Sam Nelson on loving and hating a good argument

Sam Nelson, a lecturer in the English department, teaches courses in free speech and argumentation and coaches the University's national Top 10 debate team. He recently discussed America's love-hate relationship with argument.

What are the roots of argumentation in America?

Our country thrives on free speech. It is an important right. I think all other rights are intimately connected to it. It really is a reason to celebrate, because no matter what you want to express, you have a right to express it, within the reasonable limits of libel, slander, risks to national security, and a few other narrow exceptions.

Why, then, are so many people turned off by argumentation?

There are two primary reasons: bad arguments and bad arguers.

Many arguments that we are exposed to by our elected leaders, the media, co-workers, and friends lack at least one of three key parts: (1) a claim, or point; (2) a warrant, or reasoning; and (3) data, or factual proof. An effectively constructed argument will have all three, but most of what we hear falls short of this. People who are fed up with arguments are disgusted or overwhelmed by the diet of shoddy arguments they are force-fed daily at work, on TV and radio talk shows, or in news articles. They choose simply not to partake.

Not only are the words of an argument crucial; so, too, is the behavior of its maker. An argument should ideally resemble the gentle repartee of a fencing match, but too often it barrels along as the linguistic equivalent of Mike Tyson's fight with Evander Holyfield. The terms used to describe the argument process--"fight, attack, win, lose, defend our positions"--are negative, destructive, war-like metaphors. Given the behavior that necessarily follows from this mindset, it's not hard to understand how some people are turned off. It used to be that arguments about sex, religion and politics alone risked escalation to intolerable levels of nastiness. These days, arguing about sports, fashion, and pets can lead to physical violence. Thoughtful listening and responding--and the respect and dignity that accompany them--have been supplanted by interrupting, overriding, and just plain being rude.

How do you teach good argument to your debaters?

One of the maxims I teach debaters is that you don't really understand your own argument unless you understand your opponents'. They have to ask themselves, "Why would anyone hold a view different from mine?" Then they do research and come up with some answers to support their opponents' view. It's a lot of hard work to understand the other side so completely that you have a counterpoint for their every point.

I love a good argument. I like making them, having them, watching them, and listening to them. However, I can imagine a time in the future when the spread of bad arguments and bad arguers overwhelms even me. Teaching good debate is one way to ensure that day never comes.

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