Dear drama observers,
I realize there’s a chunk of click bait on the hook of this week’s letter entitled “We Should Argue More.” It sounds like I plan to bizarrely extol the merits of knock-down-drag-outs, fighting like cats and dogs, or conversational cage matches.
I actually will argue that we should argue more. But as Bill Clinton said when asked if he should’ve handled the Lewinsky scandal differently in light of the MeToo movement, “Let me explain.”
Webster defines an argument as:
- a coherent series of reasons, statements, or facts intended to support or establish a point of view
- a form of rhetorical expression intended to convince or persuade
My point is to say that, by Webster’s definition, our public discourse these days—at least what we observe on social media and cable talk shows—is seldom characterized by the making of arguments. Rather, it’s characterized by the slinging of zingers. The list is long, but I’d like to highlight just a few notable distinctions between Zinger-Slingers and Argument-Makers.
Provocation vs. Persuasion
Zinger-Slingers seem to have no interest in persuading their ideological opponents but take great delight in provoking them. How often have you heard the asinine statement, “I must be doing it right if I’m making the right people mad.” The word, schadenfreude, has made its way into our public lexicon, which means: pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. “Their tears are delicious,” is a way of expressing this ecstatic schadenfreude.
Well, if anger incitement or pain infliction is your conflict objective, you get an A. But if persuasion is the goal, F is your grade. Insulted opponents seldom—if ever—change their minds, but they almost always stiffen their resolve.
Arguments-Makers, on the other hand, seek, in the words of Webster, to persuade through presenting a coherent series of reasons, statements, or facts. Opinion alteration is the conversational objective. The Argument-Maker is driven by the notion: “When this conversation ends, I want that person thinking more about what I said than how I said it.”
Arguments are designed to persuade the people in front of you. Zingers are designed to make the people behind you cheer.
Beliefs vs. Convictions
Beliefs stem from knowing what you believe.
Convictions stem from knowing what you believe AND why you believe it.
Zinger-Slingers can usually recite the bullet points of the tribal creed and are well-versed on those things they’re against. Argument-Makers can also tell you what they’re against but, more importantly, they can elaborate upon what they’re for. They understand the philosophical underpinnings animating their belief system.
To use a biblical example, the ideas of Zinger-Slingers are planted in rocky soil, leaving them poorly rooted and easily plucked. On the flip-side, Argument-Makers are planted in rich soil, leaving them firmly rooted and less susceptible to those who might try to pull out the old ideas and plant new ones their place.
Lazy vs. Diligent
It takes work to build an argument. I’m making the argument in this letter that Argument-Makers have significantly more impact than Zinger-Slingers. I didn’t come to this conclusion lightly—I’ve had to struggle a bit to formulate my thoughts, figure out how to express them, and then transfer them from my pea brain into an email. That takes effort.
I’ve found that Zinger-Slingers bypass the effort by taking rhetorical short cuts. Or to put it another way, they cheat in the war of ideas. If I’m a Zinger-Slinger, I’ll frequently make use of the ad hominem attack. That is, if I can discredit you as a person, I’m no longer obligated to wrestle with your ideas. I’m off the hook because, after all, why would I give someone like you the time of day? Or, I would use straw-man arguments in which I construct your position from easily refutable pieces, tear it down, and get cheered as the victor. And I’ve “won” without exerting the effort to consider or refute your actual position.
Means vs. Ends
The Argument-Maker is principled. That is, he or she cares not only about the end goal of persuading an ideological opponent but also cares about the means used to accomplish that persuasion.
But for the Zinger-Slinger, the end justifies the means. For example, “If I must lie to promote truth, I’ll do it,” he thinks grotesquely. Or, “If the other side is doing it, we must do it, too.” For the Zinger-Slinger, winning is the highest value. “When winning is all that matters,” Daniel Krauthammer wrote last year, “questions of morality are superfluous.”
Tribal vs. Civil
Finally, Zinger-Slingers build walls while Argument-Makers build bridges.
The Zinger-Slinger’s chief motivation is to plant his tribal flag atop the cultural hill. Like the famous picture of soldiers raising the American flag over Iwo Jima, the Zinger-Slinger envisions a similar Us-versus-Them conquest. And once the “other” is conquered, the war is over, the thinking goes.
But the Argument-Maker understands that all victories are fleeting and yearns not for a once-and-for-all victory but for a civil society where ideas can be respected and debated on an ongoing basis. The Argument-Maker has confidence in the enduring strength of ideas. He or she realizes that you can win moments but lose minds.
Zingers produce exciting flare-ups like lighter fluid squirted onto a match. Arguments produce charcoal fires that keep producing warmth long after the lighter fluid has burned off.
All of this to say, we should argue more.
Until next week.