The Key to Keeping Arguments From Becoming Fights
Nothing makes us fight dirtier than the rhetoric of feigned objectivity
Posted Aug 21, 2013
When we debate, our rhetoric escalates. Since we can only squeeze so much persuasion out of admitting that our opinions are subjective--saying, for example, "but I really, really, really believe it,"--it's natural that we gravitate toward postures of objectivity. We stop admitting that our opinion is a subjective interpretation and start acting like we’ve got the one infallibly true objective perspective.
Once one of us has done that, others, to stay competitive, are quick to follow suit and we end up in “infallibility contests,” dumb, dead-end debates in which the stakes become winner-takes-all; loser-pays-all competitions for who is right about everything and who is wrong about everything. In other words, we begin to sound like bickering pre-teens: “You’re stupid.” “No, you are.”
When the going gets tough, we seek the highest ground possible, and that highest ground is God-like omnipotence, the neutral view from nowhere, as though we have no skin in the game, no potential for interpretive bias. We stop saying, “I think that X is true,” and start saying, “X is true.”
We should counter this natural tendency. The more threatening your challenge or critique is, the more you should turn up the signals that it’s subjective. Sometimes are argument opponents demand that we do, saying “well, that’s just your opinion.” So, of course is whatever they’re arguing. You both should admit that it’s just your opinions and then duke it out, from the lower ground you both really occupy.
If you’ve read me before you know how much I think such absolutist pronouncements as “Don’t be judgmental” and “Don’t call people names,” stunt personal growth by blocking the better questions: How to judge carefully and responsibly and how to generalize from a person’s behavior to decisions about the value of their overall approaches to life.
People who claim to embrace such absolutes never live by them. They just get good at self-servingly overlooking the ways they judge and call names, and judging other people, calling them either aloud or under their breath “name-callers’ when they want them to shut up,
Still, lately I’ve found a way those absolutes resonate for me:
When judging, don’t pretend your judgment is objective.
When calling names, don’t pretend you’re doing something as simple as calling a spade a spade.
There’s a big difference between “You’re wrong” and “I think you’re wrong,” and between “You’re a fool” and “I think you’re a fool.”
We will think that some people are fools. That’s inevitable. But so too is it inevitably a thought, an interpretation we’re making.
We are all interpreters of reality. Pretending that we aren’t is like a lawyer climbing surreptitiously onto the neutral judge’s bench and pronouncing final judgment in his own favor, as if to say “I’ve stepped out of my advocacy completely and from the neutral, bias-free position I now occupy I hereby declare that I’m right.”
Do that and you can bet your opponent will have do the same. You’ll both soon be scraping speciously for a neutral seat you can’t have. There are no neutral judges.
And this shouldn’t be confused with there being no right answers. In time some people do prove to be fools, and some opinions prove wrong.
We say “facts are facts” but without much care to distinguishing what kinds of things facts are. For example, spades, for the most part are spades. But how about pessimists? A pessimist is someone who you assess as less hopeful about the future than you are. The future isn’t here yet to weigh in on your intepretation of how it will go. For all you know the future could go much worse even than your pessimist believes, which would make her an optimist, not in comparison to you but to the future, once it becomes the past and we can therefore talk more factually about it.
Most of our skin-in-the-game judgments are about how things will go in the future, which, alas, at present, is unavailable for comment. If you decide someone is a fool, you’re making a prediction based on past behavior that the things they do in the future won’t turn out well. You’re entitled to your opinion. We’re all entitled to your opinion. We benefit from hearing it. But it remains an opinion, not a fact.
If there’s one thing to be hypersensitive to in your behavior and your opponent's, it’s the subtle and insidious rhetoric of feigned objectivity.
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