Argument Repair and the Sporting Attitude

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

The second edition of our Why We Argue (And How We Should) is set to be released this month. The new edition is an update of the previous 2014 edition, and in particular, it is occasioned by the argumentative events leading up to and subsequent to the 2016 US Presidential election. New forms of fallacy needed to be diagnosed, and different strategies for their correction had to be posed. But we also saw that another element of a book on critical thinking and politics was necessary, one that has been all-too-often left out: a program for argument-repair. We looked at strategies for finding out what arguers are trying to say, what motivates them, and how to address not just the things argued, but the things that drive us to argue. We think that very often, repairing an argument requires repairing the culture of argument.

One reason why arguments go so badly is because the disagreement and interplay between us, our interlocutors, and our onlooking audiences starts off as fraught. And so, further exchange often makes things worse instead of better. We call this phenomenon argument escalation. Again, we’ve all seen it happen — a difference of opinion about some small matter grows into an argument, an argument becomes a verbal fight, and the verbal fight becomes a fight involving more than merely words. And it’s worse when there are onlookers who will judge us and our performances. Half of the time, we want to stop it all and say, “We are all grownups here . . . can’t we just calm down?” But were one to say this, the interlocutor is liable to respond, “Are you calling me a child, then? And don’t tell me to calm down!” How can we repair arguments without further escalating them?

The first thing to notice about argumentative escalation is that it is a manifestation of the broader phenomenon of escalating antipathy, and this pattern proceeds in the presence of a few background conditions. They are:

Iterability: Some, if not all, of the exchanges between the parties repeat or can be repeated.

Irritability: Repetition of a component of the exchange becomes more frustrating the more it is repeated.

Harm: Escalated forms of the exchange cause some harm (or perceived harm) to the practice or the participants

Heat: As iterations escalate, replying proportionately to harmful exchange appears to be appropriate.

Fog: As iterations escalate, it is difficult, at the time, to determine a proportionate response, so one tends to respond to harmful iterations excessively.

Argumentative escalation happens pretty easily and rapidly. Note that because argument is a turn-taking practice, iteration is built into it. And since argument is inherently critical, there is ample opportunity for irritation, and expressions of irritation are often taken as harming one’s reputation. And so arguers commonly express sub- and non-linguistic aggressions towards their interlocutors — sighing, rolling one’s eyes, responding curtly, taking a tone. Once the harm or perceived harm is done, turn-taking then allows the other side to push back, perhaps with more tone, or enhanced sarcasm. Things then get heated, and that’s when they get ugly, since it’s hard to tell, in the midst of a hot argument, whether the other’s implication that you’re stubborn is proportionately rebutted by your insinuation that they are stupid. In that case, one might think it better to also imply that the opponent is dogmatic and uncultured, too. And so an exchange can escalate from a sigh of impatience to a full-on insult exchange in just a few rounds.

One way to repair an argument exchange and the background argument culture is just to help folks practice not being dismissive in the midst of exchanges. Gestures of frustration get in the way of good argument, and though it’s appropriate to be frustrated with someone who’s not arguing correctly or is being dogmatic, it only escalates the situation to start rolling your eyes right off the bat. Or even after a few rounds. Moreover, it’s important to recognize that people will respond to being challenged in various ways. Indeed, there are some cases of eye-rolling that should be received not as an attempt to belittle an interlocutor, but as a signal that one’s interlocutor regards what you’ve said as less than relevant. In this way, an eye-roll is an expression of one’s interlocutor’s investment in the quality of the argumentative exchange.

As teachers, we’ve developed a pretty thick skin for student rudeness in class conversation. It took some time before student harrumphing in the midst of a lecture didn’t bother us much. What it took was a kind of change of view. Expressions of frustration are implicit signs of investment in the conversation, and they are also incompletely formulated objections. Pausing to let folks emote in the midst of an argument can actually be pretty useful. Here’s a reality: sometimes, argumentative exchanges aren’t just for the sake of getting to the bottom of an issue. Sometimes they are for the sake of just clearing the air between two sides — they are, as our friend and colleague John Casey puts it, occasions for the airing of grievances. Only once we’ve got them out, and they are properly interpreted, can we really proceed with the critical discussion.

This point about grievance and adversariality reflects the fact that escalation is a natural outgrowth of our investment in our views and our commitment to proper argument. The irony, again, is that those very commitments are what seem to undercut well-run argument. The key is that they needn’t always do so. An important point is that arguments are instances of both confrontation and collaboration — we argue with people with whom we have a disagreement urgent enough to call for settling, but we have to work together in a cooperative exercise of figuring out the best way forward. Submerging the confrontational element, denying it or prohibiting it just isn’t feasible. Argument needs to have its adversarial edge. So we must endeavor to focus and work on the skills of cooperation and collaboration in the midst of the disagreement. Consider that athletes walk this line all the time. Athletes must be competitive, but they also must uphold sporting virtues. They must play to win while also respecting the game. For sure, it is possible, as a fan of or player for one team, to acknowledge how excellent a goal just scored by the other team is. There is no danger of outing oneself as a “poser” fan of Team X when one credits a Team Y with a good play. It’s that spirit — we might call it the sporting spirit that we see in athletes — that needs to be made part of the culture of argumentation. Good argument requires that we develop the capacity to concede a good point, even if it hurts our case. We must be willing to let an objection be fully stated before cutting it off. We must be prepared to admit that not all of our opponents are stupid and ignorant. That’s how the arguer-as-good-sport handles controversy.

For sure, the sporting analogy risks a few problems. First, making argument like a game has a chance of making the results and the stakes like those of a game – things that don’t matter overall. But note that if the sporting attitude is taken toward argument, we still value argument well-performed, which should take us toward truths. That’s important, perhaps the most important thing. Second, invoking the sports analogy depends on there being a well-defined sport available for us to play with others. The problem is that argument is messier than a soccer match – not everyone in the game is committed to playing by the rules, and in fact in some cases, is committed to just hurting others. Soccer has its goons, too, but they get red cards and have to leave the pitch. To this objection, we concede that it’s not worth arguing with someone who doesn’t respect the rules of argument, but our point is that unless you give them a chance (and perhaps you are demonstratively following the rules, too), you’ll never be able to determine who’s who. And the great irony of all this is that it’s a widely-held complaint that our argumentative culture is dissolving – that we can’t disagree civilly. Well, this fact isn’t like the weather or a law of physics – it’s a fact that our actions change.