Destroying Arguments, Constructively
An essay about how to argue
Humans are still relatively new at disagreeing on the Internet and we’re often doing a terrible job at it. Is there a better way?
There’s no shortage of scathing content published to the Internet via blog, video, and social media sites. And it’s more harmful than helpful. These are the articles and videos that “rip the other side apart,” “destroy their opponents,” and “crush their everything.” You know, gladiator talk... but from a keyboard at a coffee shop.
The destructive terms used by this content serves as an ironically true way to describe itself. It’s destructive, not constructive; it’s divisive, not persuasive.
While vernacular may differ, this kind of talk often comes from both sides of a given issue. It’s the left and the right, the religious and non-religious, the socialist and the capitalist, the Star Warriors or the Trekkies (okay, I have no idea about that last one). While the degree and the amount of such content varies based on the issue, it’s demonstrably from both sides.
By and large, these messages are saturated with straw men and ad hominem arguments. The other side is demonized, not fairly represented. They’re the objects of insult, not people met with empathy. To make it worse, it’s often the radical outliers of one group that are used as the representatives for the entire group. A broad brush is used when a small one would do better.
Because of this, the other side will never receive the author’s message and never change. Why? Because they don’t see themselves rightly portrayed. And to the degree that this is true, why should they? This type of sensationalized content speaks well to one audience: those who already agree. It stays in the echo chamber.
So, if the goal is to stir up those already in agreement, it may be a good strategy to that end. And, while it’d be one thing if it stayed there, it doesn’t. As we know, ideas have consequences—whether they are true or false. When false ideas are perpetuated, real damage is done. The echo chamber of lies eventually uncorks as a dangerous set of presuppositions and blind hostility, sometimes even hatred.
Several years back, my pastor introduced me to a study on systematic theology. Before diving into the big discussions like the nature of man and the character of God, our first subject was called prolegomena: an introduction to theology. It seemed like an unnecessary step at first. Why not just jump right into the deeper waters? Well, it turns out I wasn’t ready to swim. Before we could come to the right conclusions, we needed to be ready to deliberate on multiple viewpoints—viewpoints that were fairly represented.
During this course, we discussed the idea of irenicism. Irenic comes from the Greek word εἰρήνη, meaning “peace.” It’s on the opposite spectrum as polemicism (Gk. πολεμικός), which is hostile or warlike. In part, if we’re describing a viewpoint irenically, it should be difficult to tell what side of the issue we’re on. Not because we agree with everything, but because we’re representing it so well.
This doesn’t mean that all truth is equivalent or equivocal. It means that we should acknowledge and represent others’ viewpoints fairly. In discourse, we’re asking our audience to make a judgment or conclusion. This is a weighty responsibility. We should do so based on the objective reality rather than a misrepresentation of that reality.
This requires a great deal of empathy in how we deal with persons. I say this emphatically for a reason. People are made in the Imago Dei (“image of God”). We are not a sum total of an idea that we hold. We have a body, mind, and spirit; we’re moral, rational, personal, and emotional beings made in the likeness of our Creator. So when we disagree about an issue, we fundamentally aim our disagreement on that issue, as fellow persons.
One way to do this is by listening first. That is, really listening. Often we’re guilty of listening simply in order to craft a response. This doesn’t only happen on news programs or the debate floor. It happens on social media or when we talk with a co-worker at lunch. Rather, we should listen first for the sake of understanding. That’s when we can have a meaningful discussion.
Irenic dialogue also implies a charitable interpretation of what people say. Sometimes we only hear what we want to hear. Or, we emphasize a rhetorical blunder rather than what’s intended. Additionally, we can even assume intent based on whose “camp” the person is in. This happens in politics all the time. A 10-second soundbite can be used to unravel someone’s entire character. When we read or hear something, we shouldn’t assume malintent without giving it a full and fair hearing.
For example, we experience a difference in reading one of our favorite authors. When they something we might normally disagree with, we might search the context of what they’re saying so we can be sure we’re understanding them correctly. (I’ve often found myself simply misunderstanding what’s being said.) Admittedly, that’s a benefit I don’t naturally give to everyone.
While an irenic attitude in our content won’t fix our problems, it does facilitate the possibility. When we enter into the waters of disagreement, it’s important to understand and accurately represent the other side. And, where there’s true disagreement, let’s bring it to light and honestly discuss it as fellow persons.
Growing in this area might just reshape the marketplace of ideas into a fruitful exchange rather than a volley between trenches.