Posts Tagged ‘Argument’

The arts of argument and persuasion

July 6, 2020

This episode of William F. Buckley Jr.’s The Firing Line was broadcast on Sept. 10, 1981

In American political speech nowadays, we need more argument and persuasion and less denunciation.  I am reminded of William F. Buckley Jr., who was a master of both.

I considered Buckley’s political views were not only wrong, but reprehensible.  Yet I was a regular viewer of his PBS program, “The Firing Line.”

Buckley took the trouble to understand his opponents’ arguments.  He read their books.  When he invited them onto his program, although he was not above taking cheap shots, he tried to refute what they actually said.

He played fair.  He gave his opponent a chance to give their views.  That is why he probably changed more minds than Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity ever did.  I think there is much to be learned from his methods, whatever you think of his views.

I remember a program in which his guest was Ralph Schoenman, appearing on the show as the representative of the International War Crimes Tribunal, also known as the Russell Tribunal, and the issue was American atrocities in Vietnam.  Buckley’s claim was that Bertrand Russell, John-Paul Sartre and the other tribunal members were Communist sympathizers and should not be believed.

Schoenman expressed himself in a robotic, staccato manner that fit the stereotype of the dogmatic Communist.  Buckley, aware of this, let him go on at length, knowing his audience would be influenced more by his manner than by his actual argument.

A member of the audience argued that what mattered was the quality of the Tribunal’s evidence, not the views of its members.  Buckley listened respectfully, restated the argument and then asked what the questioner would think of anti-corruption investigators who were all Republicans and whose investigations were all of Democrats.  A bogus argument, but convincing.

I think it is possible to persuade people who strongly disagree with you politically.  Sometimes not, but people can be more open-minded than you might think.

It is important to distinguish winning an argument from successful persuasion.  I have lost many arguments, but I don’t recall ever changing my mind as a result.  My losing an argument only makes me rack my brains for what I should have said, but failed to think of on the spot.


The argument from hypocrisy

March 3, 2011

It’s too bad so much political argument nowadays is based not on what’s true and what’s false, or what’s right and what’s wrong, but on the allegation of hypocrisy and consistency.

Al Gore lives in a big house that must use a lot of energy; therefore global warming is a myth.  Liberals exaggerated the rowdiness at Tea Party rallies; therefore complaints about Fox News mix-and-match footage are invalid.  Soviet generals participated in the Nuremberg trials; therefore there were no Nazi war crimes.  I am not making up any of these arguments.  What’s wrong with them?

First, almost everyone is open to that charge. Inconsistency and hypocrisy are universal human foibles.  Hardly anybody, certainly not me, has thought through their ideas thoroughly enough to be sure they are free from internal contradiction.  Hardly anybody, certainly not me, can claim that they live up to their best ideals all the time.

Second, such charges shift the basis of the argument from the real to the hypothetical.  Instead of saying, “X is true and I can prove it,” you say, “If your side says Y, my side is entitled to say X” or “Your side did Y in situation A, so you have no standing for criticize my side for doing X in situation B.”

Third, a person can be 100 percent consistent and 100 percent honest and be wrong 100 percent of the time, and someone else can be completely inconsistent and completely hypocritical and still be right 50 percent of the time.