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Arguments vs. Fights

At the end of the last LogicChecker, I criticized an argument for failing to take into account that the point of an argument is to convince people to change their minds. This is a crucial concept for LogicCheckers to understand since it will help you determine if the arguments you are analyzing are really arguments at all.

Jay Heinrichs, author of the best-selling rhetoric guide Thank You for Arguing, makes this distinction between an argument and what he calls a “fight:”

“The basic difference between an argument and a fight: an argument, done skillfully, gets people to want to do what you want. You fight to win; you argue to achieve agreement.”

The point the author is trying to make is that an argument is a special form of communication designed to change the world in some way. In this case, the “speech act” of argumentation should lead to the person hearing or reading the argument to accept a new belief provided in the argument, or exchange an existing belief with the arguer’s proposed one.

This is in contrast to communication that tries to get people to do something without changing their minds. For example, if I threaten or blackmail you to do something and you do it, I have gotten you to do my bidding without asking you to change your beliefs. In fact, you might cling to your original beliefs even more tightly in resentment of my bullying – even if you grudgingly accept my commands backed up by threats.

Another thing to keep in mind is that true argumentation is actually a cooperative versus a competitive endeavor. For example, if two politicians are arguing over welfare, one might claim it needs to be increased to support the needy while another might claim welfare actually harms the poor by creating dependency. While the two parties might seem diametrically opposed in their solutions to the problem of poverty, they are both trying to solve the same problem: finding the best way to help the poor.

The fact that they might never agree in no way diminishes the fact that they are involved with a joint enterprise. Argumentation that recognizes this fact can lead to productive outcomes, such as discovery that one or the other person is right, or that each position is correct in certain situations.

In a fight over the same topic, opponents might focus on things that don’t relate to this common goal. For example, someone advocating increasing welfare might accuse his opponent of hard-heartedness, or of only caring about his or her rich friends and donors. Similarly, someone arguing against welfare expansion might claim critics actually want to create a class of people dependent on handouts to increase the power of government over individuals.

Even if there is some substance to accusations that hinge on understanding other people’s motivations (a notoriously difficult thing to prove, given that we cannot read minds), trying to win by discrediting your opponent is an activity generally associated with fighting versus arguing. This may explain why such tactics tend to harden existing beliefs, rather than motivate people to change their minds.

If you look at flame wars that break out routinely on forums such as Twitter or the comments section of news pieces, these generally involve attempts to humiliate and ridicule rather than convince, and thus represent fights versus arguments. Sadly, Twitter culture has moved from our screens into the real world, and next time we’ll take a look at how to tell an argument from a fight when dealing with flesh-and-blood people using either argumentation or fighting to try to get you do to what they want.


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