Friday, August 7, 2009

Arguing Does Not Help

Some people just like to argue. Others argue because they believe in it. They are convinced that a good argument will clear the air and bring people closer together.

Not so, says Valerie Tarico in a recent column: "One thing we know does not help is arguing. Research shows that after an argument, both sides tend to be even more entrenched in their old positions. By lining up our best arguments we are more likely to convince ourselves that we are right than to convince anyone else." Link here.

So much for the notion that a clash of opposing viewpoints will give rise to a new and better synthesis.

In fact, it makes good sense to think that arguing does not convince anyone of anything. In common parlance arguing involves winning and losing. You can win an argument or lose it, but that does not necessarily mean that your opponent will be persuaded of the truth of your positions. He might just believe that you are better at debate.

In some arguments, of course, reality can pass judgment. When two baseball fans argue over the relative merits of the Red Sox and the Yankees, the dispute will be resolved by baseball games.

Here it is not the argument that persuades, but the result of a ballgame.

If you want to convince someone of your point of view, you will want to learn how to negotiate. You will avoid arguing over who is right and who is wrong, but will emphasize the importance of finding common ground. When you negotiate you begin by find something of value in your friend's position.

A negotiator offers an open hand. Someone who argues offers a closed fist.

Negotiation is not adversarial; it is cooperative. The spirit of negotiation cannot survive an extended knock-down/drag-out argument.

If an argument causes people to be more entrenched in their positions, it is contrary to the spirit of negotiation, which involves give and take.

When you negotiate you do not marshal your forces; you do not set out your best arguments. Quite the contrary. In a negotiation you will want to direct your attention to the other party's position, and will try to find something of value in it.

Then you will try to figure out what you can give up in order to receive something in return.

To return to Tarico, her column addressed some of the worst and most difficult arguments: those about religion. I concur with her view that it is futile for a believer and non-believer to argue about who is right and who is wrong.

Given that the realities in question are metaphysical, there is no empirical proof that can settle the question of whether there is a God.

Besides, as Tarico presents the issue, it is not merely about whether or not you agree with the notion that God exists.

Arguments about religion concern membership in communities. If you belong to a community where everyone attends the same church, and then, one day, you lose your faith, you will likely find yourself ostracized from the group.

Changing your mind about religion is far more momentous than changing your mind about who has the best recipe for bouillabaisse.

If you want to persuade someone to adopt a position about God, then you will need to offer membership in an alternate group, a counter-culture containing like-minded people. If you find someone who is an outlier in a religious community, you will do well to offer a position with status and prestige in the new group.

In that case, you can induce the person to change his mind, but the decisive point will not be the force of your arguments.

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