Monday, May 23, 2005

Debating etiquette, part 1:  Assertions

Within the next few days, I intend to post on a controversial topic. I think I've figured out a way to piss off people on both sides of the abortion controversy. It's just possible that this will lead to some heated exchanges.

Before sticking my neck out, I would like to discuss some rules of engagement. I intend to explore the etiquette of debating in a series of posts. After this post on assertions, I will turn my attention to diversionary tactics, arguments, and premises.

Debating etiquette serves two purposes: it minimizes unnecessary offence and it improves the quality of a debate. Skilled debaters can tackle complex and emotionally-loaded issues constructively, and make incremental progress toward Truth.

For me, Truth is a kind of holy grail. I believe that Truth and Ideology are often at war with one another, and my allegiance is to Truth.

Every debate begins with an assertion (or proposition). If the subject is controversial, someone is bound to respond with a counter-assertion. For example,
    • "The war in Iraq was necessary";
    • "The war in Iraq was a mistake."

Assertions are important: there can be no debate without them. In fact, if you want to improve your debating skills, this is the place to begin. Let me offer two tips, taken from the university setting.

First, university students are taught that every essay must have a thesis:  a simple statement (= assertion) that the student will defend in the body of the essay.

The same principle applies outside the university setting. Before you defend your position, you need to carefully define it. If your thinking is sloppy at this point, everything that follows will be confused and unpersuasive.

Second, university students are taught to reduce the thesis to its bare essence. When a first-year student presents the professor with a thesis statement, the professor invariably responds the same way:  "It's too broad. You need to narrow your focus." For example,
"Saddam Hussein was a sworn enemy of the United States. He might have had weapons of mass destruction and the Americans just haven't found them yet. Even if he didn't have any, he was going to develop some and then he would have presented a direct threat to American security."
(Poor thesis statement.)

"Saddam Hussein had to be removed from office before he found a way to strike the USA."
(Better thesis statement — although I personally think the war in Iraq was a mistake.)
The first example is open to rebuttal at several points. Remember that any chain is only as strong as its weakest link. An effective debater will focus on your most vulnerable point and immediately put you on the defensive.

So drafting a good thesis statement is trickier than you might suppose. To be effective, your assertion must be precisely worded and reduced to its essence, like sap boiled down into maple syrup.

But there is more to a debate than this.

Judging from what I read in the blogosphere, many people mistake assertion / counter-assertion for debate. The worst blogs sometimes remind me of Monty Python's "argument booth" sketch.

For those of you who aren't Monty Python fans, I should explain the (typically absurd) premise: a client enters a business establishment where he pays someone to argue with him. (I downloaded the script here, presumably in violation of copyright law.)

[The client enters the room. The professional arguer is seated at a desk.]
Is this the right room for an argument?
I've told you once.

No you haven't.
Yes I have.

Just now!

No you didn't.
Yes I did!


I'm telling you I did!

You did not!
I'm sorry, is this a five minute argument, or the full half hour?

Oh … Just a five-minute one.
Fine. [makes a note of it] Thank you. Anyway, I did.

You most certainly did not.
Now, let's get one thing quite clear. I most definitely told you!

You did not.
Yes I did.

Yes I did.

Yes I did!!

Look, this isn't an argument.
Yes it is.

No it isn't, it's just contradiction.
No it isn't.

Yes it is.
It is not.

It is. You just contradicted me.
No I didn't.

Ooh, you did!
No, no, no, no, no.

You did, just then.
No, nonsense!

Oh, look, this is futile.
No it isn't.

I came here for a good argument.
No you didn't, you came here for an argument.

Well, an argument's not the same as contradiction.
It can be.

No it can't. An argument is a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition.
No it isn't.

Yes it is. It isn't just contradiction.
Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.

But it isn't just saying 'No it isn't'.
Yes it is.

No it isn't. Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.
No it isn't.

Yes it is.
Not at all.

Now look!
[presses the bell on his desk] That's it. Good morning.

But I was just getting interested.
Sorry, the five minutes is up.

That was never five minutes just now!
I'm afraid it was.

Now they have arrived at a different assertion (the five minutes is up) and counter-assertion (that was never five minutes!), but the dialogue is still stuck in the same rut.

The point is this: every debate begins with an assertion, but a series of assertions and counter-assertions is not sufficient in itself to constitute a debate.

Next time, we'll look at diversionary tactics, with particular reference to ad hominem arguments.


At 10:22 AM, May 24, 2005, Anonymous Joel S. Gehrke said...

I recently stumbled across an abortion deabate at Look under "Fade to Center". I could not find a single person who was willing to address the merits of my position.

Argued for five days.

I have concluded after some years of this that it is actually unfair to characterize both sides as guilty of argumentum ad hominem and changing the subject.


At 10:43 AM, May 24, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

You're a step ahead of me here, Joel. Later this week, I plan to post an open letter to Western University with respect to the abortion issue.

Thus I will be addressing a specifically Canadian situation. (I'm not sure where you're from.) But I expect that some of the principles implicit in my letter would be applicable to the abortion debate in other countries.

The issue is very difficult to debate intelligently. People's emotions inevitably cloud their thinking, even when they're making a sincere effort to mount a rational argument. It will require patience on both sides and, frankly, patience is in short supply on this issue.

At 2:50 PM, May 24, 2005, Blogger snaars said...

"The issue is very difficult to debate intelligently."

Is not.

I can't wait ... this ought to be fun.

At 8:13 PM, May 24, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Is not.
Is too.

My comment is in bold, so I win the debate.

P.S. Have you had something done to your hair since I last saw you?


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