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.