The Lost Art Of Argumentation

Chris Rutledge

In a world becoming more and more dominated by social media, political discourse can be too often influenced by a meme on Facebook or by a position presented in 140 characters or less on Twitter.  Attention spans have become so abbreviated that marketing metrics look at 10-second video views as successful interactions.  Wouldn’t it be better if our decisions were based on logic, facts and reason?  Wouldn’t it be better if people listened to arguments pro and con, did their research and based their options and beliefs on which side has the most rational defense?  For that to happen, a (potentially) lost art would need resurrection: the art of argumentation.

Despite the popular connotation, an argument is not two people yelling at one another.  Rather, it is an exchange of ideas.  Argumentation can assume various structures (such as Toulmin, Rogerian or Classical Aristotelian arguments).  Though all structures have certain commonalities as defined by Dr. Richard Feldman (President of the University of Rochester and their former Philosophy Department Chair): A claim, a warrant and supporting data.  Simply put, the claim is a statement of the position; the warrant explains the reason for holding such a position; the data provides the factual backing for the claim and the warrant.  In a debate or discussion, arguments and counter arguments would be presented, providing both sides the opportunity to rebut and further explain their positions.  At the end, those listening (including those involved in the debate) would reach conclusions and adhere to those beliefs supported by the strongest arguments.

Such rational, open-minded discourse is not always the case.  Too often, logical fallacies are employed by those who hold positions supported by inferior arguments.  When discussing issues such as border security or Obama-care, those in favor of stopping illegal immigration and repealing the Affordable Care Act are confronted with ad hominem attacks; they are called racists because they supposedly hate immigrants or disagree with President Obama because he is African-American.  When discussing appointments to boards and commissions, some will only speak in half-truths or present red herrings to distract from very valid reasons why such appointments are approved or rejected.  Some will even completely dismiss a clearly superior argument, ignoring rational thought while obstinately refusing to recognize the fault in their position.

At one point, this writer was a very liberal Democrat who grew up in a household where any argument supporting a conservative position was rejected with logical fallacy.  Upon going to college and engaging in more intellectual discussions, I soon realized I had no legitimate reasons to support my positions.  That compelled me to research the pros and cons of everything from taxation and economics to national security to social policy.  In doing so, I adopted positions having the strongest and most factually-based arguments in their favor (many on the conservative side, but not all).  Effectively, I stared at two diverging roads in the woods.  It isn’t easy to look in the mirror and admit fault.  On a similar note, it certainly would have been the simpler path to continue espousing long-held positions knowing they wouldn’t withstand argumentative muster.  But through understanding the art of argumentation, I was able to take the path, as written by Robert Frost: “less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”  Don’t be afraid of that path.  It could make all the difference… not just for you, but for the rest of us as well.

Chris Rutledge
Previously published in the Enfield Press
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