The Art of Debate, or, How to Have an Argument

By Stephen Drinkard

An acquaintance of mine once said, “Everyone has a doggone opinion about everything—and not one of them is worth a darn. Including this one.”

Every moment of every day is filled with countless opinions. They range from whether “American Sniper” or “Birdman,” is the better movie to whether our president is a fine American or a socialist upstart.

Once you understand that no one except your dog or spouse may be interested in your opinions, you might think that it’s best to just not talk. But it seems humans are hardwired to argue and judge and opine.

Our country was even founded on an argument between opposing opinions: Whether we should remain connected to Great Britain or form our own country. The argument was settled not by reason but by bloodshed.

Debate then continued on the degree to which we empower the federal government versus individual states’ rights. That argument continues today, with Idaho Republicans wishing to take over federal lands and others who wish the lands to remain in the hands of all Americans.

The point is, argumentation is not only in our human DNA but also in the bones of our Constitution. And the tradition continues today at an even louder volume, thanks to the explosion of Internet news, blogs and political sites along with broadcast media that give individuals more voice than ever.

But a pair of recent developments call into question if the value of all this debate is kabuki theater—that is, just a mere illusion.

First, in the 2010 Supreme Court decision called Citizens United, the court ruled corporations may spend unlimited amounts of money advocating for or against candidates. In my book, that means that unions or wealthy energy companies have more votes than you or me. Their voices are infinitely stronger.

A Northwestern University study drew a darker conclusion: In comparison to the “power of economic elites and organized interest groups, the influence of ordinary Americans registers at a ‘non-significant, near-zero level.’”

So, are all our dialogues in the local papers, online blogs and political hearings meaningless? Are our opinions on issues—say, whether Idaho should allow the expansion of Medicaid, or whether the state should add a few pennies to the fuel tax to help pay for highway maintenance—really no more important than our opinion on which movie deserves an Oscar?

No. I refuse to accept that; I believe the debate and argumentation that has been cooked into our country from its start continues to serve a critical role. That said, unless all of us are willing to raise the level of discourse, we will be excluded from the final decisions made on all levels of government. But how do we get to an improved level of debate?

We all should agree that facts trump belief. Just because I believe something strongly doesn’t mean it is a fact. In addition to not making up my own “facts,” it’s important that I understand my assumptions when I argue, for example, that our government has created a nanny state or that our government has been for 200 years the savior of millions of people from poverty and ill health. Each of those presumes specific values and unless a speaker or writer can identify those values his or her opinion is weak and possibly dangerous.

Moreover, we cannot prove or persuade just by noting facts. We have to depend on rational discourse that avoids name calling, misrepresenting an idea in order to easily deflate it or appealing to irrelevant authority—and about 15 more examples of poor or fallacious thinking.

For a wonderful book that illustrates the “common pitfalls in arguments” go to;

The Reader fundamentally believes that we can discourse at a more useful level. We cannot squint at facts. We can understand the premises of our arguments and not fall prey to faulty logic. If we do, we invite you, the reader, to call us out.

We have to believe that better local and national discourse can gradually lead us to better decisions and better government. It’s in our DNA and our Constitution to do so. Perhaps the Federalist Papers said in best in 1787:

“…. it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.”

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