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Opinion: How to have an argument with someone you just don’t get

Tuesday, 21 March 2017 8:44pm

The recent and seemingly sudden polarisation of politics and public debate is deeply concerning, says Associate Professor James Maclaurin of Philosophy.

In this opinion piece, written for the Otago Bulletin Board, he offers eight tips for having successful arguments with someone whose opinions are radically different from your own.

James-McLauren-h-and-s-image
Associate Professor James Maclaurin.

Popular, newly mainstream politicians in many countries are openly questioning truth, academic expertise, open dialogue, and democracy. How should universities, their staff and students respond? On campuses in the US and elsewhere, students have taken to trying to out-shout the opposition to whom they steadfastly refused to listen. Tempting as it is, refusing public debate cannot be the right answer. Be it immigration, jobs, climate change, abortion, taxes – all manner of political, cultural and scientific ideas – we have to be able to talk about what divides us, and those discussions must include experts and public figures whose passionately held beliefs are diametrically opposed to our own.

In response to this new and frightening international environment, I recently wrote “How to keep talking when the world is upside down…” for Critic | Te Arohi. That article distils some of the most important skills we teach in Critical Thinking (PHIL 105). So here are my handy tips for students, and staff, for having successful arguments with someone you just don’t get and who doesn’t get you.

The tips

1. Keep a cool head
Even if you are passionate about what you are arguing for, nothing will be served if the other person thinks you are trying to intimidate them.

2. Make the debate rational
Even if you are not sure whether the other person is being honest and serious, take them seriously. Reason the way you think we should, when arguing about important issues. (Hint: when you argue with someone, you should be trying to learn from them, not prove that they or their friends or their compatriots are less smart than you).

3. Work out what you disagree about
Is it the facts or is it the values you hold? State your reasoning. Ask for theirs. Tell them why you think your argument is convincing. Ask them why they think theirs is. Keep going until you both understand how each other’s arguments work and what assumptions they rest on.

4. If you disagree on the facts, visit factcheck.org
I recommend their article on “How to Spot Fake News”. Talk about evidence. Tell them what sort of evidence would make you change your mind. Ask them what would change theirs. If you can’t agree on the facts and it really matters to both of you, consider taking a course. Physics, History, Chemistry, Criminology, Genetics… You’ve come to the right place.

5. If you disagree about values, work out what values are doing the work
I value my sleep because I value my health, because I value happiness. So happiness is the fundamental value here. The others are just instrumental. Fundamental disagreements about values are common and they can be managed. Politics, Philosophy, Sociology, Anthropology, History and many other departments are full of expertise about making diversity a fuel for success, not a recipe for disaster.

6. See the other person’s point of view
If you find this hard, try writing down your arguments and then reading out each other’s. Tell them what you think they think. Ask them what they think you think.

7. Acknowledge bias
Human beings have built-in cognitive biases. Amongst other things, we are much more likely to be persuaded by arguments and evidence that support the beliefs we currently hold. Check out the Wall Street Journal’s red and blue feed experiment to see just how polarised social media is making public debate. So ask yourself “how might people disagree with me?” Try out your argument on people you don’t know so well or you think of as holding different opinions to yours.

8. Be practical
Acknowledging the differences between you, how do you think we should best live together? What concessions should we make to one another?