Friday, November 08, 2019

Do You Know How to Argue? Part 3: Remaining Purposeful

Part 1 of this series on arguing well notes that an argument needs to be clearly stated. If one American votes Democratic and her neighbor votes Republican, they are not engaging in an argument. They are voting. But if she claims that her candidate would make a better leader, she would need to qualify that statement for an argument. She might say the Democratic candidate follows through on pledges more regularly than the Republican, or has more expansive government experience, or speaks more eloquently, or  supports gun reform more ardently through his voting record. 

Part 2 looks at the rules of arguing, such as how long should the argument run, what will be the range of talking points, how will the argument be resolved, who will resolve it, and whether a judge is necessary.

After defining the terms of the argument and setting the rules, let the argument begin—but keep the lines of argumentation in check. For a purposeful argument, we'll need to be faithful to two principles: stick to the point of the argument and refrain from logical fallacies. We'll cover each of these separately.

Stick to the point. Let's say we agree to argue about whether the Democratic candidate has more expansive government experience than the Republican candidate. The Democratic supporter might say her candidate has been a town mayor for eight years. Fair enough. Now the Republican supporter replies his candidate has six years experience, two in the town council, two in the state assembly, and two as US attorney general. The Democratic supporter must concede that while her candidate has more years of experience, her opponent's is more expansive, on the town, state, and federal levels. This fact alone may not be sufficient for the Republican supporter to win the argument, but he is winning 1-0. Perhaps the Democratic supporter can talk about her candidate's service on state and federal commissions, or her four-year stint as a naval officer. But she would not want to talk about her years as a corporate attorney unless she had government clients.  

Avoid logical fallacies. In 2006, I wrote a 20-part series on logical fallacies, such as:

  • straw man, misrepresenting an opponent's position to destroy its credibility. Example: Since you like the Democratic candidate, you hate Republicans
  • ad hominem, attacking the person, not the position. Example: You like the Democratic candidate, but you have been wrong on so many other issues, so you're wrong now.
  • unequal comparison, equating unequal ideas. Example: Voting for the Democratic candidate is like voting for a monarchy.
  • guilt by association, inappropriately associating an idea or a person with another discredited idea or person to refute an argument. Example: Ten years ago you voted for a candidate who ended up in prison, so why should your voting preference have any credibility?
There are scores of logical fallacies worth studying, so know them all before entering a well-reasoned argument. The point is to narrow your field of vision to remain purposeful.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Do You Know How to Argue? Part 2: Setting Rules

In part 1 of this series on arguing effectively, I explain that we have to define terms carefully before embarking on an argument. For instance, I would want to qualify the proposition Paris makes a better vacation than Venice by at the least stating the precise location (the city in France, not in Texas or New York, versus the city in Italy, not in California or Florida), the vacationers (college students? young families? middle-aged singles, senior couples?), and the purpose of vacation (architecture? art? dining? history? music? sports? theater? walking?).

Rules of conduct also apply to argument. Should we establish the points we want to argue (e.g., buildings, waterways,  walks)? Should we insist on refuting each point the opponent raises? Then how do we refute? If I raise a point about the beauty of the great squares of Paris, such as the Place de la Concorde or the Place Charles de Gaulle, should you be required to refute my point by devaluing those locations? by explaining why Piazza San Marco and Campo San Polo are superior? by jumping off point to claim the Ponte di Rialto and Ponte dell' Accademia are more beautiful bridges than the Parisian squares? Should we determine time allotments for each point we want to argue, as well as the total time for the entire argument? Should we assign a judge to keep us on track? If the argument should lead to a winner, how would we determine victory? What about an audience to determine the winner? 

In my years of sitting in corporate conference rooms, university lecture halls, and Thanksgiving dinners, I have noticed that many of these arguments turn into exchanges of indignation, invective, or insult because people don't establish rules. We might be arguing about entirely different things when we don't define terms, but we are certainly arguing pointlessly when we don't set the terms of engagement. 

Friday, October 25, 2019

Do You Know How to Argue? Part 1: Defining Terms

Most irresolvable arguments result not from intractable parties unwilling to compromise but from their inability, unwillingness, or unawareness to clearly define their terms. Yet arguments are useless without establishing definitions. I'm not talking about social arguments, such as whether a career in the public sector is better than one in the private sector. Talk that one up all night with your buddies over your hummus dips and G&Ts for all I care. 

But a really useful argument requires us to set clearly defined routes through which our rhetorical lines can go—if only all the TV pundits and politicians took heed! To illustrate, let's look at that weakly phrased proposition in the first paragraph.

As a first step in the public-private sector argument, let's see who's arguing. Assume one is a 32-year-old single woman without children happily employed for 3 years as a medical doctor in a group family practice and living in a Manhattan co-op apartment. The other is a 45-year-old male public high school gym teacher, also happy at his work for the past 13 years, and a homeowner in suburban Pennsylvania married to a 43-year-old public elementary school teacher with two children, a 9-year-old girl and 5-year-old boy. Of course, we can collect much more personal data if needed, but this is a starting point. Maybe one more item about the doctor and the gym teacher: Even though she prefers the private sector and he the public sector, they are open-minded about their position, a trait uncharacteristic of the times we live in, don't you think? Based on this information, the argument might be reworded to "A career in the private sector is better than one in the public sector for a doctor" or  "A career in the public sector is better than one in the private sector for a young family with a hefty mortgage and college bills on the horizon."

Next we need to consider whether by a career in the public sector we're talking about a career in government jobs or also those non-government organizations whose main source of income is government funding. Also, are we talking about federal, state, or municipal government careers? What about the departments in those organizations? For private sector, we should also decide whether we mean only salaried jobs or self-employed careers too. Having reflected on those matters, we now change our proposition to Having a career as a purchasing manager in a federal government agency is better than one as a purchasing manager in a Fortune Global 500 corporation.

Now step 3. Should we continue to narrow our terms by mentioning the precise federal government agency and Fortune 500 company? What about the locations in the United States? Let's say the doctor and gym teacher settle on Having a career as a purchasing manager in the FBI in Washington, DC is better than one as a purchasing manager in Exxon Mobil in Irving, Texas.

With step 4 comes the choice of the comparison word better. What in the name of sanity does better mean? Better in what way? Support systems? Salary? Job security? Camaraderie? Paid time off? Growth opportunities? Professional development opportunities? Relocation options? Health benefits? Retirement benefits? Self-fulfillment? After-work area activities? We can go endlessly with this better word, so you can see the argument is bound to go in circles purposelessly without either person arguing persuasively or swaying the other.

Once we learn to define the terms of an argument, we'll often see that we have little to argue about because we agree with our presumed adversaries in most cases.

Friday, October 18, 2019

What's So Bad about Being Prepared?

My daughters and their husbands, who more than once have had to deal with my travel habits, just had to send me this article about a father planning to bring his family to the airport 14 hours before their scheduled flight. The just-in-case mentality of that dad reminded my family of me, and I must admit, they've got a point. I'm one of those what-if guys: What if we get a flat tire on the way to the airport? What if the road is closed because the President is in town? What if an accident backs up the traffic for miles and hours?

But I'll tell you why I have no apologies for such seemingly idiosyncratic behavior. It has served me well as a reader, a writer,  reader, and student of life. For decades, that mindset has made me bring a favorite book to the bank, doctor's office, post office, and supermarket for something to read in peace while waiting my turn as everyone else fumes over how long the line is. That sentiment has gotten me up an hour early for years so that I can better concentrate on my writing assignment as the world sleeps. That attitude has made me show up at the airport early to squeeze in an extra hour of reading or writing time in the comfort of my seat while others aimlessly drift through the terminal shops. I have not struggled through flights from New York to Beijing, Mumbai, and Sydney because I am always prepared to learn something new from whatever I am reading at the moment. The habit of being prepared has moved this man of ordinary intelligence but boundless curiosity (which is what most of us are, but we may not realize it) from one successful 19-year career as an organizational director to another successful 23-year one as an independent communication consultant and, if I'm lucky to have the health, yet another as a full-time writer in the near future.

Of course, if you're a mom, dad, grandparent, aunt, uncle, big sister, or brother responsible for young children, you wouldn't want to get to the airport early just to watch your restless kids wreck terminal shops and trounce on people waiting for their flight. But just thinking of waiting as a privilege and not an inconvenience has transformed my life—and it could yours if it hasn't already. 

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Ridiculousness of Some Words

Many English words have multiple meanings, sometimes opposite ones, as I noted in my post on contronyms. These differences can pose huge problems for readers trying to understand ideas, intentions, or instructions. Take a look at this seemingly clear email from a work supervisor to his manager:
I lack staff so production will presently slow down. I should leave momentarily to ask Ava if her staff could give me a hand.

In those two brief sentences, the writer uses the four words below. What do they mean?

1. lack
A) not enough
B) not at all
2. presently 
A) now
B) soon
3. should
A) obligation
B) possibility
4. momentarily
A) in a moment
B) for a moment
If you answered both A and B for all four words, you would be correct. These contrasting meanings can pose heaps of clarity issues for the reader. Does the supervisor have fewer staff than usual or no staff where he writes lack? Where he writes presently, does he mean the production will slow down by the time his manager reads the email for an undetermined time or for just a short while, which could end by the time she reads his email? Is he demanding or requesting a leave from his workstation where he writes should? Does he want to leave in a moment or for a moment to ask Ava for support where he uses momentarily?

For these reasons, a more careful writer would have sent this email:
I have two fewer team members, so production is decreasing by 25%. I will leave at 8:30 a.m. to ask Ava for support, and I'll return by 8:50 a.m.
Be precise, especially when words have clashing meanings, by finding substitute words that eliminate some of the ambiguity.

Friday, October 04, 2019

BOOK BRIEF: You Can't Win

Stanley Fish. Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn't Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom (Harper Collins, 2016) 212 pages 

Here's the only sure thing we can all agree on: 1 + 1 = 2. Although the 7-minute Babak Anvari film Two & Two suggests a brutal way to deny even that truth, most reasonable, educated (and free) people  concur that any data short of equations can be shredded, twisted, and rerouted to suit nearly any subjective viewpoint.

If this inconvenient truth disturbs your sensibilities, you will take more than you can tolerate when reading Stanley Fish's Winning Arguments, whose fundamental claims are that to argue is human and that truth and context are inseparable. Fish cleverly reviews a broad range of arguments from Hollywood to the White House with the discernment of a trial lawyer and the creativity of a poet to show how winning arguments work and how inevitable they are. He describes how the ebbs and flows of changing conditions, participants, and evidence can make virtually any argument winnable.

The winning in the book title is more adjective than verb. If you're searching for tips on how to present your case more persuasively, you might look for other books. But if you're interested in how fabled arguments held sway over huge audiences in the right place and at the right time, you'll get more than your money's worth.

Friday, September 27, 2019

BOOK BRIEF: To Debunk Strunk

Stanley Fish. How to Write a Sentence (and How to Read One). Harper Collins, 2011. 165 pages

Stanley Fish says we should not rely on The Elements of Style to write better sentences. 

And what serious writer or reader can find fault in such a claim? That revered book by William Strunk and E. B. White derived from Strunk's lecture notes when he was a Cornell University professor more than a century ago. A lot has changed in writing since those times. We have added some 100,000 words to our dictionary and even more meanings to existing words. Leading writers have twisted standard punctuation rules to fit their stylistic preferences. Technology too has transformed writing style, as tweet-like language increasingly pops up in what we previously considered formal writing. Globalism has also enabled us to appreciate varied syntactic formations, from Pilar's metaphrasing in Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls to Yoda's anastrophic sentence structure in the Star Wars franchise.

In How to Write a Sentence, Fish searches for a deeper meaning, a more revealing nature of the sentence than we find in The Elements of Style, and he succeeds in explaining that this syntactic unit transcends a mere collection of varied parts of speech to provide what most language teachers simply call a complete thought. Great sentences, in fact, contain far more than one complete thought; they possess a veritable universe of images and ideas that each reader imagines based on unique experiences. Fish takes us through the rhetorical strategies of what he calls subordinating (hierarchical, causal, or temporal), additive (coordinating or cumulative), and satiric (ironic) style sentences from the likes of Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, Elmore Leonard, Herman Melville, John Milton, Philip Roth, J. D. Salinger, Gertrude Stein, Booth Tarkington, Oscar Wilde, and Virginia Woolf. 

Some readers may see the net effect of Fish's approach as an intensive academic and philosophical examination of the writer's form and content. But his sensible explanations of the composer's intent and execution are entertaining and educational.