Saturday, 7 January 2017

Improving Your Rhetorical Stamina

     I have a feeling I'm going to be writing quite a bit more about this whole conceit of rhetoric-as-martial-art. I'm actually thinking of opening a dojo to teach and practice rhetorical technique in the Socratic style.
     This post, I want to talk about endurance in argument. Like physical martial arts, rhetorical combat can be tiring in its own way; it takes a lot of mental and emotional effort to do well, and the longer an argument goes on, the more tiring (and tiresome) it gets. Again, as with the physical martial arts, proper technique can help a lot, because it helps you to apply your effort more efficiently. As well, knowing proper technique reduces stress, which is itself very tiring.
     But there is another trick to improving your staying power, and that is to frame your goal differently.

     Many people go into a debate with the objective of convincing their opponent, which makes a certain amount of sense. After all, that's what all of your arguments are (or should be) built for: to be as persuasive as possible in supporting your claim. So it's natural to say to yourself, "I'm going to keep arguing until I win! As soon as I convince my opponent, I'll be done!"
     This is a fine objective, but the problem is that however confident you may be that you're right, your opponent wouldn't be arguing if she didn't feel just as certain she's right. And she's probably made up her mind to keep on arguing until she convinces you. Neither one of you considers defeat an option; victory or nothing! And you can't both win on those terms.
     Now, while determination to succeed is certainly a good thing, it's a bit of a trap in this case. If you're determined to fight until you win, and your opponent is anywhere near as determined as you are, eventually one of you will become so exasperated at the other's unwillingness to see reason that they'll conclude victory is impossible, and give up. Not concede defeat, mind you; they'll just say something like "It's pointless arguing with you!" and storm off. 
     The person who gives up first is often perceive to have lost, at least in the contest of wills, which is why they so often try to frame their retreat in face-saving terms that blame the opponent for being so unreasonable. It may or may not be an actual victory for the person who stays, but it is at least an advantage in the eyes of most audiences.
     The point here is that if you set out planning to argue until you win, you've got maybe a 50/50 chance of being the one who gets frustrated and gives up first, regardless of how right you are. Indeed, the more certain you are of your position and the obvious wrongness of your opponent, the likelier you are to conclude that their refusal to see reason is due to wanton stubbornness, rather than genuine good-faith disagreement.
     So do not set out to argue until you win. Instead, set out to argue until you lose. That is, decide that you will continue to defend your position until you are persuaded that it is no longer defensible, and you are forced to change your mind.
     I have found this approach to be very helpful in allowing me to keep up my patience in an argument, because it is no longer my failure to persuade my opponent that is prolonging things, but my opponent's failure to persuade me. That alone significantly reduces the mental stress and emotional fatigue of debate, but there is another significant advantage to framing the goal this way: it is the proper stance to take to effectively apply the Socratic method. 
     If my goal is to be convinced, rather than to convince, I will take pains to help my opponent express her position as clearly as possible, so that I may better understand it. And to that end, I will try to make my objections as clear as possible, in order to help my opponent (who may have already faced and overcome these same objections) put them to rest.
     Some people will think there is a danger to this approach, in that you might actually end up losing the argument, and being convinced by your opponent. I don't actually consider this losing, because you end up with a better understanding than you had before, but even if it is a defeat, this is another respect in which rhetoric is a martial art: a win is empty without the real possibility of defeat, and there is much to be respected in the warrior who acknowledges having been honourably beaten.


  1. There's something missing here, at least for me. Your proposal applies to a discussion where both sides believe there is such a thing as reality and positions should be based on it; because then it's clear what to say: address reality. If the other party isn't playing by those rules, the proposal says how long to keep going but not what to say. As recently demonstrated in US politics, there are people whose position is fundamentally not fact-based; instead, they choose their position first, and then invent whatever comes to mind to support it. This is one level more pernicious than Harry Frankfurt's definition of BS, because with classical BS the speaker merely doesn't care whether-or-how what they say is related to reality, whereas with this stuff the speaker is at least momentarily sincere. There may be many variants on this, not always easily distinguishable from each other; for example, it might involve believing God is on their side and therefore if something supports their side, God would not allow it to be wrong; or more directly that they are right by definition and they said it therefore it must be right; or (notice these are not mutually exclusive) they may have a somehow weaker notion of "truth" that doesn't admit such a thing as "fact". But if you believe there is such a thing as reality, and if you have a functioning BS-detector, it's going to become obvious (sooner or later) that unless their philosophy fundamentally changes there's zero chance anything they say can convince you because they aren't trying to address anything that has any bearing on what you believe; only an appeal to reality would have any bearing on your belief and they're not even trying to appeal to that. I have generally avoided putting myself in a position where I can't just walk away from a non-discussion like that; not walking away with a hot feeling of resentment, but walking away with a cold assessment that continuing the dialog would be pointless. Obviously I'm not a politician, because a politician doesn't get to walk away from an opponent who casually makes stuff up.

    1. Thanks for your comment, and I share your concerns about the "post-truth" era. I guess I want to respond to your comment with two main points (which I may develop further n another post).

      First, although you're right that I am presuming the debaters are both at least in some sense committed to some idea of truth, it's not actually essential for the purposes of the stance I'm advocating. I'm suggesting that in any argument with any opponent, post-truther or not, you are more likely to grow frustrated if you see your objective as convincing your opponent. And in fact, endurance is MORE important in debates with post-truth opponents, because often those debates aren't decided so much by traditional cognitive arguments of rationality and evidence, but by things like charisma, passion, and confidence. In such "debates", the person who gives up first usually DOES lose.

      Second, I should clarify that "argue until you lose" isn't meant to suggest that your actual goal should be to lose. Dying gloriously in battle shouldn't be a warrior's goal, either; rather, it's the acceptance of defeat as a possible outcome that helps to develop the martial virtue of courage, which in turn makes victory more likely. So what is victory in rhetoric? Sure, convincing your opponent is a pretty decisive one, but it's not really important in the strategic sense. The strategic goal shouldn't be to change just ONE mind, but to change as many minds as you can, and so I advocate conducting your argument with an eye towards convincing the undecided lurkers in the audience. In the big picture, that's much more important (and often much more achievable) than convincing your outspoken opponent, who usually has too much ego invested to admit changing her mind.

      So, even arguing with a post-truth opponent, keep your eyes on the real strategic objective: the audience. Have faith that they still have some respect for the notion of truth and reason, and use all the rhetorical skill at your disposal to expose your opponent's mendacity for what it is. If you're successful, the audience will recognize your opponent as an empty, deceitful blowhard. And you win that way.