© 2023 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

David Bouchier: A Good Argument

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Most of us can enjoy a good argument — not a fight but an argument — a lively exchange of contradictory ideas. Arguing is an ancient and noble activity, and one of the very best ways to stimulate the sluggish brain cells, and perhaps to learn something at the same time. In teaching we still use the Socratic method of asking questions and challenging the answers, although Socrates, like me, asked more questions than he answered. At my old school the teachers set up debates, in which we had to argue one side of a question, then switch to the other side and argue for that. It taught us to see both sides, even if we only believed one. It wouldn’t do any harm for all schools to encourage old-fashioned debates like this. It’s fun, and it may even open some closed minds. But schools rarely take such a risk now because, in any debate, somebody is going to have to speak for the unspeakable side, and the unspeakable side might win.

The art of the argument has declined into a kind of sport where the only point is to win by any means possible. But arguments can’t be scored win or lose like a football game. A good argument depends on two things: facts and opinions. It’s important that there should be both, because otherwise the debate will come to a frustrating end as soon as Mr. Google is consulted. You can’t have a good argument over questions like whether the earth is flat, or how hot Phoenix can get in August. Arguments over fundamentally disputed topics like politics, religion or the economy are always lively and interesting because there are baseless opinions and imaginary facts on both sides, and so they more or less cancel each other out. There is never a “right” answer that would end the debate, so it can roll on indefinitely, providing hours of entertainment, or indeed decades or centuries of entertainment. “Who is to blame?” is another rich topic: who is to blame for social media, for modern art, for teenagers? My opinion is as good as yours. Indeed mine is better than yours if I have researched a few facts and you haven’t. A really good argument never needs to finish at all. Some, started by the philosophers of ancient Greece, have been going strong for 2,000 years.

This is also why arguments about the future are so unsatisfying, whether they are about global warming or the next election, the fate of your pension plan, or the end of the world. There are, by definition, no facts about the future. Even more pointless are arguments in which nobody is thinking about facts at all. They always descend into increasingly shrill assertions of what each side believes to be true. “Yes it is,” “No it isn’t,” like two 5-year-olds.

Some commentators shy away from the very concept of argument, seeing it as a negative thing. They talk instead about “conversations,” which sounds very civilized. But a conversation is just a sociable chat, a way to pass the time, like a committee meeting. It is not expected to produce any result. An argument is designed to persuade your opponent. It won’t, of course, but it keeps the lines of communication open. The people we need to worry about are not those who argue with us, but those who refuse argue at all.

Copyright: David Bouchier


David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.