Tuesday, March 29, 2016

For Arguments Sake

Since the creation of language, humans have spent an unfathomable amount of time arguing. Long ago our species realized that we could have verbal disagreements, lead by intellect (mostly), that do not result in someone’s skull being bashed in with a rock. From quarrels about just how large that saber-tooth tiger was to heated discussions concerning whether Superman or The Hulk would win in a fight, people simply love to debate. Whether it’s in a cave, a building of government or on Facebook, this will to argue is the same. While everyone may not like the confrontation, each of us have ideas we are willing defend or attack. Arguing may seem like a negative aspect of humanity, however, I am a strong believer that it is necessary and important.

Henry Fonda in one of the greatest debate movies, 12 Angry Men.
Anyone who knows me, on social media or otherwise, understands that I have no problem stating and defending my views. I am certainly not one shy away from a mental sparing match, gaining me a bit of a reputation at home and online. To some, I can come off as overly argumentative and opinionated with most things politically and social justice related. My eagerness for debate is undeniably intense, I acknowledge that, but it is a fundamental piece of my personality. I consider a healthy back-and-forth to be an underrated art form and educational tool.

Debate can no doubt be frustrating; the word itself comes for the Old French word debatre, which literal translation is to beat down. At it’s core though, the process of arguing is essentially just the exchange of ideas and beliefs, it is anger and pride that makes it a fight. Humans are emotional beings and we often find it difficult when others disagree with us, I certainly do sometimes. However, I try to remember the words of attorney and activist, Dudley Field Malone, “I have never in my life learned anything from any man who agreed with me.” Not all disagreements are necessarily useful but if there is a mutual respect and understanding, they can be very insightful.

In Ancient Greece, the great philosopher Socrates used Elenchus also known the Socratic method to formally debate various topics. This method, similar to the style still used today, employs logic to cross examine widely held ideas and beliefs. Most of us are not philosophers or debate champions, but I believe we all have the ability to use the basic tenants of formal debate and argue more effectively. As we can observe from the last few presidential debates and just about any comment thread on a news website, many people’s argument skills could use some work. The problem is not that people argue but rather how people argue.

I consider myself to be a journeyman of debate; for any March Madness fans out there, I am no expert but I can still throw the ball consistently. I have learned that some of the biggest problems stem from errors in reasoning or logical fallacy, if you are familiar with philosophy. One of the most common of these fallacies committed is ad hominem, in which someone personally attacks their opponent instead of the validity of their argument. Another frequent error is the Straw Man fallacy, when a person deliberately alters the argument or words of their challenger to make their position easier to defeat. Beyond the philosophy perspective however, we need alter the perception that the only point of a debate is to win, when it should be to learn.

When it comes to debate, in person or on social media, it is always important that we truly listen to what others have to say. Listening to those with different views may not always be easy but it is a crucial part of life. One of my favorite high school teacher’s once said, "Grow comfortable with discomfort and save the future.” I deeply hold the notion that when we must be willing to have dialogue about the difficult subjects and by doing so, grow as people and as a society.


  1. Cheers Dr. Mort! Our hope rests in discourse. Jim Chrisfield

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