On Speech Checks

This article is written under the assumption that you want to win arguments. If you don’t care about being right and having other people verbally acknowledge it you probably won’t be interested in what follows.

Winning an argument is about mind control. It’s about changing the way your outspoken foil confesses his understanding of reality. With this in mind it becomes clear that many arguments are impossible to win. Many people are not interested in having their minds changed, or prefer to change your mind instead. Therefore every argument is really two sub-arguments, with both sides stating:

  • I have the power to change your mind
  • I have the true(er) understanding of reality

Now, this is very important. Make sure that both of these are true before you start! If you go into an argument where either you can’t change their mind or you know you don’t understand, then what are you babbling for? If they aren’t going to listen (to you anyhow) then don’t waste your time. If they shouldn’t listen to you then don’t waste their time. If either of these conditions fail mid-argument, you have lost. There is no point in going on. Concede defeat and move on with your life.

How to lose an argument

Most arguments are actually lost on the first (almost always unstated) condition. Nearly all arguments take place between two (or more) people who are incapable of changing anyone’s mind (or unwilling to change themselves). They have no power to convince (and usually know this already). This is why, in an attempt to save face, most arguments end in either silence or bullying (silent treatment, shouting match, fistfight, etc). These amount to the same thing, an admission of conviction impotence.

If the other party refuses to listen to your reasoning, you’ve lost. Many people think an opponent’s silence is winning an argument. Although getting the last word may signal victory, it can also signal a lot of other things (like shock at your utter incoherence). If “having the final say” is your goal, use a shotgun (it’s a quicker and more reliable argument than the verbal kind). If they are too overcome with emotion (anger usually) to continue you haven’t won an argument, you’ve just managed to be intractable or obtuse.

Many people think that “we can both be right” is a valid win-win condition, but this is only the case if both of you agree to start out with (in which case the “argument” was merely a communication problem). If you “agree to disagree” then you’ve conceded defeat on the first condition.

Second condition losses do occur as well, but this is the kind of loss you want. One of you is right(er) and in the end you both agree on the better understanding. Perhaps you can both alter your views to achieve a better joint understanding (synthesis, I think?) but this is rare. Most often a second condition victory is a complete victory. Whether you win or lose in this way, you have gained a valuable understanding of the world. Cherish your defeats. Someone else had to work hard to bring you the truth.

In either loss condition, have the humility to quickly admit defeat. Dragging it out helps and impresses no one. It’s easier on your pride to hold out to the bitter end… but who needs pride?

How to win an argument

Be right, and let them know it. The formal study of Rhetoric stands on the three legs of “Logos, Pathos, Ethos” but I’ve never really understood the difference between pathos and ethos, and logos seems to penetrate the other two anyhow. If you want classical, read Aristotle. My understanding is “Definition, Support, Application”. These ideas are heavily drawn from the World View Academy curriculum.

Definition: “What do you mean?” Make sure you are both talking about the same thing. Make an effort to define your terms. If your opponent has a different way of using words, use their way. Don’t fight over definitions! They will retreat to their own turf before defeat anyhow; If you can’t defeat them on their own turf you can not win. Agreeing to your foe’s euphemisms (and associated dysphemisms) will give them a false sense of security. It will be all the more surprising when you defeat them with their own weapons.

Support: “How do you know?” This can be very annoying and harks back to the cloying “But why?” of aggravating children. However, it is absolutely crucial to both attack your foe’s support and shore up your own. Here is where logic, emotion, trust, authority, and intuition play a part. Convince your target that you have their welfare in mind, and want to help them. Give good reasons; You are trying to convince them, not yourself (If you’re not convinced of your own support, you should be quiet); Tailor your support to your audience. If you really believe you are helping them, and have a firm basis for your argument, the other person will want to believe you, and the battle all but won.

Application: “What difference does it make?” Drive home the real, un-inflated, sober importance of the topic. If you’re talking about something important, stress the life-changing benefit of accepting your correct views. If it’s something trivial, urge the painless ease of changing their mind. In any case, make your argument real. Don’t make them draw conclusions like teeth; Offer the conclusions as the fine produce of your mind.

Give in when you should

If your opponent isn’t looking for truth, and just wants to run his mouth, go find something else to do. There are plenty of people who are interested in swapping pointless diatribes. Don’t be one of them.

If your opponent makes a good point, conceed it graciously. Your stance won’t collapse with one or two concessions (hopefully anyhow). Additionally, refusing to acknowledge the truth in your opponent’s support will tell him that you aren’t interested in the truth either. You can let your foe trap himself by carefully wielding concessions but this is a treacherous tactic usually more angering than convincing. It may be prudent to initially assume some common intellectual conceits to test your opponents views. Retreating from these will tend to open their defenses. Refusing to concede isn’t strong argument, it’s just stupid stubbornness.

If your opponent has won the argument, give in gladly. Don’t let your pride get in the way of admiring your foil’s good argument. Remember what he said and how he said it; Learn not only understanding, but how to convey understanding to a reluctant audience (yourself).

Press the point when possible

When you have a valid point, your foe will attempt to change the topic. Don’t let him, draw attention to his tactic, show you know what he’s about, and then bring it right back to the crucial issue. If your opponent refuses to give in, consider bailing. There is no shame in running from a losing battle, and belaboring the point rarely convinces someone who isn’t interested in being convinced.

If you choose your arguments carefully, refuse to fight first condition losses, and stick to your convictions you will better the other man’s mind and life when you win an argument, and your own when you lose.

I’m not an expert, and have never been formally trained in debate. If anyone out there has a better idea, or if I missed anything, I’d love to hear it in the comments.

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3 Responses to On Speech Checks

  1. Toad says:

    I agree, and think this is a reasonable primer on the fundaments of very near all informative conversation (merely educating someone about your is just like an argument if they aren’t a willing hearer).

    I will summarize my general thoughts on the logos, pathos, ethos trio, as I feel like they’re important to listening to the arguments of trained speakers (politicians), to identify their ploys.

    Firstly, these three things are generally mentioned in the context of appeals, that is, a statement that intends to alter the opponents’ viewpoint by appealing to a baser assumption which your opponent may not argue.

    Logos refers to the appeal to logic, which is a challenge to your opponent to refute the sensibility of your statement. If your statement is founded in logic, and the assumptions given are accepted by both parties, your statement is sound (and should be successful, if your opponent isn’t stubborn).

    Ethos appeals to a (typically) shared sense of right and wrong. It avoids reason, and begs your opponent to prove that your statement is morally wrong. If your statement is morally right, and you and your opponent share a view of morality, your statement is sound.

    Pathos is an appeal to the hearer’s emotion. It avoids both reason and morality, and seeks to win your opponent’s concession by making him feel like agreeing with you (or, perhaps, goad him into losing via distraction). If your statement elicits an emotional response that wins your opponent’s concession, your statement is sound.

    Of these, I think logos is the only appeal that fits neatly into your “definition, support, application”. It’s also the only appeal that irrefutably communicates sound information. Reasoned argument relies heavily on logos appeals, which are both straightforward to construct and destruct. But in most arguments, irrefutably communicating sound information is rarely the most useful tool. Many people are unwilling or unable to listen to reason, either because they lack the faculties to do so, or because their understanding of the necessary assumptions is too low for you to prove to them every decision in the tree which shows your point to be irrefutable. Debaters thus use ethos and pathos appeals as ways of soliciting uninformed assent from their hearers. If a listener believes what you say to be morally right, the basis for it may be taken on faith. If, by drawing emotional responses from your listeners you can win their assent without reason (either by winning their affections, or distracting them from your fallacy), then the charismatic speaker has already won.

    The pathos appeal is very powerful against the inattentive or uninformed listener, which is probably why the majority of political debate today is nothing but one pathos appeal after another. Political candidates know that they cannot win the support of a plurality by logically proving their superiority vice their opponents, so they focus the entire time on distraction and redirection. Ethos appeals place a somewhat distant second: most of society still holds a few basic moral truths to be absolute. Logos appeals are almost nonexistent: so small a portion of the populace is substantially informed on “the issues” that a reasoned argument is hardly worth its words.

  2. Leah says:

    I like arguments. Thanks for telling me how to stop them and make them!

  3. Charlette says:

    I like the part about caring about other people and helping them.

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