Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The art of the argument matters, Paul Ryan insists (and I agree)

How we treat each other in a debate is sometimes more important than the debate itself

I’m a strong believer in the idea that the art of the argument matters almost as much as the argument itself. How you set forth your argument can determine the paths that a conversation can take, and at times it can drastically alter the outcome of the debate itself.

This isn’t some hidden wisdom -- “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” In other words, more people will come to your side of an argument (or even consider it) if you present something more positive than negative.

But it’s not just about winning the argument either -- a poisoned rhetoric can damage bridges between you and your opposition, making it impossible to come to any reconciliation at a later date. Arguments can and should get heated, and passionate debaters shouldn’t necessarily try to temper their opinions. But a calmer dialogue, one that views separate actors as human beings and not enemies, is much more preferable to the alternative.

That alternative is fast becoming the new norm in American politics. Political actors, talking heads and citizens alike are engaging in fierce debates that often lead to worse outcomes -- and not necessarily on policy matters. This is best exemplified by the Republican Party’s primary election candidates, who have devolved into arguments over hand size and pictures of wives rather than what kind of leaders they might be.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Janesville) took note of this issue, and in a speech to House interns this week addressed the need to correct the way we argue in American politics.

“Looking around at what’s taking place in politics today, it is easy to get disheartened,” Ryan began. “How many of you find yourself just shaking your head at what you see from both sides?”

Ryan explained that we shouldn’t demonize the “other side” in ways that destroy dialogue. We should disagree with each other, passionately even, but not at the expense of respect for the person we’re speaking to.

“If someone has a bad idea, we don’t think they’re a bad person,” he suggested. “We just think they have a bad idea. People with different ideas are not traitors. They are not our enemies. They are our neighbors, our coworkers, our fellow citizens.”

“If someone has a bad idea, we tell them why our idea is better,” he added. “We don’t insult them into agreeing with us. We try to persuade them. We test their assumptions. And while we’re at it, we test our own assumptions too.”

And Ryan was even forthright about how he isn’t innocent in the negative forms of dialogue, using examples from his failed vice presidential run to illustrate his point:
I’m certainly not going to stand here and tell you I have always met this standard. There was a time when I would talk about a difference between “makers” and “takers” in our country, referring to people who accepted government benefits.
But as I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized I was wrong. “Takers” wasn’t how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, just trying to take care of her family. Most people don't want to be dependent. And to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong. I shouldn’t castigate a large group of Americans to make a point.
I’m impressed by Speaker Ryan’s speech. As a liberal, I agree that dialogue has gotten too negative in recent years. We can disagree with one another, even if it leads to impassioned arguments. But devolving into insults is not the way to go, and I have tried my very best not to do so on this site and elsewhere.

From time to time, we all need to step back and take a breath when it comes to political discourse. I’m certainly a passionate person when it comes to many subjects -- but I always try to focus on the subject rather than the person delivering their opinions. I’m thankful for Paul Ryan’s words of wisdom, and hopeful that it will lead to a better dialogue across the nation.

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