In Defence of Argument

Paul arguing with the JewsA few weeks ago, Steve Holmes expressed some of his reservations about arguments and our attempts to win them in a post on his blog (which you should be following). Although he firmly believes that truth is a matter of importance for Christians, he perceives a number of dangers in our frequent overreliance upon an oppositional and aggressive form of argumentative discourse, especially in our interactions with fellow Christians.

There is, certainly, a Christian duty to contend for the faith once delivered. But most of the ongoing arguments I find myself in are with Christian sisters and brothers, many of them good friends to whom I owe a great deal. With them, I don’t think I am contending for the faith, just for a particular interpretation of it. Of course, there are views that are true, and views that are false on various issues, and we need to discuss these things in the family. But if I win these arguments, someone else has to lose. And, as a general orientation, I really don’t want my friends—or my sisters and brothers who I have not yet met—to lose.

Adopting a highly oppositional form of discourse has the effect, Dr Holmes believes, of polarizing and dividing Christians over issues that are of secondary importance, giving us a distorted impression of the stakes of our disagreements. He speculates briefly about what ‘a mode of rhetoric that debates issues with a principled refusal to win the debate might look like,’ maintaining that he wants ‘to find ways of exploring and testing the truth of issues which place ideas in competition, but people in community.’

Behind a number of the points that Dr Holmes raises against argument—the provisionality of our opinions, the wounding of those who lose arguments, our polarization over secondary issues, etc.—my suspicion is that there lies a deeper objection: that arguments aren’t very effective as a means for pursuing the truth. They distort our sense of the strength and importance of our positions, they polarize more readily than they persuade, and they so raise the stakes of our public commitment to our existing opinion that abandoning it for a more accurate understanding is unnecessarily difficult.

I sympathize with a number of the concerns and desires that Dr Holmes articulates. Argument is often counterproductive as a mode of truthful discourse and it would be wonderful to discover ways in which to address the destructive antagonisms that often characterize Christian conversations. On the other hand, I believe that many of the problems that he identifies have less to do with argument per se than they do with the fact that we are not very good at it and understand it in an unhelpful manner. Within the rest of this post I will discuss some of the alternatives to argument as a mode of discourse and persuasion that we have at our disposal, followed by a defence of the importance of argument.

Reason and Emotion in Discourse

The popular opposition between ‘reason’ and ‘emotion’ is problematic in several respects. The very term ‘emotion’ is a profoundly unhelpful one, an irresponsible agglomeration of a wide variety of affective states, passions, feelings, sensibilities, sentiments, and emotions. The result is a profound muddying of the understanding on all sides. On the one hand, those who affirm the opposition between reason and emotion resist a great deal that should be constitutive of the rational mind and blind themselves to much that underpins their reason, which leads them prone to hyper-rationalism’s peculiar forms of irrationality. On the other hand, those who affirm ‘emotion’ often fail to subject our affective life to cultivation, formation, and discipline, to judgment, external constraints, and communal discernment, or to draw clear divisions between healthy and unhealthy forms of affective states.

As a result, unhealthy and uncontrolled ‘emotion’ starts to intrude upon discourse in many ways. The vulnerability or offence-taking of those with thin skins closes down or prevents important conversations. People’s inability to maintain cool heads or to exercise self-control over their affective states when subject to the psychological effects of herding on social media, for instance, prevents them from patiently and charitably hearing a case out and responding thoughtfully rather than reacting instinctively. The immediate emotional response to reading a text is accorded a degree of hermeneutical privilege that it doesn’t merit. As we grant the question of how a text feels to individual readers such importance, meaning is gradually removed from the realm of public demonstration or contestability. Discourse is also derailed by the instinctive reactions, hostilities, or tensions that exist between the different parties within it. Although we may give considerable attention to the matters that we are disputing, we often fail to attend to or address the affective undercurrents that frequently drive things.

Discourse is always relational in character. When engaged in discourse, we are engaging in relationship with:

  1. Our selves
  2. Other persons on our ‘side’
  3. Our own positions
  4. The conversation itself
  5. Our interlocutors
  6. Our interlocutors’ positions
  7. The truth
  8. Spectators and other third parties

In order to think and reason carefully, we must ensure that every one of these relationships is healthy. Where one or more of these relationships is unhealthy—and one of these relationships is seldom unhealthy without infecting the others—our entire discourse can be damaged. The following are a few examples of ways in which each one of these relationships can be unhealthy:

  1. Pride can give rise to an unhealthy relationship with our selves, making it difficult for us to acknowledge ourselves to have been wrong, especially in public.
  2. Fear of losing the friendship of other persons on our own ‘side’ can cause us to step back from making unpopular but necessary criticisms of unhealthy beliefs that have traction in our own camp.
  3. We can over-identify with our own positions, presuming that an attack upon them is an attack upon ourselves.
  4. We can react in fear, impatience, or hostility to the way that the testing and openness of the conversation can place our certainties in question.
  5. An instinctive reaction against our interlocutors can make it difficult to hear them out carefully and charitably.
  6. Negative associations that we have established with aspects of our interlocutors’ positions (dimensions of its rhetoric, terminology, labels, etc.) can cause us to react rather than thoughtfully respond.
  7. We can react in fear to the prospect of the truth as something that can unsettle the status quo, demand our loyalty, or undermine our claims upon reality.
  8. We can allow the tensions that we have with third parties to prevent us from giving people that they recommend a careful and charitable hearing. Alternatively, we could also allow ourselves to get caught up in the stampede of the crowd on social media and fail to think about the matter that they are reacting to clearly for ourselves.

This list is very far from comprehensive. However, it should give some sense of the many fronts upon which we need to manage our relational dynamics and the affective states associated with these. The thinking process is not just a matter of machine-like logic-crunching and brainpower: it is an interpersonal and relational process and a matter of various virtues, of patience, of charity, of love, of courage, of nerve, of self-control, of trust, of hope, etc. The sharpest minds can be worse than useless when their owners lack virtue or self-control in handling their affective states.

The lack of self-control in handling affective states usually owes more to lack of training than to vice. I have commented on various occasions upon the ways in which much of our education fails to prepare us for the real world situations where the relational character of healthy and clear thinking proves most challenging. In consequence, many people—even those with advanced education—lack the capacity to think well under pressure or to manage the relational dynamics that shape their thinking (dynamics of which many are entirely unaware).

Avoiding Argument

As healthy thinking always involves volitional and relational components, often the only way in which to change minds is by carefully addressing the relational dynamics of a conversation, attending to and mending the sorts of relationships that persons have with their interlocutors, the conversation, and the issues. Recognizing the psychological structure of conversations and the ways in which we can change this using rhetoric, psychology, or institutional means is always helpful.

Direct argument is not the only way to present our perspectives, to unsettle differing positions, or in which to persuade or move others. As I have already suggested, in certain contexts and occasions argument can be a very ineffectual means of achieving such ends. Many contexts or relationships cannot sustain the combative and oppositional interactions involved in argument without fracturing. This doesn’t mean that we are without alternative forms of making a case or persuading others at our disposal (some of these have problems of their own).

For instance, we can eschew direct challenge in favour of talking others through our thinking process, without ever using an opposing position as a foil. Non-confrontational Socratic questioning is also a fantastic tool in such situations (in general, I don’t think that people exercise much discipline and care in the art and practice of questioning). There is no need for direct assertion of one’s own position when one can, through shrewd questioning, guide people around to one’s way of thinking without opposing them. Gently leading people to expose the errors in their own former ways of thinking is generally far more effective than doing it oneself for a number of reasons. Carefully employed, it can also be a means of engaging people’s imaginations in ways that overcome existing narrow terms of debate. It can be a means of maximizing your interlocutor’s share of the conversation and demonstrating your attentiveness to them and their point of view. Finally, it can be a subtle way of moving your interlocutor to take an external perspective—primarily your own—upon their point of view.

Managing the Tensions of Argument

Even on those occasions when more direct confrontation is relatively unavoidable we still have means by which to minimize the dangerous tensions that can arise in argument. Sometimes we will have to do extensive work on developing a strong atmosphere of friendship and mutual respect with our interlocutors before any progress in the argument can be made. On other occasions, recognizing how overheated heads and the sense of immediate threat can destroy any possibility of progress, we may step back or change the topic of conversation before delivering any killer blow, providing our interlocutor with the time and space required in order to respond calmly, rather than react (which would quite possibly lead them to dig their heels in).

On other occasions it makes sense for us strategically to make weaker arguments. A weaker argument is less likely to make an opponent feel as though their self is being threatened in the discussion and hence less likely to make them defensive. For some people we need to make it as easy as possible for them to change their minds without losing face. The challenges that we raise to our opponents’ positions may also be more effective if we don’t do all of the work for them. We can plant the seeds of uncertainty in other people’s minds and wait for them to grow, rather than rushing the process, which often merely produces reaction. We are always most receptive to our own arguments against our positions and also absorb a lesson much more deeply when we have to learn it for ourselves, rather than receiving it as a pre-packaged lesson. In other words, provide a person with the cues to make such arguments, step back, and they can do your work for you.

If I want to win over someone to my position, I will occasionally try to make them a spectator of a more confrontational argument that I have with a third party, demonstrating the strength of my position and the weakness of the opposing one. If I am having a direct conversation with them, I will occasionally seek to involve a calm third party in the conversation somehow and frequently alert my interlocutor to their presence. This helps to keep tensions down and heads cool.

Girardian mimetic theory and also Edwin Friedman’s treatment of self-differentiation and emotional triangles can be helpful here. Both alert us to the ways in which perverse relational dynamics can lead to the breakdown of healthy interactions between persons. Both also alert us to the importance of the factor of mediation—the parties who model or mediate our relations with others—and the danger of non-differentiation—as we lose the capacity to distinguish our agency clearly from others and get caught up in the dynamics of the herd, reacting rather than responding.

I am increasingly alert to this in my own experience. I seek ways of establishing the self-definition that I need in order to respond rather than react. One of the greatest dangers here is that of mirroring people’s antagonisms and getting sucked into a pointless animus, an animus that will dangerously distort one’s thinking. There are various tactics by which one can minimize the dangers here. Mediating one’s relationship to opponents is one important way. There are various ways to do this. Sometimes I will purposefully try to focus more upon the spectators of a conversation than upon my interlocutor. As I allow calmer spectators to mediate my response to an angry interlocutor, it is easier for me to keep my cool and perhaps even to cool my opponent down in the process (there is a reason why many formal contexts of argument require the arguing parties to address a moderating third party, rather than directly addressing each other). On other occasions, I will make a point of praying a prayer of thanks for my opponents as I am arguing with them, ensuring that my relationship with them is mediated by God’s love for them.

If we are to persuade others or have effective arguments, we will need to be attentive to these dynamics and order them in our favour. Where people are not naturally well equipped to act and think in a self-defined way, we may need to establish contexts and forms of interactions that are more conducive to self-differentiation for them. Both the rapidity and the social character of social media can be obstacles to self-differentiation, priming us to react rather than thoughtfully respond. Changing the medium of the conversation can make a difference. Sometimes I will take conversations into private correspondence. On other occasions I will slow down my responses to encourage response over reaction. Removing certain discussions from the speed and social density of most online networks can be helpful. I will occasionally take a heated online argument, wait a week, and then write a response in the more aerated context of a blog. Sometimes it may be necessary to create a new platform for a particular conversation. On other occasions we may just need to establish ways of excluding people who are incapable of acting in a self-differentiated fashion from direct participation in certain conversations.

In Defence of Argument

The difficulty of argument is in large measure a result of the difficulty of self-differentiation and positive mediation. These difficulties will always exist, but they can be minimized in various ways. They can be minimized by structuring the process of argument well, putting calm mediators and strong moderators in place, providing the security of space and time to participants, and restricting direct participation to self-defined participants. However, these things are often luxuries and the success of argument can sometimes rest heavily upon the self-mastery and self-definition of participants, or the ability of the more self-defined parties to make prudent allowances or provision for the limitations of those with whom they are arguing.

Despite the difficulty of argument, I believe that it has peculiar value as a mode of discourse, not least because it privileges and develops self-defined thought, confident and assertive thinkers, and the rigorous stress-testing of ideas and viewpoints. My differences with Dr Holmes’ position primarily have to do with the way that he frames the process of argument, ‘winning’ and ‘losing’, and what is involved in making an aggressive case for one’s position.

First, argument can be something that we share. Properly practiced, argument isn’t just the trading of polemical monologues. Rather, it can be a form of tough sparring between people grounded in a deep mutual respect and sense of intellectual responsibility. The Christian duty to think truthfully about God is a shared one and combative debate between Christians of differing convictions is one means by which we hone our understanding, stress test our viewpoints, and discover our weaknesses and errors. We can serve our Christian neighbour by pushing their thinking to the limit and we are served by them as they return the favour. Contexts where we must always pull our punches to avoid hurting thin-skinned people are seldom conducive to the development of strength of mind and clear and robust articulation of the truth. Establishing contexts where such discourse occurs between gifted interlocutors benefits the whole Church.

Second, argument isn’t merely undertaken for the sake of those who are speaking. In fact, most argument is undertaken between trained and gifted interlocutors for the sake of onlookers. There are occasions when I am not seeking to persuade my opponent at all. Rather, I want publicly to destroy their position and credibility beyond all hope of recovery. I am not trying to persuade such an interlocutor, but completely to remove any power that their false teaching might have for those witnessing our discussion. Anyone who sets themselves up as a teacher of Christian truth and as a leader is and should be exposed to a ‘stricter’ judgment. The good of the Church sometimes requires us to deliver knockout punches to toxic teachings, false teachers, and abusive leaders. It can also serve as a salutary warning to others who might be tempted to set themselves up as teachers that they should not do so unless they have what it takes to face the sort of tough testing that accompanies the awesome responsibility of publicly teaching Christian truth.

Third, the point of such conversation is not that one participant ‘win’ but that truth emerge through an uncompromising process of testing. If we all have thick skins, strong nerves, courage, and the humility to surrender our faulty viewpoints, everyone stands to win from the emergence of truth from the crucible of tough debate. Even if we do not fundamentally change our minds, we have much to gain, as Oliver O’Donovan observes. The dramatic and public loss of an opponent whose pride prevents them from backing down can also be of considerable benefit for those in the Church who might have been susceptible to their false teaching had they retained their credibility.

Finally, although it often may, making an aggressive case for one’s position need not involve a lack of humility or awareness of the provisionality of one’s opinion. Rather, aggressive argument can be an open display of the strength of our case that is always an implicit invitation to a countering position to respond, rising to the challenge by seeking to expose our weaknesses and display its own strengths. Aggressive argument can be a commitment to making the testing of truth as rigorous as possible. Just as in court the strength of the case of the prosecution can be elicited by a rigorous defence, so the greatest servant of my growth in understanding and the honing of my articulation of truth can be my relentless sparring partner. ‘Steelmanning’ the cases for all perspectives can also serve the Church as a whole and we can all lose out when arguments are weakened, made less searching and forceful, avoided altogether, or when key voices fail within them, leaving weaknesses in other viewpoints unchallenged.

Perhaps one of the deeper problems here is our democratic notions of Christian argument and the assumption that every voice should be included equally, or the failure of our contexts and media to uphold the restriction of key conversations to those who are temperamentally and intellectually equipped for them. There are clearly many contexts and forms of Christian discourse beyond the crucible of rigorous argument. However, none of these forms of discourse may be as effective in serving the maintenance of the weighty responsibility and demands of those teaching Christian truth.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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13 Responses to In Defence of Argument

  1. quinnjones2 says:

    Hi Alastair,
    as a brief initial response to your post – I like your approach to Steve Holmes’ post, as encapsulated in this sentence:
    ‘I sympathise with a number of the concerns and desires that Dr Holmes articulates.’
    In addressing ‘positives’ before addressing ‘negatives’, you are exemplifying the approach of St.John to the seven churches in Revelations. I have been struck for a long time by the way that they open with encouragement(s), which are then followed by ‘…but I have this against you’.

    • quinnjones2 says:

      I’m looking through a glass darkly here, but there seems to be a theology of doctrine/ethics, and also a theology of ways of discussing theology/ethics with a variety of people. It seems to me that there’s a considerable potential for not seeing eye-to-eye about one point or another, and therefore a considerable need for patience, wisdom and discernment.

      • quinnjones2 says:

        Hi Alastair, I I am now ready to respond to your list of factors that can work against engaging effectively in arguments, I made a list of questions to ask myself and then answered them:
        1. Does my pride prevent me from speaking truthfully to others and from being able to receive some truths from others?
        2.Does my fear of losing the loyalty of friends and family prevent me from offering correction when I believe that correction would be appropriate?
        3.Do I over-identify with my own position and see any attack on that as an attack on me personally?
        4.Do I feel frightened, impatient or hostile to others when they say something that places a question-mark over something I had hitherto believed without question?
        5.Do I have instinctive reactions to my interlocutors that prevent me from hearing them out?
        6. Does the language used by others sometimes elicit an emotional response in me to such an extent that I need to attend to my own emotions before I can objectively consider the content of the other person’s point?
        7. Do I feel frightened in any way at the prospect of hearing/facing/telling truth?
        8. Does my fear of a third party prevent me for giving a fair hearing to one person for fear of retaliation from another? Or do I ‘play safe’ and go along with whatever seems to be ‘the winning side’ at any given time, rather than than search my own heart and ‘dare to be a Daniel’?
        I will spare you (and myself!) all the answers I gave myself to these questions. I will say that on occasions I have engaged with people in ways that have resulted in me being condemned and ostracized. I have also found some ‘true blue’ friends and at the very top of my list is Jesus Christ.
        Finally, my first concern with ‘unhealthy’ reactions is a longing for healing of the wounds. both in myself and in others. We have a healing Lord, but healing can be a long, slow and painful process. I appreciate that there are times when many of us need to take ‘time out’ from discussions about some matters.I pray for the wisdom to know when taking ‘time out’ is appropriate, and for the grace to bow out of a conversation courteously.

      • quinnjones2 says:

        My apologies for yet more typos – but I don’t think they detract from the meaning!

  2. quinnjones2 says:

    Correction… should read: ‘I have been struck for a long time by the way the messages to the churches open with…’

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  4. truthunites says:

    There are people who entered into a saving knowledge and relationship with Jesus Christ through the express means of argument. Moreover, Scripture has examples of argument in its Spirit-Inspired books.

    What’s the proposal here by the critics of Alasdair? To shun arguments in toto?

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