How Not to Argue Like a Chimpanzee Slinging Poo

When I read articles about what is happening in Washington DC, I almost always come away thinking that Americans deserve a better government than we have. But when I read the comments under these same articles, I realize that we have exactly the government we deserve. It would be hard to imagine a government more dysfunctional and divided than the comments section of the Washington Post.

Don’t disagree with a position until you can paraphrase that position to the satisfaction of the person who holds it.
Michael Austin
I say this as someone who believes that spirited public debate is one of the most important things that the citizens of a free republic can do. Our political system was set up to produce arguments; it cannot function without them. Nonetheless, I cannot imagine a more soul-destroying activity than reading the comment section of a publicly available news or blog site. This is because people almost never argue in such forums—they just call each other names and sneer a lot.

It is relatively easy to call somebody stupid or evil, even when it involves thinking up new adjectives to say the same things. Sneering sarcasm is not much harder, nor are personal criticisms and broad-brushed partisan attacks. We’re good at that stuff. We are primates after all, and members of our species have been throwing poo at each other for millions of years.

In theory, at least, human beings can do better. Thousands of years ago, a Greek rhetorician named Hermagoras developed a series of protocols to identify the point of stasis—or the point where the participants in an argument have actually agreed about the question that they disagree about. Until an argument evolves to a point of stasis, it is almost certainly not going to be an argument—just a joint appearance by people being as unpleasant as possible to each other.

There has been a lot of good stuff written about stasis theory, but the basics are pretty simple: the types of claims that people make can be divided into four general categories, which the Greeks called conjectural, definitional, qualitative, and translative—but which modern rhetoricians mercifully now call “questions of fact,” “questions of value,” “questions of policy,” and “questions of definition.” Most shouting matches never really become arguments because participants make no effort to understand what kinds of claims are really at issue.

But now we are straying into specialist jargon, which isn’t even necessary. All you have to do to have a real argument, and not a shouting match, is follow one simple rule. Here it is: Don’t disagree with a position until you can paraphrase that position to the satisfaction of the person who holds it. In this way, you will  always agree about what you are disagreeing about, which is essentially what “reaching the point of stasis” means. And as it turns out, this simple human courtesy will convert 99% of unpleasant disagreements into actual arguments with the potential to educate, inform, and influence opinion.

Over the next few weeks, I plan to use this space to expand on some of these issues and discuss ways to make political arguments, if not pleasant experiences, at least educational ones. And these strategies have the added advantage of not destroying relationships or making you look like an incorrigible jerk–or a chimpanzee slinging a big wad of its own poo.