People are wrong on the internet. People are wrong about everything. Culture, LGBT issues, vaccinations, religion, bathrooms, music, and whether or not Kim Kardashian’s nude photos are empowering (I only looked at the photo for science reasons, I swear.)
And it’s our job to set people right, to make sure that they know the truth about whatever we know the truth about.
Suffice it to say, I don’t have a problem with this sense of duty. I mean, I write a blog, and while it’s not expressly for those reasons, it certainly could come off so, and it would seem very hypocritical if I had a problem with other people speaking their minds.
But what we have happening right now is that people are very afraid to understand one another. So today, I’m going to tell you why you should take your opponent’s arguments seriously, and give you some tools for dismantling opponent’s arguments and mounting the best possible ones you can for yourself.
- Identify the opponent. Is this a politician? Are they a scientist? What kinds of things do they like to read? What hobbies do they talk about? What race are they? What is their background like? What religion are they? Do they have children? Who is this person?
I realize that these kinds of questions are usually only used to delegitimize people (as in, “Oh, he’s a Goldman Sachs employee, so OBVIOUSLY he’s biased!”), but these questions can be helpful for establishing a base with someone and knowing the direction that their argument comes from. Only once you identify who a person is can you have a meaningful dialogue with them.
And I know that the conversations I’m talking about take place online, and there’s no time for that. But if you take the time to skip the outrage and identify the person, you can start arguments better, and therefore end them better.
- Identify the argument. You can’t argue with something if you don’t even know what you’re arguing against. (Rephrase: You totally can, but you shouldn’t.) You should seek to gain as much information as you can about someone’s position and then be able to clearly and concisely repeat it to them in a way that makes them say “Yes, I agree with that. That’s a correct summation of my beliefs.”
The only opponent who will respect you is an opponent who believes that you have fully considered their argument, and you can best demonstrate that you have by knowing what that argument is.
- Identify chief/root objections. Next, you must consider the argument. Another person, who is living and breathing and thinking just like you, finds this argument to be very compelling and you don’t. Why? Well, it’s going to take some work, and I can guarantee that you’ll want to make some short-sighted stops or assumptions along the way.
Consider the argument. Have you seen it before? Where? In history or literature? In other forms of discourse? Does this argument have similarities to others on which you and your opponent agree? If so, what is the element of disagreement with this one? Is there an objection underneath the asserted one? Are all the objections based in fact, or is the root of one or more a misconception?
This is a lot of work. But you owe it to yourself to do this work because you will come out as a more enlightened individual AND be able to accomplish your goal of making more compelling arguments.
- Identify the solution. The solution includes all of the elements we’ve mentioned so far to create the most charitable vision of your opponent’s argument. I would also throw in here that it is important, insofar as is possible and reasonable, to ascribe the most charitable intentions to your opponent.
If you approach with a propositional attitude of disbelief, then your ability to follow these steps will be subject from the start. It’s important to take your opponent in good faith, and to not presuppose ill intentions.
What I’m suggesting is difficult, but it can help you get to your goal faster, because it makes things just as difficult for your opponent. After showing respect, listening, showing that you understand the full intent and extent of their argument, and creating the most charitable vision of that, it’s powerful to say that it’s that idea that you disagree with.
It’s the best, most accurately realized picture of what they believe that you disagree with, rather than some half-baked, barely recognizable form of it. In cases like that, your opponent will easily be able to say that you don’t agree with them because you don’t understand their position…and a lot of times, they’ll be right about that.
In summation, these steps don’t win you everything, but they win more arguments and they win you respect even in arguments you don’t win.
Try these out the next time someone on the Internet is wrong about something and see if they work for you. They sure did for me.
*Many of these ideas are straight up stolen from my good friend Siggy. He’s like a muse that spouts off wisdom from dead smart dudes.
Photographer: Brett Jordan