Fight Fair: 5 Principles to Better Arguments

It’s no surprise to anyone who ingests any form of media that society is becoming more polarized and less civil. Social media provides a voice for many who previously were limited by time and space to broadcast their ideas nationally and internationally. Of course, the size and attention limits of the various platforms means that ideas are often presented that are either unclear or incomplete, and the ability for instant response means that people may fire back their own unclear or incomplete argument without pausing for a moment to think better of it. The proliferation of news and “news” sites means that people can find evidence to prop up whatever argument they want to make, even if it is preposterous.

I’ll admit, I’m guilty. As an owner of various online platforms, I’ve at times been mean to people when I could have chosen charity. I’ve used bad sources. I’ve gone after straw men. I’ve focused more on winning the argument instead of informing the person and any audience that may be present. I’ve learned a lot of what I’m about to discuss by failing miserably.

Today, I want to share 5 principles that I think we could all follow to make discourse, particularly in the online sphere, more productive and more civil.

1. Avoid Ad Hominem

“Ad hominem” is a Latin phrase that literally means, “to the man”. It is a logical fallacy where one opts to target and discredit a person instead of the argument they are making. It might feel good, especially in the heat of battle against someone who we think is really wrong, but it’s a cop-out. There’s unlikable and immoral people who make some good arguments. There’s decent-living upright people that I hardly agree with on anything.

If, during an argument,  our objective shifts from making good arguments to educate and inform to making our opponent look bad, we blew it.

2. Choose Sources Carefully

Every source has some kind of implicit or explicit bias. Every writer will editorialize a little, even when the objective is reporting cold hard facts. But some sources offend worse than others. For instance, if a source has “Conservative” or “Democrat” in the name, it’s difficult to argue that they are being objective and unbiased. Plus, it’s a virtual guarantee that if we pull from such a source, anyone on the opposite side of the argument isn’t going to take it seriously. Sure, our like-minded friends will like and share away, but that only creates an echo chamber.

Generally, the best sources are actual media (read: not pundit/commentary) outlets that have boots on the ground doing journalism. Even on issues that the mainstream national media doesn’t want to report on, there’s almost always a local newspaper, TV or radio station, or online publication that will provide facts-driven reporting. Those sort of entities have to report honestly, because there is a trust between the publisher and the reading audience. There can still be spin and bias, but it is lessened. Even more effective is to find an authoritative source of your opponent’s position, and make your point using that. Sometimes people are not aware of their own consistency until it is pointed out.

It should go without saying, but avoid “fake news” and sources that promulgate conspiracy theories. Nothing torpedoes credibility faster.

3. Don’t Cherry-Pick Arguments (or Representatives of Arguments)

There is a tendency to pick the absolute worst arguments that have been made for a particular side and attack them as though doing so undermines the entire position. If I’m dealing with an atheist, it’s probably not best to levy an attack against the asinine flying-spaghetti-monster arguments unless my opponent goes there first. If I’m going to argue against Mormonism, my first instinct shouldn’t be to bring up Colorado City. Such tactics show an opponent that I’m so focused on winning, I’m not interested in hearing what they actually have to say or believe.

Not only do we tend towards picking the worst opposing arguments to attack, we tend to pick the worst people. We all know that the world is increasingly violent, and you can find psychos from just about every camp that have gone on killing sprees. It is unfair and disrespectful to bring up those cases as representative of an entire position. Just because some conservative (or liberal) went on a politically-motivated rampage doesn’t mean that every conservative (or liberal) is that way. Likewise, as a Christian, just because some prosperity heretic or 700 Club member says something, that doesn’t mean they speak for me.

These sort of tactics demonstrate intellectual laziness. It is much easier to make someone look bad when we can equivocate them with someone or something awful. But it accomplishes nothing, other than causing unnecessary offense and further contributing to our current culture of polarization. It is always better to take the time to understand what our opponents believe and appeal from sources that they find authoritative. But, you can’t do that unless you…

4. Listen More Than You Talk

In a heated discussion, it’s easy to lose patience and try to steamroll the opposition. Maybe you have some sweet-spot “gotcha” argument that, once deployed, will cause your opponent’s case to collapse like a house of cards, and you want to get there. Maybe you find your opponents argument particularly distasteful, and you want to sternly rebuke it. Sure, it’s good to make strong counter-arguments, and yes, some things do deserve rebuke, but that doesn’t mean that your opponent is not an image-bearer of God who is due dignity and respect, or that they have nothing good to say. Make sure you know who you’re dealing with and what they believe before going on the attack. Ask questions. Listen to answers. Interact with the ideas presented, not just your preexisting knowledge of the subject.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Apologize

If you fail to keep 1-4 above, or any other conventions of civil dialogue, or if you make an argument and realize it is bad or untrue, own it. Don’t double-down on something you said that was out of line. Admit the wrong and apologize. Yes, it’s humbling, even embarrassing, but not nearly as bad as digging in on unstable ground.

If what we advocate is worth advocating for, it’s worth advocating for in a respectful, consistent, and civil way. By applying these 5 principles, we can all have better, nicer, and more productive arguments. ♦

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