Have we lost the ability to argue?

“It is extraordinary to notice how few people in the modern world can argue. That is why there are so many quarrels breaking out again and again, and never coming to any natural end.”  How true.  Just switch on any cable TV “news” show or go to any online forum.  Or visit an association board meeting.

Unfortunately, the quoted obsertvation is not new.  It was made almost a century ago (1929 to be exact), by British author G. K. Chesterton.

“Today, we tend to think of arguing as synonymous with quarreling, with anger as the chief ingredient,” a January-February 2008 editorial in the Gilbert Magazine noted.  But true argument has nothing to do with anger.  Unless you are in a debating contest, the purpose of argument isn’t to beat your opponent; it is to get to the truth.

There is the tricky part!  If argument is in service of the truth, not personal victory, that demands being open to the possibility that the opposition might be right. Which requires also being open to the possibility that one’s own sincere and intensely held beliefs might be wrong.  Or at least incomplete.

“Participants in a discussion who are unwilling to listen are not having an argument.  They are having a fruitless exchange of assertions.”

As Chesterton himself liked to point out, true argument is only possible when the participants share more in common than they differ over.  That is, as he often observed, we have to agree about something before we can argue about anything.  Otherwise, we are just disagreeing for the purpose of being disagreeable.  Or merely to appear clever.

We’ve all seen (or perhaps been in) arguments where the protagonists seem to be talking past each other.  Think of the current political debates on the debt ceiling.  The opposing sides agree it is important, even vital that something be done. But somehow, they end up arguing about whether taxes are too high or government spending too wasteful.  It becomes more important to be viewed as right about taxes or right about spending.  They forget that the energy behind the argument had it roots in something important that they both agree about: the need to avoid default.

So maybe the real reason we tend to argue is because we care so deeply and the subject matters are of such importance.  That’s a good reason to argue, Chesterton would assert.  But it doesn’t excuse you of the obligation to argue fairly and argue well, argue with respect for your opponent, and argue in service of the truth.

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About Mark J. Golden, FASAE, CAE
Mark J. Golden, FASAE, CAE, is Executive Director of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) in Alexandria, Virginia. Prior CEO roles include a nearly fourteen-year tenure as Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA), Vienna, Virginia. Before joining NCRA staff , he spent eight years with the Personal Communications Industry Association (PCIA), Washington, D.C. He also spent 12 years with the Association of Telemessaging Services International (ATSI), Alexandria, Virginia Long active in the association community, Mr. Golden is a past Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Center for Association Leadership, a past Vice Chairman of the ASAE Board of Directors, past Chair of the Center for Association Leadership’s Research Committee, and past member of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce's Association Committee of 100. He is the 2011 recipient of the American Society of Association Executive's Key Award, the highest honor ASAE bestows, to "honor the association CEO who demonstrates exceptional qualities of leadership in his or her own association, and displays a deep commitment to voluntary membership organizations as a whole.”

2 Responses to Have we lost the ability to argue?

  1. Mark says:

    It’s all about respecting the person with whom you are arguing.

    Monty Python had a wonderful skit about arguing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=teMlv3ripSM.

  2. Cathy Pales says:

    Conflict as a term is emotionally neutral – it is neither positive or negative. It’s how we respond that makes it positive or negative. Disagreements are a fact of life, in both personal and professional relationships. The more we are able to respond to conflict constructively, the more likely our orgs will benefit from the free expression of new ideas.

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