How to argue


Correct argumentation is obviously a very broad topic, and I cannot hope to present any sort of ultimate guide on it. My goal here is more humble: to present principles that I personally have found useful, especially in the context of arguing on blogs and in the comments. This was initially an update of something I wrote in 2014, but I ended up rewriting the whole thing.

If you’d like to see any particular point expanded out, please express your interest!

1. Identifying Goals

90% of everything is crap, and that goes for arguments too. It is worth considering what you want in an argument, and whether the argument in front of you fulfills your purpose. Arguments that do not fulfill your purposes should be dropped. You could be spending that time on more productive arguments, or for that matter playing video games.

Truth vs Power

Some arguments are about finding truth, and others are about acquiring power.

Truth is the same for everyone, so truth-seeking arguments should in principle be cooperative. You don’t want to win every truth-seeking argument, you only want to win the ones where you started on the correct side. Being good at arguing means being good at losing arguments when you are wrong.

Power-seeking arguments, on the other hand, are competitive. The winner of such an argument usually gains legitimacy, or perhaps decision-making power. Since few people willingly give up power, these kinds of arguments rarely result in any participants being convinced.

Most of this post addresses truth-seeking arguments rather than power-seeking ones.


Arguments vs Assertions

One sure way to identify a power-seeking argument is if there’s no argument in it. That is to say, nobody is making any statements which could enhance the likelihood that they are correct. Instead, they simply assert their opinions loudly at each other. This is surely a fine activity, but should probably not be treated as a serious argument.

For example, suppose that a commenter tells me that atheism is fake, and complains that I was too mean to MRAs. Or suppose someone writes a PSA on Tumblr about how asexuals are straight invaders. These are not arguments, they are assertions. What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

Assertions vs Gobbledygook

Even though I scoff at assertion matches, there’s something even worse than that. I’ve gotten plenty of commenters on my blogs who express antipathy, but fail to express any coherent views. Dear internet, I can’t disagree with you if I don’t even know what you’re saying.

My typical approach is to ask people what they mean. If someone has a hard time communicating, it should be a drain on their time rather than mine. Oh, and sometimes it works.

2. What victory looks like

Although I said that being good at arguments means being good at losing, you still want to try to win. Suppose I said that the correct way to be a job interviewee is to interview badly whenever you are the wrong person for the job. You wouldn’t take it seriously. Interviewees should present their best face, and likewise you should present your best arguments.

Winning is really hard, even when we’re all being cooperative. I think the best way to think about it is observe what real victories look like, and navigate the argument to such a spot.

Logical Structure of Victory

Your objective in an argument is to go from point X to point Y, where X is something your opponent believes, and Y is the thing you’re trying to argue. The distance between X and Y should be as short as possible, otherwise the argument will take forever and probably isn’t worth the time investment.

So what you should be doing in an argument is trying to identify a possible X, and then argue from X to Y. X doesn’t need to be any sort of fundamental fact, and it doesn’t even need to be something you yourself belief. Once you’ve constructed an argument, the other person can tell you which part they disagreed with, and then you repeat the process.

Invisible Victories

Many people refuse to lose arguments in front of an audience. Something about saving face? People may go so far as to fool themselves into thinking they’ve won. Sometimes it’s good to step back and let people think the subject over without anyone watching. This may not be very satisfying as you won’t ever know when you’ve won an argument, but the point is to persuade people, not to feel good about winning.

Victory by New Information

Despite the difficulty of persuasion, there’s one common situation where people will change their mind like it’s no big deal. If you present information which they were previously unaware of, they might just say, “Oh, I didn’t know that. I guess I was wrong then.” Try to get to that point whenever possible. Citing studies, news articles, encyclopedias, and even search keywords can work well. Sometimes the only new information you need to provide is further details about your own views.

Winning by Losing

When you observe what winning looks like, you should also observe what losing looks like. While the argument is proceeding, you should give feedback on opposing arguments, saying which particular parts you disagree with. When you have no more to say, step back and let yourself draw conclusions without an audience. When you’re presented with new information, note that you have an opening for a graceful concession.

3. Specific Tactics

Ask, don’t guess

Arguments are necessarily full of guessing. You guess at what people mean by their words, you guess at why they believe what they believe, and you guess at other related beliefs they have. It’s impossible to avoid guessing entirely, but it’s worth being conservative about it. Putting words in other people’s mouths is one of the more aggressive things you can do in an argument, and offers an opportunity for your opponent to contradict you. Asking for clarification instead puts the responsibility on them.

Don’t gloat when you win

Gloating is a way of punishing people for losing arguments. But you want people to lose arguments, so why would you punish them? If truth-seeking is your goal, then gloating is seriously at odds with that.

Shut down arguments

Some people will complain that a particular tactic “shuts down arguments”. But shutting down arguments… can be good? Recall that 90% of arguments are crap.

Don’t name fallacies

Unless you’re in the right crowd, naming fallacies comes off as condescending, as if you just learned about the fallacy and are eager to show off your knowledge. If knowing a fallacy were really such a great accomplishment that few have achieved, then that just means you used an argument that your opponent didn’t understand. Why? Sure, learn about fallacies, but save them for the choir you’re preaching to later.

Tone…

Much ink has been spilled over whether it is better to be polite or impolite, angry or calm, nice or mean. For many people, this is an issue of their emotional disposition, whether they let their tone reflect that, and whether they can tolerate other tones.

I hardly ever get angry at things and can tolerate nearly any tone, so I just go with the tone that best seems to serve the argument. Yes, this is a confession of dishonesty in my emotional expression. Going meaner tends to say, “This is important!” while going nicer tends to say, “It’s okay to be wrong”. By default, I mirror the tone of my interlocutor, since apparently they’re comfortable with that.

Comments

  1. Emily (luvtheheaven) says

    “Unless you’re in the right crowd, naming fallacies comes off as condescending, as if you just learned about the fallacy and are eager to show off your knowledge.” – I agree, that tends to be how it sounds. But instead of giving the advice: “save them for the choir you’re preaching to later,” I’d instead explain the fallacy in a calm, instructive/”new information”, kind of way. Like “Actually, that argument doesn’t work, because ___” and like, define/explain the fallacy you’re so tempted to name. Perhaps add “in fact, this is sometimes called the ___”. It’s so much better than just naming a fallacy. I mean this advice I’m thinking of might work better in-person? Idk? But I think you can do it just as well on the internet, in quite a few cases…

  2. YPourt says

    Emylie won this argument on my opinion ^^ ( Nice X catch Emily / audience / strong balls but you could be nicer ^^ )

    Thank you Siggy to share with us your experience. I find it really easy to understand and i agree with you.
    The last trick for the tone is just the key ! thank you again !

  3. says

    @Emily,
    In my experience, fallacies aren’t regarded as “new information”. For it to be new information, I would have to have greater insight into correct reasoning than my opponent, and usually my opponent wouldn’t agree to such a proposition. Of course, this is an empirical issue, and it could be the case that naming fallacies is either effective, or ineffective, I wouldn’t know.

    @YPourt,
    Strange thing to say. Emily’s nice enough to me.

  4. Emily (luvtheheaven) says

    Siggy, yes, that’s a good point.

    I guess I tend to “Argue” with hyper logical people who appreciate “oh yeah, that argument isn’t actually sound, philosophically” because they are trying to argue for truth and so they want their argument to be valid, the premises true, etc.

    I think I appreciate a fallacy being pointed out to me, personally. I want people to tell me if I’ve accidentally started arguing for a point in a way that isn’t “logical” or good enough to properly “prove” my point. XD

  5. Cicada Cycle says

    Your 2014 post was one of my favorites at that time. Glad to see you revisit and revise.

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