Argumentation 101 I am

October 03, 2003


Argumentation 101

I am grading papers today. I just told a student that when they argue against someone, they have a moral responsibility to summarize their opponent's position fairly and accurately. You can not simply ignore their evidence and appeal to the emotions of the reader.

As I wrote those words, I was struck by the extent to which I have internalized some of the norms of the nineteenth century clergymen I study, and by the extent to which twenty-first century political discourse has fallen away from those norms. My guys, particularly the widely respected guys like Charles Hodge of Princeton or Nathan Bangs of the Methodist Episcopal Church, made a very clear distinction between good and bad controversies. Bad controversies were marked by people twisting their opponents arguments, extending their opponents positions to outlandish extremes, or selectively engaging their rhetorical foes. These arguments almost always degenerated; they are certainly no fun at all to read. Good controversies tended to engage their opponents full points, to go out of their way to summarize their foes positions, and if they did argue from extrapolation they kept that extrapolation to the main points of their opponents position.

In contrast, the norm these days, especially in the political blogs I read, is to engage in all the attributes of a bad controversy. People assume that the best way to beat their foe is to savage them, dehumanize them, turn the argument away from the key points, and otherwise weasel their way through. The recent discussion about Valerie Plame and White House leaks has shown many of the worst aspects of this rhetorical style.

It is much easier to make a weasel argument than it is to fairly summarize your opponents position. And, if you are good about the summary, you may very well convince some of your readers that your foe has the better of it. (Ben Franklin, after all, was converted to Deism by reading polemical tracts against Deism) That is a risk we take, but to do otherwise is intellectually dishonest. And frankly, if someone is intellectually dishonest in the manner in which they argue, it destroys any faith I might have about the merits of their position.

I doubt that I will change any minds or styles in blogistan or talk radio land. But, perhaps I can convince some of the kids to take arguments seriously and to doubt people who refuse to take their opponents seriously. That would be something.

And back to grade.

Edit: Timothy Burke has a similar take on the moral obligation to be true to your sources. He is talking about historians working with primary documents rather than polemics taking their opponents positions, but there is an essential similarity between our positions.

Posted by Red Ted at October 3, 2003 03:44 AM | TrackBack