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Beginner's Guide to Arguing Constructively

date May 28, 2021
authors Liam Rosen
reading time 4 mins

Destructive argument

The vast majority of people on earth argue in a destructive fashion. Debates, especially in online spaces, are viewed as a battle of the wits in which egos are put on display and there can be only one “winner”.

Constructive argument

Instead, we should be arguing in a constructive fashion: treating arguments as an opportunity to expand knowledge, finding points of disagreement, and collaborating towards a common truth.

When to declare victory in an argument

Arguing more effectively requires detaching yourself from the idea of “winning” in the traditional sense. Instead, you should declare victory when you have argued in good faith and kept an open mind.

The dichotomy of arguments

The red state gun-owner must be pro-religion, anti-abortion, anti-drugs, anti-tax, and skeptical of gender issues. The blue state Subaru-owner must be anti-religion, pro-abortion, pro-drugs, pro-tax(ing-the-rich), and concerned about gender issues.

Breaking out of this Arguments as Soldiers mindset involves two steps:

  1. Do not be afraid to agree with the arguments of the other side when they strike you as reasonable,
  2. On the flip side, avoid stereotyping your debate partner based on one opinion

Common biases

Confirmation bias

Common examples that relate to debates are confirmation bias, or the tendency of humans to seek out information that confirms existing beliefs, and ingroup bias, or the tendency to agree more strongly with people that appear to be part of our “tribe”

False dilemma fallacy

Common examples in debate include the false dilemma fallacy: “you’re either with us or against us”, and the slippery slope fallacy: “if we allow the gays to marry, what’s next: plants?

Ad Hominen fallacy and social shaming

Fans of logical fallacies may recognize this as an ad hominem fallacy, but social shaming goes above and beyond as it is an intentional ad hominem used to frame the “other side”, by virtue of their status or tribal affiliation, as being completely unworthy of participating in the conversation. Social shaming should be avoided.

Soundbites

The next tier up are gotchas: short, catchy arguments that make great soundbites, but are usually either irrelevant to the argument at hand or based on a logical fallacy.

Single fact

Spotting a single fact is a sign that your debate has passed the first dotted line and is at least minimally productive.

Single study

Moving up the pyramid, a single study is always better than a single fact, because they at least provide a source where a competent third party looked into the issue and reached a conclusion

Suggestions

Leave a line of retreat

Always leave your partner a line of retreat. No one wants to lose face, and giving someone no option to easily bow out of a debate can lead to explosive consequences. This probably goes without saying, but a simple way to do this is just to keep your debates polite and treat those who disagree with you with respect, no matter how much you may believe they are wrong.

Arguing in good faith

Arguing in good faith does not mean becoming a completely rational being, devoid of emotion. It does, however, mean introspecting on which emotions may be affecting your points and doing your best to remain objective.

Strawman

the strawman logical fallacy, where one party in a debate intentionally exaggerates or misrepresents another party’s position, then attacks it, in order to make their argument look stronger. Instead of taking on a weaker version of your opponent’s argument, help the entire debate out by thinking of the best and most charitable version of your opponent’s argument, then repeat it back to them to see if it makes sense.

Steelman

steelmanning can be difficult for the budding arguer, but can be improved with practice. Here’s the specific checklist: Listen to the argument and take extra time to think critically about what the person might be saying.

Ideological Turing test

Your goal should be to get so good at steelmanning all types of arguments that you can pass the so-called Ideological Turing Test. To

TIPS

  1. Argue in person: video chat > phone > postal mail > long-form social media (Facebook/forums) > short-form social media (Twitter)
  2. Argue in Private, Not in Public
  3. Know When to Quit
  4. Share Your Experience
  5. The Mental Illness Strategy

Identity debates

Be Mindful of Identity Debates Debates about personal identity, like race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, can easily become inflammatory.

Trivial Debates Parkinson’s law of triviality

Be Mindful of Trivial Debates Parkinson’s law of triviality holds that insignificant, low-stakes issues tend to inspire inflamed and disproportionate amounts of debate compared to their trivial nature.