The February, 2018 issue of Scientific American has an article about on-line arguing. The authors are philosophy and psychology professors at Yale, Carnegie-Mellon, and Jean Nicod in France, and the title is “Are Toxic Political Conversations Changing How We Feel About Objective Truth?”
It contends that there are two styles of arguing, with each generating its own type of thread. The first approach, the authors say, is one of arguing to win. People who argue to win want to score points, tend to be closed-minded, and “objectivist.”
The other style, arguing to learn, results in more open-ended give-and-take. People who use this method are considered more “relativist,” in that they do not believe in absolute answers.
The authors conducted an on-line study with participants directed to use one or the other styles. They gave examples of the types of exchanges resulting from each style. Abortion and gun control were two examples.
The authors showed a clear preference for the “arguing to learn” style for most situations, but claimed the “arguing to win” tactic may be appropriate in such situations as discussion of climate change. Here, they claimed, the weight of scientific consensus would make arguing to win understandable, if not preferable. They conclude that the mode of argument actually changes our understanding of the question itself.
I read the article wondering about the choice of terminology. The mere use of the word “argue” sets the tone for dissent. I grew up in a household where arguing was the norm, a habit I picked up and had to un-learn after leaving. I avoid arguments both on-line and in person. I prefer the terms “discuss,” “converse,” or even “debate,” which allow room for educating as well as learning, and for bringing in elements that may only be indirectly related to the topic at hand. Winning or losing do not enter into the equation, because in a good conversation, everyone benefits.
The idea that the preference for absolute answers is “objectivist,” also seemed arbitrary. The authors used an example of the cube root of a number as an example of definite right and wrong answers. When it comes to politics or moral codes, there is no universal agreement on the “correct” answer, so there is no one qualified to be “objective.”
The authors don’t address personal encounters, which have the advantage of non-verbal cues, like facial expression, tone of voice, and body language. They focus primarily on social media, specifically Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube commentary. By their nature, these media are circumscribed to limit words, so they select for emphatic statements that can easily be provocative.
Presumably the “argue-to-win” types come away feeling even more committed to their point of view. These are the types of people, we are told, who avoid people or perspectives that contradict their fixed opinions. On the other hand, I believe someone who genuinely wants to learn would most likely ask questions rather than argue.
I have similar issues with the word “fight.” I would rather win than fight, but I’m in a minority. I live in a world that thrives on competition, and “fighting for justice,” “fighting for peace,” or “fighting for equality” share the common denominator of conflict. Do ends justify the means? I don’t believe they do.
If you want peace, justice, or equality, you have to live it. If you want communication, have a conversation. If the interaction devolves into a fight—even if you’re fighting an external or abstract enemy—or into an argument—even if you’re arguing to learn—you’ve lost.