Argument. the word probably invokes a reaction all by itself. If you are like me, you probably have an initial negative reaction to the word for a multitude of reasons. Considering my vast background in politics, the word argument usually brings to mind images of professional bull shit artists who spin their party’s latest tweet and/or one liner about their candidate, position on a police or (usually) their opponent of the moment – you know the thing that will help the party/candidate raise money or get attention.
Argument these days is not the same as it was in the past, just as most things aren’t. When we have so-called presidential debates, they are more like rhetorical acrobatics combined with short sprints – Whoever can get the best one-liners in, scores points.
The same thing happens in theology all too often. Differing theological viewpoints are often portrayed as winner-take-all political fights (think of the Biblical creationist guy vs. Bill Nye the science guy).
But the problem with this approach is that it ignores something important about the true nature of argument – the search for truth. Argument isn’t a bad thing always. In fact it can be very healthy. We argue because we have different worldviews and contexts. We argue because we see the world differently and we are searching for the truth.
Or we can argue in order to be right – in which case we will never learn anything, not be any closer to the truth, and will likely push people away from us. Arguing in order to be right is about our fear of not being in control. There’s plenty of examples of this. You can read Susan Sontag’s ideas about how to refute an argument, or you can read Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Both of these people came at life from the standpoint of being more concerned with being right. This approach is ultimately about power.
A different approach is one espoused by Daniel Dennett, an influential philosopher who has written on criticizing with kindness. Here’s the summary version of his approach:
How to compose a successful critical commentary:
- You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
- You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
- You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
- Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Two approaches to argument. Two very different ways of looking at the world. One seeing the world in black and white, good and bad, us and them. The other seeing the world as a classroom in which to learn and grow. It isn’t relativistic either. The point being to gain understanding, rather than make others conform.
Or put in more popular terms, you could summarize this approach the way that Stephen Covey did years ago – Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.