Introducing the antagonist, and showing you how to engage with them directly
What is an Argument?
Often, when trying to convince someone of something, you are not doing it in isolation. The 2 characters that are obvious when thinking about persuasion are the person who is making the argument and the person they are trying to persuade. But often, there is a third character in the story: an opponent. Sometimes, the opponent might be the person you are trying to convince. For example, if you and your brother are arguing about where to go to dinner, your brother is both your audience and your opponent. Other times, the opponent might be another person altogether. For example, if you’re arguing with your brother about where to go for dinner, but your mom is going to end up deciding, your brother is your opponent and your mom is your audience.
In an argument, there are usually 2 people with opposing beliefs. Each of them will try to bring forth their own convincing arguments. However, these arguments don’t exist in isolation to each other either. Often, they will have to interact and be responded to. This is called ‘rebuttal.’
Often 2 competing viewpoints will require a comparison. Have you ever watched an election debate? Seldom do the candidates just talk about why their own policies are good. Instead, they compare them with their opponent’s policies. In fact, they often compare their own personalities with their opponent’s character and integrity.
One example of this came in the 2016 Presidential election. After criticism of Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama uttered in support of her the phrase that “when they go low, we go high.” This attempted to establish the Democratic campaign as more morally grounded than their opponents. Rather than just saying that they were the moral choice, they attempted to show, through comparison of behaviors, that they were the more moral choice.
Comparison in arguments serves to allow audiences to get a better grip on the consequences of the argument – namely what will happen if they pick either option. As a result, it is a highly effective part of rhetorical thinking.
The False Dichotomy
One logical fallacy that is often employed in arguments is the false dichotomy. This is when people artificially restrict people to choosing between 1 of 2 options.
For example, someone going into the grocery store might say ‘either we can eat pizza or green vegetables.’ This might create a compelling argument for eating pizza. After all, who likes green vegetables? However, it is not necessarily a binary choice: there are many other things that they could eat. Their audience might not even like pizza, but if they dislike the other thing more they’ll choose it.
Let’s look at a real world example. In New York City, political arguments rage about regulating noise pollution. On one side of the debate, campaigners say that you can’t regulate noise pollution because otherwise businesses like bars will have to close. However, in saying so, they are neglecting all the other options bars might have – they could simply close earlier or soundproof their walls.
The False Dichotomy is a powerful tool to employ when making an argument – just so long as nobody notices that it’s false.
Basic Rebuttal Frameworks
If you’re looking to oppose an idea, a good way of doing it is through using the ‘pulped’ framework. This gives you 6 different ways to criticize an idea, initiative or policy.
The first concept in the framework is ‘practical.’ Is the policy that they have proposed practically applicable? Does it have proportionate costs to the problem they are trying to solve? The second concept is whether a policy might have ‘unintended consequences.’ Other than doing what it is supposed to, what else might the policy accidentally cause? The third concept is whether the argument is ‘following logic.’ Are all the steps of their chain of reasoning necessarily linked? The fourth concept is ‘precedent backed.’ Does this policy line up with success stories that have been tried before? The fifth concept is whether or not something is ‘ethical.’ Does it fit with widely held consensus values on morality? Finally, an idea can be criticized based on the ‘difference with alternatives.’ Is there a better way of solving the problem? Are there other ideas that compare more favorably?
So, if you’re ever stuck looking for grounds to criticize an idea on, think ‘pulped.’
Another way to rebut is to weigh the relative importance of your argument. Typically, this can be done using the following basic equation:
Importance = scale of impact × size of impact × likelihood of impact
The scale of the impact is how many people it affects. The size of the impact is how greatly they are impacted.
Imagine that Helen and Martha are debating the Covid vaccine. Helen argues that it could lead to heart failure and people dying. Martha counters by saying that the vaccine will save far more lives. As a result, Martha’s scale of impact is larger than Helen’s while both have equal sizes of impact.
Imagine now that their friends, Henry and Steve, are arguing about masks. Steve says that people should wear masks. Henry then says it will impact more people negatively than positively because Covid is survivable for most people. But Steve then points out that the people who do die of Covid have a much larger size of impact – death – than the simple discomfort of others. Even though Henry’s argument has more scale, Steve’s has much more size.
Arguing in Good and Bad Faith
One of the most important considerations when having an argument is the attitude within which the argument is had, particularly when trying to persuade a third party audience.
Arguing in good faith generally involves taking your opponent’s arguments at their strongest. This means that you’ll usually accept their analysis of consensus viewpoints and always assume that their case is generalized rather than testing its extremities.
Arguing in bad faith occurs when you fail to accept your opponent’s premises. In a bad faith argument, you’ll often test edge cases and criticize the individual rather than the argument. A particular danger with bad faith arguments is that they can undermine the likability and credibility of a speaker in the longer term.
Typically, the decision on whether to engage in a good faith or a bad faith argument is not independent of your opponent. There is a ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ style payoff involved – if you argue in good faith and your opponent argues in bad faith, you might lose. However, a good faith argument always has higher potential for finding intellectual truth.
A straw man logical fallacy is an argument that someone makes which is predicated on misrepresenting their opponent’s argument in order to criticize it more easily. In a straw man argument, someone proposes an argument for the sole purpose of taking it down. Although there is no doubt that a straw man is an argument in bad faith, it can nonetheless be an effective way of building an argument in the short term.
For example, imagine an argument between Bob and Jerry. Bob is arguing that “we should lower taxes for working class people.” Jerry responds by saying “if we eradicated tax, there wouldn’t be any money to pay for public services.” What is important to understand is that Bob was never arguing to eradicate tax entirely. In fact, nobody in the argument ever said that. However, through responding by criticizing an argument that doesn’t exist, Jerry is implying that it is Bob’s argument. As a result, he is able to rebut an easier argument and falsely attribute it to Bob.
Another bad faith argumentative mechanism is litotes. Litotes is where you use the negated form of a statement when, in reality you are hoping to suggest the opposite. For example, imagine that we’re deciding whether to have sweetcorn or carrots with our dinner. If I said “I’m not saying we should have broccoli for dinner,” I am planting the idea of broccoli in your head. In fact, it might be possible that neither of us had considered broccoli before. However, even though I’m not endorsing broccoli, I’ve managed to get you to start thinking about it even by its indirect mention.
One historical example of this came in an example from Abigail Adams to her husband John, who was the Second President of the United States. In her letter, she said “I cannot say that I consider you to be kind to the ladies.” However, she is not simply telling us that she’s unable to say it. Instead, she’s trying to suggest that he is not kind enough without directly criticizing him.
‘Even If’ Leveraging
One powerful way of engaging in a comparative argument is through the process of ‘even if’ leveraging. This is when you accept your opponent’s premise but question whether, even if it’s true, the application still holds.
For example, imagine your opponent says that “we need to put price caps on cough medicine because it’s too expensive” and you’re disagreeing. If you say “even if cough medicine was too expensive, which it isn’t, most people can still afford it anyway.” This allows you coverage in the case of multiple scenarios.
When you temporarily acknowledge what would happen ‘even if’ their underlying premise was true, you allow yourself to win the argument with observers who might end up believing your opponents key pillars anyway.
What are Clashpoints?
When you argue with someone, there are key points of clash. These are instances wherein you’ve both argued that your side is better for the same specific criteria. However, these clash directly because you can’t both be correct.
Imagine that you’re having an argument with your sister about which takeaway to order from. While you’re trying to convince your parents that pizza is the better option, your sister is a fierce advocate of fried chicken. If you say “pizza is tastier and cheaper” and she says “fried chicken is tastier and cheaper,” you have 2 points of clash. Firstly, there’s the point of clash of which food choice is tastier. Secondly, there’s the clash over which food choice is cheaper. Both of you have argued that your argument is better on that criteria. If you can identify the key clashpoints in an argument and explain why you’ve won them, you can give your audience, which in this case is your parents, a logical pathway to accepting the superiority of your argument.
It isn’t always smart to try to win on all points of clash.
Imagine that your family is on an extremely strict budget when deciding whether to order pizza or fried chicken. The point of clash about price is far more important to you than the one about tastiness, so you should focus on it more. Rather than wasting time arguing with your sister about tastiness, you can let her argue about that while you focus entirely on price. As a result, you can use your time to make the argument as efficiently as possible.
While it can be tempting to fight an argument on all fronts, it is rarely the easiest way to win. In fact, points of clash can be red herrings. If your sister said that fried chicken contained more chicken than pizza, there is little point arguing that your pizzas contain more chicken. After all, it’s irrelevant to which you should order. However, if you can step back from the heat of an argument and analyze the ground you’re fighting on, you’re more likely to win.