On War and Sports Metaphors for Argument

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

The vocabularies of sports and war feel natural for describing arguments and their performances. From battle, we describe arguments as swords, as they may have a thrust, may cut both ways, and may be parried. A case, further, can be a full-frontal assault, and we may rush once more unto the breach. There are defensive positions and rear-guard actions. One’s best arguments are one’s heavy artillery, and one may lay siege to viewpoints. And one may, on the sports model, score points or score own goals with successful or unsuccessful arguments, respectively. One may play soft- or hardball. Powerful arguments are slam dunks or home runs, and good rebuttals are counterattacks. Or one may change the subject with a punt. There’s no doubt that our vocabulary for describing what happens when we argue is thick with this metaphorical idiom. The question is whether it is a good thing or not – does the vocabulary of adversarial contest distort our relationship with argument? We hold it need not, but there are some concerns that must be addressed.

The first concern is that sport and war metaphors are misplaced because they presuppose (and seem to endorse) hostility between arguers, and this hostility has objectionable consequences. One’s objective in a game and in a war is to win, to defeat the adversary. As the saying goes, all is fair in love and war, so (leaving love aside) when we turn to the context of argumentation, the metaphors make it difficult to see what would be wrong with using all available means to win in argument. However, unlike in a war, successful argument depends upon arguers following the rules. Further, when one loses an argument, one nevertheless learns something about one’s views. And one may change one’s mind for the better. Losing an argument can be beneficial to the loser. The war and sport metaphors, so the objection goes, fail to recognize this complex of features of argument; for that reason, they are inapt.

But note that both sports and war vocabularies have thick normative components. Just as there is the notion of one’s arsenal, there is a set of norms of just war that constrain how one deploys it. And so there are wars and arguments inappropriately begun, there are unacceptable targets for combat, and there are constraints on what the aftermath of our battles can be. We have the notions of scorched earth policies and those who take no quarter, for both war and argument, and there is good reason to see these descriptions as criticisms.  The same goes for sports. There are blows below the belt and unnecessary roughness. And we have argued previously that a sporting attitude can inform how to look at losses in argument. Just as a team’s defense can learn about themselves in the midst of a blowout, successful criticism can inform us deeply about what we must change about ourselves. This can be revealed only under conditions of adversarial clash, and we can afterwards tell the other team they’ve played an excellent game.

A second concern with war and sports metaphors for argument is that they misrepresent what argument is all about. Instead of being understood as an adversarial exchange, argument is better seen as a collaborative and cooperative pooling of intellectual resources. When we argue with our fellows, we deliberate together, we work to cross-pollinate, to adapt to each other’s views. These aims are not accurately modeled by metaphors with the combat and competition that characterize war and sports.

To be certain, there is a sense that argument must be regarded as a cooperative enterprise in that it is a means for inquiry, but argument is also a form of verbal self-defense against those who would wish to bend us to their wills. With argument, we have a rule-bound domain wherein we can work out those differences. We acknowledge being bound by those norms, and that is the background cooperative condition. In fact, the cooperative principle of interpreting gestures of response as argumentative in these conditions is a consequence of this cooperative background – we’ve agreed to solve the issue with arguments, so we interpret the things others say in this context as in the service of that end. But the manner of interpreting these contributions is that of in the form of adversaries, not collaborators once we see take on this frame of interpretation.  How else to interpret an interlocutor’s bald statement of facts relevant to the case but as further considerations? Moreover, notice that the fact the cooperative requirements for argument can require critics of oppression to work with their oppressors to think up better reasons to justify themselves. Any conception of argument that makes the oppositional force of dissent out of bounds is one that is insufficient for a social world in need of critique.

Next consider what the adversarial model of war and sport metaphors positively contribute to our understanding of argumentation. They allow us to articulate what is brave about particular acts of argument. Consider the person who encourages criticism of her views, going out of the way to elicit and perhaps even improve upon objections. She suffers the slings and arrows, perhaps she even seeks them out. Or consider someone who bucks trends and challenges sacred assumptions and thereby risks not only intellectual goods but social standing, too. Or maybe there is someone just curious about what is wrong with some view that others act as though is obviously wrong, and she tries to get to the bottom of it? She risks being dunked on by her critics, but it seems appropriate to praise these intellectual tendencies. They exhibit a kind of courage, and it’s hard to capture what’s brave about them without availing ourselves of the vocabulary of opposition and conflict that is made vivid by the metaphors of war and sport.

The broader lesson is explored in our new book, Political Argument in a Polarized Age. It is common to regard the frustrating, disappointing, and uneasy aspects of social life as regrettable breakdowns of decency. Particularly in the case of politics, it’s easy to attribute bad collective decisions and awful outcomes to failures in the democratic process. To be sure, just as there are abuses of the warring and sporting elements of argument, there are real political dysfunctions that have their source in breakdowns of democracy, too. However, it is easy to infer from the fact that democratic failures produce political dysfunction that every such dysfunction is the product of a deviation from proper democracy. From there, it is tempting to conclude that were democracy more fully realized, policy failures and other common dysfunctions would disappear. However, democracy and argumentation are alike in being an uneasy and perpetually fragile mixture of cooperation, conflict, support, and opposition. They are both works in progress, but the work itself is not only never completed, its completion would nonetheless leave us with a range of frustrations and obstacles to be managed.