A recent Collegian editorial urged you to ‘debate with decorum’, which as a certain kind of advice is exactly what we ought to be saying to you — in order to keep society knit, we all off our neighbor’s throats, and so on. I’d like to humbly (I know!) suggest some other considerations to guide our year “pursuing truth, defending liberty, in good charity” to a fruitful, truthful end.
Lawyer, debater, and longtime publisher of National Review William Rusher notes at the start of “How to Win Arguments” that argument is a craft, not luck or emotion. Another thing he notes is the purpose of arguing — you may have guessed by now — winning.
We all understand that to win an argument is to bring our opponent over to our way of thinking or to encourage some action on their part. The desire to “prevail,” as Rusher puts it, is implicit in the act of arguing for this presidential candidate, that nudist endeavor, or those good manners. Somehow, instinctively, we give people reasons that they should think differently than they do.
So then winning arguments is quite natural, and doesn’t have the violent, triumphant connotations we might give it. A winning argument will prevail, carry the day — as an argument, be seen as fundamentally true — while remaining neat, cool, and collegial.
The first thing to be, then, is attentive. You want to win! The other person does too. They may even share your concerns — Mark Naida, last week, grounded his advocacy for nudism in concern for American sexual preoccupation (Sept. 10, “Nudists: stripping away objectification”), a social arrangement I doubt his critics would double down on. To beat him, first understand how his solution is a good one.
Follow him closely, arguer. Are his assertions true? You want to win by giving reasons, but he’s already shown you his. You’ll never win an argument if you don’t understand your opponent and their reason for thinking as they do, so do that first! If all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, it is no good to reply that Socrates is a very smart man — he’s still dead.
Rusher compares this process to a game of tic-tac-toe. Any reasonably smart child knows that a game isn’t won by sprinting at the three-in-a-row. Your moves must follow your opponent’s, and counter them. In a sense, your game is determined by your friend’s, but that’s the only way to prevail, no matter who started in the center box.
Therefore the second thing to be is open. Don’t just tell Naida that you disagree, and find nudity uncomfortable, and that it’s immoral besides. Your reasons must be his, in some way. Bring out what he didn’t; show what he covered up.
If you’re really concerned for the truth about a topic, then you’ll win. If you don’t think sexual fixation is a problem in America, then you shouldn’t have much to say to him. If you think it is a problem, a reality about the present that is in some way specific to our present moment, then Naida has already done a lot of work for you. Embracing the start he’s given will be your first step into the light.
Thirdly, then, be responsive. You and your opponent will always share the topic: that’s what should hold your attention. Show them new sides of the object; root out their errors; clarify their points. By instinct we give reasons for our positions, and expect others to listen. To win — that is, to win your opponent to your view of the topic you’re discussing — you must attend to their own reasons, respond to them, and be open to the truth about what you’re talking about, not just your own narrative.
Other ways of “winning”, such as humiliation, deceit, or physical violence ought to be covered by the Collegian’s recommendation of decorum; that they also preclude the pursuit of truth indicates deep things about the unity of truth in discourse and charity.