How to Lose an Argument by Winning It

I’ve been following a helpful and prolific blog called Tafacory, which explores a wide range of theological and philosophical topics. Tafacory sometimes “reblogs” the work of other writers, and recently included an essay by Mila Jaroniek called “The Proper Way To Argue.” Jaroniek’s piece is clever and well-written, and in some cases its ideas would be quite useful. In other cases, however, they could backfire. Knowing whether to use her approach requires asking, “What is my agenda?” Here are some typical agendas that motivate conversations about religion:

1. I want to change the mind of the person I am addressing.

2. I want to change the mind of someone who is observing the discussion.

3. I want to humiliate someone whose views on religion are inferior to my own.

4. I want to make myself feel clever and superior.

So let’s be honest. What is our real agenda? What are we actually trying to accomplish?

Jaroniek’s approach would work well for agenda items 3 and 4, and it could work with #2. But if your goal is to change the mind of the person you are addressing, this is a questionable strategy. Examples:

Jaroniek suggests intimidating your “opponent” “with a steely gaze.” But as soon as you start thinking of another person as an opponent. your ability to constructively connect will diminish. And don’t forget that we are primates. With primates, a steely gaze triggers fight-or-flight responses that reduce our ability to reason objectively. I would hope we are trying to help people become more rational rather than less.

She also advocates amassing facts and references to “mercilessly lob at your opponent” – more warlike language. Note that one of her main headings is “Leave the emotions out of it” because “only weak-willed earthlings make emotional arguments.” Fine, but if you want to minimize emotionality, don’t do things that trigger fear and anger.

When I lead workshops on Bridging the God Gap, here is the statement that gets the biggest laugh, and it’s a laugh of understanding and agreement:

“Without knowing it we may approach a dialogue about religion as if we’ve entered a physical fight. When we smite someone on the forehead with a particularly weighty argument, we may expect this poor benighted soul to bow down in surrender, grateful for having been shown the light. How disappointing when people just resent us for making them look stupid.”

In other words, by humiliating someone you can win an argument “on paper,” but lose in your efforts to change that person’s mind.

I certainly agree with Mila that conversations about religion are often overly emotional. But I do think there is one legitimate use for emotional arguments in these discussions. An example or analogy that calls forth a feeling-response can help make an idea “real” rather than merely abstract and theoretical.

Suppose you are objecting to the idea that people who do not accept Jesus as their savior will all go to hell. Rather than just saying that a loving God would not send “good folks” to hell, speak specifically of Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. Many people find it hard to deal with bloodless abstractions. Putting a face on a theoretical argument may enable your friend to take that argument seriously. So an emotional appeal can actually be a prerequisite to rational discussion.

Roger Christan Schriner

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4 thoughts on “How to Lose an Argument by Winning It

  1. My agenda used to be all four of the agendas described, but these days I am more interested in what other people think and learning from other perspectives, broadening my landscape of ideas.

    Perhaps, if we want to have a more relaxed and respectful approach when discussing religion, we need to train ourselves not to get excited, defensive, aggressive, point scoring, etc. Do we need to plan to say things like:
    “That’s an interesting idea. Can you tell me more about that?”
    “How long have you held that view? How strongly do you hold it?”
    “What made you decide that’s what you believed? Have you always thought that, or were there events that triggered a change?”
    “I can see the strength of your argument. I wonder how it would apply to Situation X or how it would be reconciled with Belief Y?”

    I have noticed that most Anglican priests I know, when told by someone what they think about God’s existence, prayer, suffering, etc, do not jump in with “Well, I believe ……..”. They just nod and smile and keep listening. They only offer a point of view when asked. They seem so relaxed and secure about things that they don’t feel the need to defend themselves. I find this a helpful model.

    If we still want to find ways to encourage others to change their beliefs, the psychology of attitude and belief change is relevant. When and how are people persuaded to change their minds? Perhaps this deserves a separate blog entry, though?

    • Thanks for your comment. I especially liked these questions: “What made you decide that’s what you believed? Have you always thought that, or were there events that triggered a change?”

      Thanks also for reporting your experiences with Anglican priests. Very encouraging.

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