Arguments Are Boring

Back when I was teaching, the first rule of my class was: There is no arguing with me. Now, this would promptly prompt a certain reaction from a certain breed of so-called good student: Coffeen is so conceited! He thinks he's right! Which is hilarious for multiple reasons, most notably, because, well, uh, I was the fucking professor so, yes, I think I'm right. (While I miss many things about teaching, the assumed self-entitlement of students is not one of them.)

What made my rule particularly alarming — and presumably disarming — to these students was that these were rhetoric courses. And, to this certain breed of student, rhetoric is about debate, the art of arguing an issue. But the thing is: I have a very different view of what an argument is. (And as I was the professor, I got to teach my world view, however unfair students found this.)

To argue about something, in the traditional sense of the word, assumes that there is an initial agreement about the issues at hand, that the debaters share a common ground. How could either party take sides if there was not a prescribed space with sides to begin with? 

And, in my class at least, how could we possibly share a common space? After all, the students haven't yet been introduced to the new space. That's what the class is for. So what's there to argue about? Nothing at all. So I asked students not to spend their energy understanding rather than arguing.  For my course — like any real course, I assume — not only introduced a new space but a different conception of space. 

Here, in this rhetorical space, there is no established common ground ever or anywhere. Yes, there is this world. But we necessarily know it — see it, think it, speak it — from our particular vantage point. There are no grand issues that stand outside time and space. Everything is historical. Everything is perspectival.

Everything, in fact, is an argument. This is not to say that everything is contentious — that is only one possible mode of an argument. No, an argument is the assertion of a perspective. And everything — every person, rock, idea, pixel, mood — is the assertion of a perspective. Each thing — visible or invisible, organic or inorganic — declares: I go like this! 

The world is an infinite proliferation of perspectives, each thing declaring in an impossibly complex baroque harmony — equal parts resonance and dissonance — I go like this! So what's there to argue about? 

Of course, there are some things that say: I go like this so you should go like this! We call these fascists or cancer or sanctimonious pricks or moral, faux religious douchebags. And they often need to be dealt with — but not argued with.

The thing is, students are often taught that a good student argues, giving the teacher a run for his money. We get this, I believe, from a crappy reading of Plato. Socrates seems to argue with folks and, at the end, they've learned! But that's not what happens in those dialogues at all. Socrates just nudges everyone until they're no longer sure of themselves — and then everyone walks away knowing nothing. That is, Socrates uses argument not as a way to know but as a way not to know.

Now, a contentious argument may be fun for some people. They enjoy getting all worked up, feeling like there is a right and wrong. And you know what? This can be a productive release for all of us at some point or another. But as an essential element of education? Egad, no!

Few things are as soul crushingly boring as a contentious argument. Both parties get all worked up, spewing this and that, each getting more pissed off at the other. The so-called debate around the so-called issue of abortion is a great example (I still can't get over that it's called "abortion" — the stopping of something in progress. Shift focus to the woman's menstrual cycle, for instance, and it's no longer an abortion but a renaissance. Anyway....). The so-called pro-life movement and the so-called pro-choice movement are not speaking to each other. From the perspective of each, the other is insane. What's there to argue about?

This is the reason for a structured legal system: it creates a common space that allows contentious argument to take place.  But outside of the courtroom? Arguments get everyone involved nowhere at all. If I don't like someone's way of going, if I find it destructive or ugly, I walk away. Indifference can be quite powerful — at least in maintaining one's well being. 

Are there situations in which an argument needs to be met head on, when waking away just feeds it? Of course. This is what political resistance is all about. To wit, Occupy's reaction to unfettered capitalist greed. Occupy didn't argue. It, well, occupied — which is to say, it went a certain way that interfered with the way capitalism goes (capitalism demands labor and unquestioned consumption; occupy refused both). 

Now, I never asked my students to agree with me or like me or adhere to my world view. I could care less either way. But I did ask that they understand what I was saying. And arguing doesn't lead to understanding — or to much of anything other than ruddy cheeks and sweaty pits while adding just a little more bile and banality to the world. 


TomG said...

I can only agree with you that "few things are as soul crushingly boring as a contentious argument," and that is true of any argument that would try to persuade others. I argue with you, not to show you the "way I go," much less to convince you you should go that way as well, but rather to know the way you're going in more depth and context. Perhaps Socrates actually wanted to know what his friends thought, and benefit from that, rather than trying to convince them of anything?

Andrew Marshall said...

Nice post. My thoughts, though I admit that I read your blog because I basically agree. So for me it is like church or something. Amen.

So I agree, walking away is the most effective way to snuff out an idea. Few arguments are defeated, rather the ideas' force gives out first.

When we are able to walk away-arguing is sport. When we have to stay-arguing is the perpetuation of a union. That is, the true test of when it is appropriate to argue versus when we ought to hold our breath is when we are in a union. Be it friend or mate or whatever unions you have, to argue is to be on the inside. To argue and not as sport is not a free-to-leave-and-stay-gone activity.

I wish more teachers would have taken this tactic in my philosophy classes. The dynamic of the class prior to an exam or paper was always this open forum of whatever pet ideas struck them. People after the exam or paper were...listening.

It is a good lesson to learn. When amongst people that you do not know and don't care to know, do not argue. Do not argue with authority. Do however argue with those responsible for creating authority, but never with the thing itself. Unless you want to be crushed.

Sometimes we argue just to express ourselves, get the idea out there. But if you have expressed your take and listened and gained the benefit of seeing the unknown view, you have been exposed to the ideas and that is enough for me. It is when you are no longer able to walk away that an argument is true and good and not just some pastime. If I am trying to accomplish a task with someone else, then that is when the argument really matters.

How someone argues also really matters, manner and approach: they shouldn't know you are arguing if you want to really win. In a classroom, we are to be critically engaged and that gets confused with arguing our side. Students are so caught up in the outcomes of ideas that they fail to see what is at hand. Hell people always fail at this.

I hate books that fail to argue.

I am a collector of ideas and views. So arguing really is just sport to help play with viewpoints, to test them out, and to see where my interlocutors stand and also, maybe surprisingly for me, where my convictions reside.

I love my philosophical friends ability to sustain an argument. It takes an "as if space" that becomes a shared place. But the "as if space" is not always there for all people.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@TomG: Have you read the same Platonic dialogues I have? Socrates is not interested in others: he's the great nay-sayer, reducing everyone's claims to zero, to nil. He's not a good listener.

I do like your implied idea, however, of argument as a way to delve and understand. Which is why I qualified argument, usually, with "contentious."

@Andrew: I love your phrase: "to argue is to be on the inside." That is a great point: all points of contention are different and, as always, it all depends on whether one should walk away or stick around.

And I agree wholeheartedly: books that fail to argue are of little value.

I was trying, in the course of my post, to move from one notion of argument to another — from contention to point of view. I believe your comments help flesh that out. Thank you.