Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile

I have to admit that I have always had trouble with arguments. I dislike confrontation, and whenever it occurs, I seem to get backed into a corner from which I am forced to lash out. Often, I feel that my very identity is at risk: how could any thinking person who was in tune with reality, believe what I do? And if my argument is, in fact, wrong then what does that say about my other opinions that we haven’t yet touched on? Disagreements suggest as much about me as they do about the positions I espouse.

I have had a life-long passion for Philosophy, and I know many of the drills. An argument is seen less as combat or an attempt to disparage the opponent, but more as an exercise in clarification and a search, perhaps, for common ground. So, one hears the opponent’s position and attempts to reword it to show it has been understood. If the opponent agrees that their opinion has been correctly grasped, then ideally, they can state why they disagree with what they’ve heard from me. And so it goes, back and forth -each position clarified and understood before either moves on. Not infrequently, commonalities emerge, and hopefully, the ability to reach some form of compromise begins to materialize.

The problem in most of our encounters, of course, is proceeding without one side being forced to lose face -without feeling that only one side is correct -or, in the case of being proven incorrect, not feeling heard. Why, in other words, did the side espousing Fake News, let us say, come to believe it? Shouting at them, or belittling them is pretty well guaranteed to further intrench them in their views. We all do it, though -okay, I do, anyway.

Sometimes my way of seeing things seems so… obvious to me, that I become infuriated with the expression on the other person’s face, or when they shrug, sigh, or even roll their eyes at my opinion. I suppose I don’t feel heard -no, I don’t feel respected

I was dreading phoning a dear friend of mine who lives on the other side of the country. I hadn’t heard from her for a couple of months, and I wondered if there was something wrong. Since university, we’d always found ourselves on opposite sides of the political and ecological spectrum -we disagreed about almost everything, and so our Emails had to be carefully worded; even with phone calls we had to tip-toe around many of the issues. Skype was especially problematic because I could read the frustration in her eyes, and the way she wrinkled her forehead, or clenched her teeth. I realize I probably did the same and that just amplified the conflict. And yet, each time, despite my determination to change, I usually found myself rerouted along the same trail we always seemed to travel.

I’m always looking for helpful hints and so I was drawn to an essay from Australia by Hugh Breakey, a research fellow at Griffith University in Queensland. I wondered if they did things differently in the antipodes. https://theconversation.com/actually-its-ok-to-disagree-here-are-5-ways-we-can-argue-better-121178

Argument is everywhere, he writes, but ‘Unfortunately, we often fail to consider the ethics of arguing. This makes it perilously easy to mistreat others.’ So, there are certain norms we should follow in an argument: ‘we should be open to their views. We should listen carefully and try to understand their reasoning. And while we can’t all be Socrates, we should do our best to respond to their thoughts with clear, rational and relevant arguments… norms are valuable because they promote knowledge, insight and self-understanding… being reasonable and open-minded ensures we treat our partners in argument in a consensual and reciprocal way. During arguments, people open themselves up to attaining worthwhile benefits, like understanding and truth.’ And, ‘obeying the norms of argument shows respect for our partners in argument as intelligent, rational individuals. It acknowledges they can change their minds based on reason.’

It was also encouraging to find that Breakey and I were on the same track. ‘Two arguers, over time, can collectively achieve a shared intellectual creation. As partners in argument, they define terms, acknowledge areas of shared agreement, and mutually explore each other’s reasons. They do something together.’

All fine and good, but sticking to that in the heat of battle has always been my problem. My heart may be in the right place, but my mouth is not. My mind tricks me into thinking my opponent is being illogical -it’s them, and not me, who’s failing to argue properly. So, to counter this, Breakey offers a few tips. Like, trying not to think I’m being attacked, and remembering that I don’t want to lose my opponent as a friend. I should treat them with respect, and not judge their argument (and hence them) as faulty; they may well be open to changing their views -I shouldn’t assume otherwise -and let’s face it, we may both be wrong…

I don’t know why, but I suddenly felt equipped to phone my friend. I can do this, I told myself when she answered.

“Are you phoning to lecture me on climate change again, G?”

Wow, that started early, I thought. My first reaction was to feel hurt, but I caught myself in time. “Well, actually, I wanted to know how you were doing. I haven’t heard from you in a while…”

That seemed to soften her voice. “Oh, that’s nice of you,” she said tenderly. “I would have let you know if I was sick, you know…” I breathed a bit easier. “But you usually only phone when you’ve thought of a new argument to try out on me,” she continued, her voice noticeably harder.

I had to think. Do I argue with that point, or ignore it? I decided to clarify her assertion. “Do you really think that’s why I phone?”

There was a pause at the end of the line. “It seems that way, G.”

I wasn’t sure whether I should become defensive, or agree with her and apologize. I decided on the middle road. “I guess I do come on a bit strong sometimes, don’t I?”

Another pause -she was obviously having difficulty deciding how to reply as well. She finally settled on “I know you mean well…”

Not a victory, but a white flag of sorts I suppose.

Then, “But I don’t think you can convince me, you know…”

Was she trying to say I was incapable of convincing her, or just that I hadn’t approached her the right way? “Well, maybe I can suggest…” was all I could think of to say before she interrupted me.

“Although that article you sent me a while back was certainly worth thinking about…”

“The one on renewables, you mean?”

“Mmm Hmm…” I could hear her breathing into her phone. “I’ve even decided to ride my bike to work.”

It seemed like a turning point. “That’s great, Melissa!” I thought I’d share in her decision. “Maybe I should do the same, eh?”

A friendly chuckle echoed through my phone. “You’re retired G… But maybe you could at least ride down to the store…”

We were friends again; maybe they really have figured out how to argue in Australia.

On the perils of ad hominism

I think one of the first Latin expressions I learned was ad hominem. I was 14 years old and, we were having a discussion about plays in our English literature class. Mr. Graham, our teacher and apparently a writer himself, had asked us what we thought of the first scene of Macbeth that we had been assigned to read as homework for the class.

Everybody shuffled in their seats, because only a few of us had actually read it. Gladis, of course, had. She always sat in the seat beside mine in the second row -I think it was an alphabetical thing to help Mr. Graham remember our names- and she was a fastidious student. She’d even made some notes the night before on what she considered the salient features of the opening scene of Macbeth. Naturally she put up her hand to attract his attention.

“It was kinda short, Mr. Graham -only 13 lines…”

Gladis always seemed to bristle me: why would she put her hand up for that? “You actually counted the lines, Gladis?” I said contemptuously -trying to shame her, I suppose.

I remember her looking at me, tensing her face, and then blinking. Slowly. “Some things are so obvious -if you read them, that is…” She shifted her gaze to Mr. Graham. “But there is a reason that Shakespeare made such a brief conversation into an entire scene,” she added sweetly.

Mr. Graham took it as a teaching point. “Anybody other than Gladis have an idea why Shakespeare made it into an entire scene?” There were no hands, unsurprisingly, so he stared at me. “What do you think, G?” Everybody used my nickname in those days.

It was entirely expected, though: I was the usual go-to seat when everybody else was quiet -probably because of my proximity to Gladis, but also maybe because I usually had my hand up. “Uhmm… Well, Shakespeare was probably trying to grab our attention at the start -you know, capture our interest right away so we’ll be curious about what follows.” I was going to stop there, but I noticed the sarcastic expression on Gladis’ face, so I kept going. “Isn’t that what you writers try to do, Mr. Graham: make the first paragraph so riveting everybody will want to read more?”

Gladis snuck a quick look at me, thought I was trying to curry Mr. Graham’s favour, and then decided to expand on her initial statement. “I think the scene set the mood for the whole play: ambition, paradox, and evil…” She smirked at me, and then continued. “I mean, ‘fair is foul, and foul is fair’ is really dark. You can just tell what you’re in for.”

She glared at me for a moment, and then smiled innocently at Mr. Graham: teacher’s pet.

I think he could see the dynamic developing, and thought he might use it to stimulate some discussion in the silent majority surrounding us.

“Anybody else?” he said, casting his eyes about the room. Nobody looked up from their notebooks. “What about ‘When the battle’s lost and won…?” What do you think that means?” His eyes settled on one of the quiet students who seldom volunteered an answer. “Kerry?”

Kerry looked up, totally surprised that he’d been singled out. “I… Uhmm… Well, I suppose there’s going to be a fight somewhere later in the play, and…”

Gladis turned and stared at him. “The first scene was so short, didn’t you even peek at the next scene?”

Kerry stared at her defiantly. “Mr. Graham just assigned the first scene, Gladis. I didn’t want to get confused with too much information, eh?” The class snickered in relieved agreement.

Gladis somersaulted her eyes and sent them rolling and tumbling towards Mr. Graham. “Anybody who was at all interested in plays would have read further, Kerry,” she said and sighed theatrically.

Kerry stared down at his desk in embarrassment.

But, if she thought that might have curried the teacher’s favour, she was sadly mistaken. Mr. Graham noticed Kerry’s distress, frowned briefly and then loosed his eyes on me again, for some reason. “G, do you know what an argument is called when you attack the person rather than their position?” Another teaching moment, I supposed.

I thought about it for a moment, and then shrugged.

“Anybody…?” he asked, once again hoping for a response from the class. “It’s called an ad hominem -Latin, meaning ‘to the person’. It’s a type of argument that is often very difficult to refute, because the individual who uses it usually does so in frustration because he or she cannot counter the argument itself and so attacks the person in an attempt to win that way.” He let his eyes rest on Gladis again -but only briefly.

“I mention it now because later in the play you’re going to realize that when Lady Macbeth argues with Macbeth about killing the king, she almost always uses ad hominem arguments… Just warning you,” he added, and winked at Gladis in a subtle rebuke that wasn’t lost on me. Very clever, I thought.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that resorting to an ad hominem offers only a kind of pyrrhic victory -if not a defeat- for the user. Still, I’ve I have to admit that there were occasions when I felt I’d be losing more than just face if I backed down. Of course, the tone of my voice, or the blush on my face, usually unmasked my efforts, and I’d end up apologizing, rather than wearing any ill-gotten gains.

But I ran across an interesting variation on that theme in an essay in Aeon by Moti Mizrahi, an associate professor of philosophy from the School of Arts and Communication at the Florida Institute of Technology: https://aeon.co/ideas/how-ad-hominem-arguments-can-demolish-appeals-to-authority

‘According to the Urban Dictionary site,’ she writes, ‘Ad hominems are used by immature and/or unintelligent people because they are unable to counter their opponent using logic and intelligence.’ But isn’t this definition itself an ad hominem attack on those who make ad hominem arguments?’ Food for thought. Although ‘… ad hominem arguments can be good arguments, especially when they are construed as rebuttals to appeals to authority.’

Seeking advice from experts is something which we all find ourselves doing from time to time -none of us can know everything. But suppose, as she posits, ‘children respond to their parents’ plea to refrain from smoking by saying: ‘You use tobacco, so why shouldn’t I? … Arguments against the person are attempts to undermine what someone says, not by engaging with what is said but by casting aspersions on the person who says it. For example, the child’s retort is directed at the parents, in light of their failure to set a positive example, not at their parents’ concerns about smoking.’

I like that example -it somehow proves to me that nothing is so sacred that it can’t be re-evaluated from a different perspective. You’re a fool if you don’t believe in evolution… Or are you not allowed to ad hominem yourself?