Mar 26, 2018

It's Not What You Think, It's How You Present It



I was a debater back in the day. Our high school team was very successful, thanks in large part to a coach who knew argumentation and demanded we learn to do it correctly. I went on to college debate and more coaches who taught me how logical argument must go. In its most basic form a point of debate should:
1. State your position clearly
2. Explain your position
3. Support your position with evidence
4. Restate your position in a brief, easily remembered form

That's why Facebook makes me crazy.

Today's social media allows for arguments so weak they'd be laughable if our society weren't in peril because of them. These arguments are tossed into the public forum from the highest levels of our government down to the lowest levels of education, people who can't even spell the word argue.
Not only are pathetically weak arguments presented, but when someone responds, that weak argument usually descends into name calling and insults. Here are a few examples of bad technique.

Generalization: When someone says "You liberals" or "All Republicans," they're assuming the groups are completely in agreement. If you're paying the slightest attention to what people say, that obviously isn't true. Every group has a range of opinions within its membership. Still, it's convenient to dismiss a whole group at once. Wrong, but convenient.

Simplification: Taking an argument down to This or That is almost always wrong. The abortion issue, for example, has lots of facets, different ways we could go about solving the problem of unwanted pregnancies, but it almost always gets down to "Baby Killers" vs "Abusers of Women's Rights." Though we don't like to admit it, most problems aren't black and white. They're complicated, and the answers don't come from screaming at each other across picket lines or media posts.

Whataboutism: Arguments about current behavior of a public figure often go off the rails when someone says, "Well, what about when X did Y?" That's the technique you used as a kid to deflect Mom's anger when you broke her vase. "Well, Bobby kicked the dog yesterday." I'm guessing it didn't work then either, but we love to point the finger at someone else when we're wrong.

Iknewsomebodyism: Everyone who argues for or against welfare cites examples to "prove" that welfare recipients are either saved by or abuse the system. Now there are real figures that show precisely what welfare does and doesn't do, and how it affects the nation. We'd rather look at the two families we know personally who live off the government or that one little old lady who'd have died without Meals on Wheels. Similarly, whenever a new shooter kills a bunch of people, arguers (including news media) rush to "prove" he demonstrates their favorite theory: Muslims are violent, white men are all repressed nuts, etc. On any topic, one example doesn't prove anything.

Namecalling: When all else fails, you win the argument by attacking your opponent, right? Wrong. You might see respondents fall away from your posts (except the bots who get paid to keep things going) but it's because they, unlike you, recognize that the last defense of a defeated debater is personal attack, and BTW, the more obscene your terminology, the weaker your argument was in the first place. No matter how much you despise a person or group, your feelings don't make their evidence incorrect, and no matter how much you admire someone, he or she can be wrong.

There are more bad ways to argue, and I'm aware that I won't convince people to stop using these techniques. Please recognize that the arguments above are amateurish and ineffective with those of us who think. In an actual debate, an opponent would smash them to bits, no matter what the topic was.

Then again, I'm reminded of what the secretly taped guy from Cambridge Analytica said: Truthfulness doesn't matter. You should go for people's feelings, not logic. In that case, today's online arguments are all exactly where those who hate America want them to be.


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