Mark Trapp

Argumentation: it’s not just for trolls

Most people consider an argument to be two people shouting at each other, getting angrier and angrier as time progresses. I’m going to talk about a different kind of argument: one that I hope would be more palatable to more people.

An argument is a position and a justification for that position. I think scones are the best baked good. I believe this to be true because they’re dry but not too dry, you can stick various delicious things in them, and they go well with a hot beverage. That’s an argument. You may have a competing position about the superlative nature of scones: that’s fine. You also probably have a good reason for believing so. That’s fine also: you have a competing argument.

With me so far?

Positions are better than fights

The reason for talking about the positions people have rather than the act of comparing and contrasting those positions is to focus on the important part of this disagreement: going at each other isn’t as important as finding out what the real truth of the matter is. Maybe scones aren’t the best baked good: I may have missed a very important argument from someone else that would convince me that muffins are, in fact, better.

If we only focus on the disagreement, we lose sight of the goal: that is, to figure out what the best baked good is.

Debate: the Board Game

If you’re an American, you probably caught last night’s presidential debate. You may have also caught the analysis immediately after the debate: what was the first question people asked after it ended?

“Who won?”

The purpose of a debate is to take two competing positions and use every method within a set of rules to come out the winner. A debate only works if there is a winner and a loser: essentially, it’s a big, sophisticated game.

Consider another game: Baseball. There’s a set of rules that define how Baseball’s played, and at the end of the game, someone wins and someone loses. Now, if you’re a fan of baseball, you no doubt have a favorite team. Your team could lose 10 games in a row and that wouldn’t change your favoritism towards them one bit: in fact, those that only like winning teams are looked down on as “front-runners” or “fair weather fans.” The true believers stick with their team no matter what.

It works the same way in politics. Nobody on either side of the political aisle was swayed either way after last night: in fact, both sides declared themseves the winner. Each side got to root for their “team:” they cheered when one got a zinger in, or booed when the other wasn’t being fair.

In online discussions, how many times has you given a position, only to have a bunch of people say “I agree” or “he’s right” with no other contribution? They’re playing a game. The more people who agree with you, or the less support your opponent gets, the more likely you see yourself as having “won.”

Arguments are not people

The other benefit of not playing the debate game is the ability to get along better with people. When someone loses a debate, it reflects on them. Even there was a debate on whether 2 and 2 make 4, if the one argument for the case loses the debate, both the argument for 2+2=4 and the person who believed it are looked upon negatively.

Even if you win a debate, if your argument uses repugnant elements (even if they’re perfectly true), you’re looked upon negatively. The problem is that in a debate, the person is the argument. Anything about the person is enough to condemn the argument: “how could you trust this man when he says baby killing is evil? He voted for a baby killing amendment 4 times! Vote for me, I’ll never flip flop on my support for baby killing!”

Not only is anything about the person giving the argument fair game, anybody who also supports the same argument is fair game to condemn the person giving it. This is known as Godwin’s Law: at some point, when you play the debate game, someone is going to use the fact that the Nazis did the same thing as the basis for refutation of an argument. “You know, you say that mathematics is great and all, but you know who else thought math was great? The Nazis. Q.E.D.”

It’s no wonder why people feel nauseated or tired after playing the debate game: the entire goal is to show how much the other side is a terrible excuse for humanity. For me, I’d rather play Risk. At least in Risk, I can exercise my megalomaniacal tendencies to conquer South America while keeping my dignity intact. Well, most of it.

The good thing about arguments is that anyone can give them. They are, in fact, divorced from the people who give them. A good argument stands alone: nothing about the person giving it needs to come into play when determining the value of the argument. The fact that the Sun will rise tomorrow, and that there are good reasons for believing this, is true whether I said it, Obama said it, or Hitler said it.

Discussions vs. Debates

Instead of games like debates, I want to talk about discussions. In a discussion, the focus of the event isn’t the people talking, but a specific idea. We can have a discussion about anything: scones, health care, Baseball, or why it’s never a good idea to get involved in a land war with Russia.

Since the topic is the focal point of a discussion, anyone can give their ideas on the topic and that idea, not the person, can be evaluated against the topic.

What does this get us? There’s no longer a one-to-one relationship between ideas about a topic and a person. Since I’m not being judged, I’m free to come up with multiple viewpoints about a topic, some of which may compete with or even contradict each other.

In fact, since nobody in a discussion is there to win, an idea, possibly formed as an amalgamation of multiple different ideas, may wind up being the best possible theory. In the end, the knowledge of the topic for all participants is greater than it was before the discussion.


The next time you find yourself going back and forth with someone, ask yourself: am I in this to win? Or am I trying to better my knowledge of the topic? If you’re in it to win, try to step back. You’ll save yourself some Pepto-Bismol later.

Comments and feedback are welcome and appreciated. Need help on your next project? Let's talk.