I came across this NYT article the other day, in which Pamela Paul interviews a young competitive debater, Bo Seo, about how to have better arguments. I enjoyed reading it and agreed with most of what he said. Here are some parts of the article that I thought were particularly interesting, though the whole piece is well worth a read. 

The first might surprise you: Seo thinks that we need to disagree with each other more, and do so more respectfully and reasonably. But he also thinks that one way to express respect for your interlocutor is by disagreeing with them and arguing back in a reasoned way.

Bo Seo, a 28-year-old two-time world debating champion, says the problem of polarization isn’t so much that we disagree but rather that “we disagree badly: Our arguments are painful and useless.” We spend more time vilifying, undermining and nullifying those we disagree with than opening or changing their minds. If more people took their cues from the world of competitive debate, he argues in a recent book, it would be easier to get people to reconsider their views or at least consider those of others.Let’s consider his argument. In his book, “Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard,” Seo, now a second-year student at Harvard Law School, says what we need is to disagree more but to do so constructively. In debate, he writes, rebuttal — arguing back — is “a vote of confidence not only in ourselves but in our opponents, one that contained the judgment that the other person was deserving of our candor and that they would receive it with grace.” Approaching arguments with reason, logic, respect and empathy can help people handle opposing views. [emphasis mine]

I’ve got to say that, personally, this resonates with me a lot. That being said, I’ve also got to say that this attitude is not universally shared – I’ve talked to plenty of people who haven’t taken what I thought were friendly rebuttals as votes of confidence! But, at the very least, thinking in these terms might make it easier for us to react well to sincerely expressed disagreement and see it in the best possible light: not as an attack or as condemnation or belittlement, but as a compliment. 

I also think that it would be good if more people accepted this paradigm. It would mean that we would feel less attacked, less defensive, when people disagreed with us. An argument doesn’t have to be a fight between two sides. It can be a collaborative effort to figure out the truth about a particular topic. 

Seo has three tips for doing this well and having good productive arguments.  His first tip is obvious but important.

First, know when to engage. Arguments, Seo reminds us, are “easy to start and hard to end.” For a dispute to go well, it should be real, important and specific. You need to have a point to make, not just an emotional conflict or complaint to air. If someone has hurt you, figure out why; that becomes a real basis for argument.

Applying this to the abortion debate, if you wade into an argument with a pro-choice person, it’s worth being clear to yourself about what it is that you are disagreeing about exactly. This is the reason you are starting the argument in the first place – make sure you know what that is! To use an imaginary example that illustrates why this is: it would not be a good idea if, when in conversation with Jill, a pro-choice activist who you personally know and dislike, you respond to her claim that ‘Irish society is really sexist’ by wading into a nitpicky argument about whether Ireland is really sexist or just moderately sexist, and the real reason why you cared about the exchange was just that you were just generally annoyed with Jill. The causes you’re pursuing here are not very worthwhile. This may be painfully obvious when we spell out ‘your’ imaginary motivations out in a make-believe case, but in plenty of real scenarios it’s actually surprisingly easy to get swept away without even quite realising that our main point and our motivations are this dubious. 

This brings us to the second step, which is straightforward enough not to warrant its own quote:  Once you know what your point is, you can decide whether it’s worth arguing about. So, is the point your arguing worth thinking about carefully, worth spending time talking about? Is it what you most want to be talking to this person about at the moment? 

The third tip I’d like to draw attention to is, I think, really crucially important:

Finally, stick to the specific dispute at hand so that the argument doesn’t expand or spiral. If the disagreement really is over the dishwasher (and look, there’s often cause), don’t let it become a referendum on your marriage.

In pro-life arguments, one application of this could be something like ‘If you’re talking about bodily rights arguments, stick to that. Try not to jump back and forth between that and personhood arguments. (If your interlocutor changes topic, that’s one thing. But don’t change it yourself!)’ or ‘If you’re talking about abortion, and mid-conversation they say that being a monk is a really sad way to spend your life, and you disagree, say so if you want, but then go back to the original topic, and leave this new one for another day. The same is true of switching from talking about abortion being wrong to talking about the ‘liberal agenda’, or the ‘neo-liberal agenda’, or ‘feminists having lost their way’, and a whole host of other topics. It’s not that you can never change the topic – but beware of doing so in a way that might start off a spiralling series of disputes you might never get to the bottom of. If you’re arguing about ten different things at once, it’s hard to get anywhere. 

So that’s this week’s blog. It was a nice surprise to find this stellar advice all written out for me by someone else!