Friday, August 17, 2012

Internet, argument and rhetoric

So one of the most useful things I've found for learning about the craft of writing is internet forums. Learning from the experiences of others who have gone there before me (a couple general ones I like are Absolute Write and Creative Writing Forums). But sometimes internet forums degenerate into, well, internet forums. People misconstrue each others' posts, short replies get edgy, feelings get hurt, flame wars begin. I try to stay out of such things, but one recent topic stuck in my head. Not so much the topic it was on, but the nature of arguments themselves. Since my thoughts are tangential to the thread I didn't bother to share them - I didn't want to get hit by any shrapnel. But since this page is all my own, I will take the space to ramble on.  This is going to get a little philosophical and academic, so turn back now if that frightens you.

The particulars of the post are not really relevant. It generally goes like this. Someone poses a question. Someone else gives their opinion. Someone else gives a different opinion. Someone takes offense that their opinion is being questioned (doesn't really matter who or where in the chain this happens). They emphasize that it's just their opinion and they are entitled to it. Someone else accuses them of misconstruing the offending post. Someone points out that the offensive post is offensive regardless of the poster's intention. Now someone is offended that someone else is offended. Everyone tries really hard to show that their opinion is right. No one knows what the original question was.

The key really lies in the approach to an argument (even the word is loaded: argument. I could just as easily say 'discussion'). Most people enter an argument/discussion with an honest attempt to just share their opinion. But secretly we all want to be 'right'. People don't have to agree with our opinion, but they have to admit that our premise and argument are 'correct'; that we have a factual basis and thus our conclusions are logical and right. But that's simply not true. Arguing what's logically true is called rhetoric. But the problem is that rhetoric does not lead to what is 'right'.

Logic can be used to argue for (or against) anything. The secret in rhetoric is to set up your basis, the facts that are 'given' and then proceed from there. If you choose the right basis, you can logically lead anywhere (examples below). The problem with internet debate is that each person is starting from a different basis but no one realizes that. Everyone thinks they start at the same point, the original question. So we should all end up at the same place. But everyone secretly (and unknowingly) brings their own bias to the basis, so once the argument ensues we are all making logical statements that are true for us but not the others. It's an intractable problem.

There are two good ways to handle this (and lots more really bad ways). You can 'win' the argument by getting people to agree to your basis. It's easier than you might think - you just have to spell it out and present it clearly. People agree to it because it isn't instantly obvious where it will lead. If your basis is accepted and you follow your logic you will come to the desired solution. You win. But it won't convince anyone (no one gets won over by logic, not on the internet). So ultimately it accomplishes nothing. But it can be fun.

The other (better?) option is to realize that the goal is not to win. At least, it's not to beat the person you are arguing with. The goal is to state your basis and your logic so that anyone who agrees with your basis will agree with your conclusion. The goal is to show what the logical outcome of an assumption is (there are no facts - bases are always assumptions). Even better, try to understand the basis of your opponent. If you can understand how they are right, then you fully understand the question. Then you can decide what is your 'right'. People will always choose what they want to be right, but if you know how you got there you will be much more confident in it (and much more likely to change it when needed). Because 'right' is a fluid thing, and those that understand that and can follow it will be much happier and less likely to need to argue.

Example 1:
Men are better than women. And I can prove it. Start with a basis: men are different than women. Do you accept that? They have different anatomies, different brain structures and organs. They are generally taller and have more muscle mass. All scientific facts. Society treats them differently. They are more likely to engage in sports, more likely to be soldiers, etc. So yes, they are different. Can you compare two different things? How about apples and oranges? Which is a better breakfast fruit? Which has a higher acidity? Which generally has more pesticide exposure? Which has more calories? Which is sweeter? Easiest thing in the world to compare. So if two things are different, and you have a rubric, you can measure them against each other. So I'm trying to win a race, let's say a 100m dash. And to avoid individuality, let's say I want the top thousand (or million) people. Should I choose men or women? For this, men are better than women.

Example 2:
Women are better than men. And I can prove it. Again, men and women are different. Women's brains are structured differently. They have a larger limbic system (emotional response). Studies prove women are more adept at non-verbal communication and more likely to use the full brain for problem-solving (as opposed to a left hemisphere, task orientated approach that men take). And the section of the brain that handles language is proportionally larger in women. So yes, they are different. Can you compare two different things? See apples and oranges above. So I'm trying to find a large number of people to negotiate a treaty with space invaders who don't speak any human language. For this, women are better than men.

Example 3:
Dogs are better than cats. Discuss...

1 comment:

  1. Quite simply, haters will hate. To avoid having your credibility and integrity damaged, don't respond to plain negativity. Hate begets more hate. Never argue with a fool. The bystanders won't be able to tell the difference between the two.