Editorial: Learning to argue

Kourtney Kaufman, Managing Editor

The weeks following the Florida shooting that left 17 people dead have been stock full of rhetoric in the media about gun reform and issues related to gun control in America and across the globe. These arguments have reduced many to name calling and a lack of consideration for others.

The problem is not the debate itself. In fact, most people want the same thing – for children and teachers to be safe at school and for these tragedies to stop. The problem is that in the midst of heightened emotion people have forgotten how to argue productively or have never know how to do that in the first place.

This name calling and hateful rhetoric divides people and drives us further away from a solution.

So how can we disagree with someone without berating them for their beliefs? How can we argue without name calling?

  1. Separate the issue from the person – Don’t make broad assumptions about people because they believe something different than you. If we separate our feelings about a particular issue from the person we are having a debate with, we can really listen and try to understand where the other person is coming from. Again, the majority of people want the same things – safety, freedom, and respect. Treating people as people instead of writing them off because they have a different opinion than you is incredibly important.
  2. Don’t call people names – Nothing makes you sound more unintelligent and like you have lost the fight like resorting to name calling. This practice confirms that you have absolutely no respect for the other person. It also makes it seem as if you have nothing better to base your argument on than personal attacks. In the book The 12 Secrets of Persuasive Arguments, the authors define an ad hominem argument as one that fails to address the actual argument at hand but instead attacks the character of the person. It states, “The argument should be addressed to the issues in dispute, not to the character of the opposing advocate.”
  3. Don’t stereotype – Similar to name calling, stereotyping does not help your case. Just because someone is a democrat does not mean they want to take your guns away. Just because someone is a republican does not mean they want guns in schools. Broad assumptions are dangerous because they create further divides between people and draw conclusions that may not be true.
  4. Watch your tone – Often the way we present our argument is even more important than the actual words we say. Speak to people with respect and they will respect what you have to say. Even if what you are saying is true, people will not be open to hear it if you say it with a blatantly disrespectful tone.
  5. Listen – We cannot build an argument against a certain point of view unless we really understand it. Read and listen to rhetoric from both sides of the debate. Aim to listen to understand their perspective not to refute what they are saying. Sometimes really hearing what a person is saying will give us a broader understanding of our own viewpoints or maybe even change our mind. In a Harvard Business Review article, CEO of Bregman Partners, Peter Bregman said “When someone feels heard, he relaxes. He feels generous. And he becomes more interested in hearing you.” If we refuse to truly listen in a debate, each person ends up even more convinced of their perspective. To that end there was no point in having the conversation to begin with.
  6. Be willing to walk away – If the argument is not going anywhere, do not be afraid to end it. There is no need to engage in inflammatory conversations that will not lead to any change or understanding.
  7. Do your own research – Don’t depend on memes or information from social media to build your argument. These may be good starting places but are typically not the most reliable sources of information. Make sure to look at multiple sources and to draw your own conclusions based on facts.

I strongly believe that healthy conversations about hard topics can be great things not only to increase our understanding but also to begin real change. However, if we continue patterns of name-calling and divisiveness, we will separate ourselves and stunt potential growth.