July 18, 2024

constructive arguing amid crisis

an egyptian goose stands on the edge of a canal
an egyptian goose standing on the edge of a canal in camden town, england. the goose has neon orange legs and a red ring of feathers around its visible eye. a sign nearby says to keep left and the goose seems to be obeying. i was not about to argue with a goose.

This is a weird time to be alive.

A while back I learned about an approach to conflict called arguing constructively. Author Liam Rosen compares this strategy to the destructive form of arguing we find all over. What is constructive arguing? Rosen says that arguments should be an opportunity to expand knowledge. When our arguing is constructive, we can hone in on whatever finer points we disagree on. The end goal of constructive arguing is that two people together can discover a common truth.

I found Rosen’s blog post while I was researching conflict and deescalation techniques. I’m a recovering destructive arguer. More than a decade ago I found myself at a party in an argument with someone about marriage equality. This was back when most of america was getting ok with queer folks but squeamish about them marrying. The person I was arguing with told me he could not get over how he felt about it. He just couldn’t stomach the idea of marriage being something other than a man and a woman. I replied, “well… one day, you’ll die. And then I’ll get married.” My grin when I said this didn’t help my case. I’m grateful that I didn’t have to wait that long! But that night, we ended the conversation with nothing resolved.

I knew there had to be a better way. Rosen writes, “an argument should be a collaboration between two people to find the truth.” Here’s how constructive arguing works.

mindset

Rosen says that constructive arguing starts with your mindset. Arguing shouldn’t be a game. It always bothered me that debates never allowed for people to have their minds changed. Instead, we have to acknowledge that our convictions could end up being wrong. In the search for truth, this should be a victory.

We should also assume the best intentions of the other person. If we could be wrong, so could they. But what if they’re right about everything else? Imagine that we agree with them on every other issue. Or imagine that they make some points that sound reasonable to you. These serve to narrows the scope of our argument. It keeps us from reducing our “opponents” to stereotypes.

pre-work

There’s more we must do to prepare ourselves for constructive arguing. We need to understand our own perspectives and biases. Everyone is at risk of holding cognitive biases. Some people feel social pressure to believe something without questioning whether it’s true. Some people feel comfortable making a decision that they condemn others for making. There are hundreds of these!

Logical fallacies are another trap people fall into when arguing. These are tools some people resort to so that they can win arguments. Can’t defend your opinion? Attack the other speaker! Can’t explain why marriage equality is bad? Claim it will lead to people marrying dogs, somehow! Learn these fallacies, avoid them when you speak, and recognize them when they come up.

within the argument

These are the tools you bring to a constructive argument. Rosen cites Scott Alexander’s pyramid of arguments. It looks like a food pyramid, except the best stuff is at the top. This pyramid helps you identify the type of debate you’re having. There’s also a sphinx nearby (it’s a sphinx because of the pyramid). Rosen and Alexander divide the middle of the pyramid into halves. One side defines arguments that are about facts. The other side defines the rules of the debate. You can see the pyramid and the description of each step on Liam Rosen’s page.

Most arguments happen somewhere in the pyramid. The goal is locate the kind of argument you’re having right now and then help the discussion move upwards. As you move upwards, the argument becomes more fact-based. The arguers become more charitable to their opponent and set rules for a good debate. This leads to everyone having a greater understanding of an issue.

arguments in a crisis

This week has felt particularly bleak. I’m drafting this on Monday—I can’t even guess what the rest of the week (and beyond) will hold for the world. The potential loss of human rights has been hanging over me for months. Things in Palestine are more bleak than ever. The fundamentalists who wanted to deny me marriage are more powerful than ever. What can constructive arguing do for me in an apocalypse? What can it do for truth?

I’m still intrigued by the principles of constructive arguing. But I’m also curious about the assumptions that constructive arguing makes. What does an arguing pair need to argue constructively?

They must be roughly equal in power and standing. Who wants to try constructive arguing with their ill-tempered boss? Who has the power to argue constructively with an elected or unelected official? When power between two people is unequal, it risks reducing the stakes of an argument to parlor games. One side can’t have the power to dismiss an argument with ease.

The issues must affect each person in similar ways. Think back to the spirited debate on marriage equality I shared earlier. Why was I so mad? Why could my debate partner dismiss my arguments by saying, “I’m sorry, the vibes are off”? For me, the issue was a fundamental question about the rights of consenting adults. I was mad because I didn’t have the same rights my opponent did. He went home with his wife and probably never thought of that night again. But even today, it irks me that he thought he deserved an opinion at all.

No matter how the debate goes, both sides must be at risk of feeling the consequences that arise. Think about arguments that people might have about abortion. People on both sides may hold their position with conviction. In the end, only the people that decision harms should matter. Countless people are already suffering from abortion bans across the country. People are risking their lives for an issue that wasn’t even a widespread concern a century ago.

Both sides must seek the truth without lying to each other. We know Chief Justice Roberts lied during his confirmation hearing. His infamous speech went like this: “Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules, they apply them. The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules.” Many people knew this was a crock of shit back then; no doubt more people realize it now. How can anyone argue with people they don’t trust? Two people can’t seek truth together if one of them is lying. It may sow distrust in the other that is hard to uproot.

what does this moment call us to do?

Why am I arguing about fundamental human rights, anyway? Because people I didn’t elect are trying to take them away. How do you argue with someone about that? Where can you concede a valid point? My rights in america are not much sturdier than the rights of people in Palestine, Sudan, the Congo, or anywhere else in the world.

There is a place for constructive arguing in the modern world. We need each other more than ever when the skies start to darken. In times of crisis, we can’t afford to shut people out or dismiss them outright. We share the world we live in no matter who’s in charge.

Constructive arguing can work when both sides are willing and prepared to use it. In times like these it’s easy to go numb. It’s easy to shut down. But that would mean there’s no debate at all.

photo of josh martinez

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space