There’s certainly plenty of it to go around. Daily life is made up of discord, debate and disagreement. I for one would hate to see conflict vanish. Not only would it put me and all the other mediators out of work, but life would be far less interesting. No doubt quality of life would suffer, since conflict after all famously provokes improvements. (Besides, in a world without argument imagine how erotic love might suffer without make-up sex to spark things up.)
What we need is not fewer arguments in the world. It’s not the quantity that’s at issue, it’s the quality. Friends, we need to bicker better.
Regular readers are familiar with a recently added feature on this blog, the Fallacious Argument of the Month. With the goal of promoting clearheaded and reasoned debate and improving discourse, each month I skewer a different fallacy. One consequence of creating that feature is that it has sharpened my eye for real-world instances of mistakes in arguing. Hence this post: I found a whopper.
One common mistake when arguing is to make cheap appeals to emotion through an old playground trick: name calling. The intent is to arouse the disgust of one’s audience against the target of one’s attack. Using words designed to inflame the prejudices of your audience can certainly be effective. Unfortunately, this ruse can backfire. Your audience may turn on you and not your intended target.
I spotted an example of this in the pages of the local paper, the Boston Globe. One particularly touchy subject these days is a proposal concerning a public law school for Massachusetts, one of a handful of states without one. Under this proposal, the state higher education system would take over private Southern New England School of Law. The Globe has run several opinion pieces on the subject, pro and con, including one, “Bailing out a failing law school,” penned by two University of Massachusetts trustees.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that I oppose this plan myself. But I winced when I read the UMass trustees’ opinion. Instead of focusing on relevant facts to sway the undecided or the committed, the writers vitiated their argument by throwing in deliberately demeaning language, lobbing phrases such as “fourth rate”, “raw political pork”, and “‘Lawsuits ‘R’ Us’ justice”. Not surprisingly, it provoked angry letters from insulted readers.
How much more effective this op-ed piece would have been had its authors stuck with facts and reasons, leaving the sneering provocation behind in the first draft.