Six Rules for Having a Good Argument


From time to time someone tries to pick an argument with me about religion. On the whole, I try to avoid anything I think will generate more heat than light, especially if I’m not feeling well or haven’t time to give the matter my full attention. I particularly dislike the kind of argument that is loaded with cheap gibes, unsubstantiated allegations, or tries to wrong-foot one by beginning ‘you should . . .’ (which usually means, you shouldn’t say/do anything I dislike, certainly not argue back). Part of my reluctance stems from self-knowledge: I don’t want to use such intelligence as I have to crush or belittle another, and that is always a temptation when someone is being annoying. But there is a more important reason. No one I know has ever been argued into virtue, still less, holiness; and being dismissive or supercilious or condescending merely reinforces the idea that Christians in general, and Catholics in particular, can be very unpleasant. It is even worse when we quarrel among ourselves. Feathers fly, and onlookers draw their own conclusions.

Of course, we may see ourselves as valiant for truth. We argue with every ounce of our being for something we believe in and do not always recognize that we have undermined our case by our manner of arguing. When I was active in the pro-life movement, I was sometimes dismayed by the anger and hatred some displayed. It left me wondering what was going on inside. Was being pro-life really just an excuse to vent a lot of negative feelings? I hope not, but it did seem like that occasionally. I still believe that it is possible to have a good argument, but there are a few ground rules which I try, with varying success, to observe myself. See if you agree with mine.

Six Rules for Having a Good Argument

  1. The subject of the argument must matter. Life is too short, and people are too important, to waste time on trivialities that will leave a trail of wounded feelings and misunderstandings in their train. Not everyone is naturally combative!
  2. One must respect the person with whom one is arguing — so no insults or crudely mocking remarks, and be very careful about using humour. What is wit to one is devastating sarcasm to another. Most people are sincere in what they believe or don’t believe: we should respect their honesty and treat them courteously.
  3. One must be prepared to accept that another may not wish to respond. Not everyone is confident that they know enough or can argue well enough to explain why they think or believe as they do. They have a right to be silent; and just because we want to argue now, that is no reason for assuming that the other person does.
  4. One must know when to stop.
  5. Both before we begin, and, above all, afterwards, we should ask the Holy Spirit not only to enlighten us but also to put right anything we may have got wrong, to calm any disturbance we may have caused and — unless you are very unlike me — to pacify any angry or hostile feelings we may have ourselves.
  6. An argument does not have to be won in order to be good.

You will notice that my ground rules are mainly about how we argue, rather than how we respond to those who want to argue with us; but I think that if we keep the general principles in mind, they are helpful when someone wants to take us to task. My sixth rule is the hardest of all to practise, but I suspect it is the most valuable. We do not need to have the last word to make our point.


Twitter Arguments

From time to time, someone on Twitter will decide to take another person to task about an opinion they hold, or are thought to hold (not at all the same thing), or will tag their name onto a tweet in the hope of getting their views into the other’s data stream and thereby reaching all their followers. It happens to me occasionally. Sometimes I’m not online to notice; sometimes I’ll engage in friendly discussion or disagreement. Sometimes, however, things take an uglier turn and I prefer to dissociate myself entirely from the other’s agenda by blocking them. Inevitably, that leads to howls of rage from the blocked, but, really, why should one meekly accept insults and accusations, usually expressed in screaming capitals, when one has not initiated the argument oneself and has no desire to press any particular point?

In the past few days, I’ve had two ‘interesting’ experiences of a Twitter argument into which others tried to draw me. My overwhelming feeling in each case was ‘this is a waste of time, no one is listening to anyone else, and hurling insults around makes it unlikely that anyone is going to want to listen to anyone else’. I preferred to withdraw (and was, of course, attacked for doing so) but I think if one genuinely believes in freedom of speech, one must allow others the right to silence. That is often forgotten on Twitter, where individuals sometimes assume the right to compel others to respond. It is, in effect, another form of bullying.

However, I accept that many people do want to use Twitter for arguing but don’t want to be bullies, so here are my five little tips for Twitter arguments. Before you begin, ask yourself

1. Is Twitter the best place to argue your  case?

2. Can you make a valid statement in 140 characters?

3. Can you argue your case without attacking/accusing/insulting another? (Courtesy does matter; so does checking one’s facts and getting them right.)

4. Are you prepared to admit you are wrong?

5. Will you recognize that not everyone is as happy to argue as you are yourself?

I have to admit that my tips come more as a plea to the disputacious than the fruits of experience as I’ve never initiated an argument on Twitter and don’t think I’ve ever ‘won’ any in which I may have engaged. Twitter arguments often generate more heat than light, and people and reputations are sometimes badly harmed in the process. The most important advice I would give to anyone wanting to argue on Twitter, therefore, would be Mr Punch’s advice to those about to marry — don’t. Or, if you cannot manage that, at least think before you tweet.