily responding to his objections, questions and counter-considerations – it is himself, not his opponent, who is the only one who has made any cognitive gain. The opponent may have derived some pleasure or an ego boost from ‘winning’, but unlike the ‘loser’ has not actually gained anything.

As Cohen drily notes:

I lose a lot of arguments. It takes practice to become a good arguer in the sense of being able to benefit from losing, but fortunately, I’ve had many, many colleagues who have been willing to step up and provide that practice for me.

Cohen describes the argument-as-war metaphor as a dead end – the roundabout, traffic jam or gridlock of conversation – and as ‘a monster that has taken up habitation in our mind’. He believes that if we are to have new kinds of arguments, then we need to have new kinds of arguers:

There’s the proponent and the opponent in an adversarial, dialectical argument. There’s the audience in rhetorical arguments. There’s the reasoner in arguments as proofs.

Now, can you imagine an argument in which you are the arguer, but you’re also in the audience watching yourself argue? Can you imagine yourself watching yourself argue, losing the argument, and yet still, at the end of the argument, say, ‘Wow, that was a good argument.’ Can you do that? I think you can.

This is a powerful question that Cohen is asking people to ask of themselves, because it is asking the arguer to practice non-attachment – to be able to evaluate the merit of another’s argument and our own arguments independently of one’s own position (ie. to let go of ego).

man and woman conversing, woman's speech bubble is: - man's speech bubble is: |, where the overlap is +

So next time you ‘lose’ an argument, don’t despair – remind yourself that you’ve made a cognitive gain: you understand how someone else thinks.

What if we could temporarily suspend, or completely let go of, defending our own position, and our own attachments?

We could become better arguers. We could model that behaviour to others.

And in doing so, we make a start on slaying the ‘argument as war’ monster.

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