In Defense of Arguing

Do you want a romantic partner who loves to argue? Do you want employees, colleagues, and friends who criticize you? Do you value politicians and public intellectuals who aggressively challenge each other? If so, you are among an increasingly scarce breed. Despite its roots in rhetoric and philosophy, the notion of “arguing” as a way of resolving conflict has an unmistakably negative connotation. We conflate arguing with aggression, violence, even war. Arguing, and contradicting what other people believe, is often seen as offensive, confrontational, disrespectful. 

But to the organized mind, in pursuit not of comforting half-truths but genuine truth, willingness to argue is a crucial trait. We push back against assertions and authority because we value the truth of an idea more than its emotional agreeableness. One person advances an idea, others criticize or question it, and a refined idea emerges. Occasionally, someone turns out to be wrong. 

A recent post from the Foundation for Economic Education’s “Revolution of One” project summarizes the social value of realizing you’re wrong:

The value of being wrong is undersold by a society that penalizes mistakes. When you’re wrong, you get an opportunity to learn and improve your thinking. Mistakes are inherently valuable, even if they’re not desirable.

Being seen as ‘argumentative,’ challenging ideas in an attempt to refine them, doesn’t make you popular, especially in a world that values the methods, nor the good intentions of the argumentative sort.  Submitting your ideas for general argument and encouraging people to criticize the ideas (hopefully not their author) is equally difficult work. 

The competent manager relishes argument between his staff members, because it helps him see all sides of an issue and come to the best decision. When the stakes are high and the chips are down, we shouldn’t ignore those who want to contradict and object. They may help us to see the angles we have not yet considered, point out our blindspots. 

Virtually all of the interesting moral and scientific progress over the past several centuries is a result of asking not, “what don’t we know?” but “what if we’re wrong?” Diseases and environmental phenomena are crucial parts of human experience, so we made up explanations that seemed plausible to some degree or another. In the absence of germ theory, “miasma” and witchcraft were bad ideas in general circulation. A willingness to be wrong, and to argue with orthodoxy, precedes the experimentation that reveals genuine truth with provable results.

But judging by their willingness to argue and be argued with, most people and institutions these days are not in pursuit of truth. 

Peer review and academic freedom, in the social sciences and hard sciences alike, were attempts to encode contrary views and arguments into the process of knowledge formation. As faculties, and indeed entire disciplines became more ideologically narrow and rigid, the pursuit of truth is badly damaged because raising contrary points of view, even without personally espousing them, is frowned upon. Countering academic orthodoxy could mean being excluded from tenure, from grants, from important institutional committees and professional bodies. Even if several voices are allowed in the discourse, the argument phase is quickly abandoned because one side does not believe alternatives should be heard, and the other fears the professional consequences of raising alternatives that will be shortly silenced anyway. 

The scientific method argues against itself by requiring the rigorous collection of data, to be compared to the null hypothesis. But these processes no longer reliably guide scientific development, as data sets are hidden from scrutiny, theories shielded from criticism, and the search for evidence replaced by the promotion of a conclusion. In increasingly complex fields where computer modeling or statistical projection, rather than observation, is relied on for data, the failsafes of the self-arguing method start to falter.

In the matter of our Constitutional Republic, we encourage argument as a way of refining and stress-testing ideas before they’re inflicted upon the People. The branches argue with each other, and even both houses of Congress argue with each other, with the goal of coming up with something close to “truth” or “wisdom” out of the process. That’s not how it works now. Political parties and “sides of the aisle,” are certainly not among those established checks and balances, and have done nothing to promote truth in policymaking or judgment in legislating. The self-reinforcing web of power, funding, and bureaucracy has walled itself off from challenge.

Far too often now, in the US Congress legislation is pushed through without substantive debate either at the committee level or in either of the two chambers. Amendments are often not allowed, despite the practice of cramming several or even dozens of issues into the same bill. This allows for the success of “poison pill” provisions, and also outright bullying and deception by legislative whips who demand fealty to party far above honest assessment of a bill’s contents. Simple attempts to encourage substantive discussions have failed, even a resolution requiring adequate time to read bills (one day per 20 pages of legislative text between a bill’s introduction to the Senate and the chamber vote) is routinely rejected. Debate is pro-forma. Criticism by amendment is rare. 

We can easily see the value of a contrary voice in, say, the 1950s offices of federal highway administrators. Interstates overhauled our way of life, but a nation reliant on cars, hostage to gas prices, and burdened by crumbling infrastructure isn’t an ideal outcome for public investments. Someone could have been around to argue with asphalt evangelists who were forcibly restructured the country around private automobile ownership, with predictable adverse outcomes for many. Had there been more willingness to question whether a car-centered country was an unalloyed good, we might have come to a less error-prone set of practices.

Presidential debates at least appear to be a structured argument of issues for the benefit of voters, and may have been when they were hosted by The League of Women Voters until 1988. The events are now pre-negotiated by the Democratic and Republican parties, who treat them as a joint press conference. Those “debates” are neither intended to, nor able to uncover any useful truth or even a meaningful contradiction. Candidates do not address one another except through the moderator. Questions are limited to pre-selected topics, ignoring the most-critical issues, including national debt and Social Security. Qualified candidates are excluded, artificially limiting the exchange of ideas. Candidates for many lesser offices skip scheduled debates entirely, dodging even the limited transparency such neutered arguments might offer. 

Our skills and willingness to argue in good faith are our best hope of improving our knowledge, as individuals, nations, and a species. When we refuse to engage in argument, even out of perceived politeness, we allow more bad ideas to take hold and propagate. Unintended consequences and wasted resources multiply. In our own minds, we lose both our willingness and the peace of mind required to argue with our own preconceptions. We become easily (mis)led. We inevitably, if unintentionally, mislead others. We all stray further from the truths that, if we could hash out what works and what doesn’t, could be freeing us from hardships, disease, poverty, collective guilt, and violence as a mechanism for solving problems. Argument is essential to addressing these challenges. Arguing well does not diminish us. It empowers us. 

Overhauling our national institutions is ARGUABLY too ambitious a goal to fit into our busy schedules. But the value of argument to refine our thinking can be practiced in small ways, too. Offer encouragement to people who raise objections in meetings you have to attend, even if you disagree. Praise people for their passion when they argue with you. Notice when you’re defensive and ask yourself why the challenge is upsetting. Actually listen. Ask new questions, and seek new answers to old ones. Be willing to consider that you might be wrong. (We all are, about lots of things, though we rarely suspect it.) Read or listen to the best-informed people whose views make your blood boil. Bring back debate club and forensics study.

Let’s get used to healthy argument again. We’re not attacking each other. We’re in pursuit of the truth.

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