How to argue badly

I have to admit something: I have stopped reading comments on sites where my work is re-blogged. On this blog [and its predecessor], folks are generally respectful and engage in helpful dialogue. I really appreciate that. We’ve had some real disagreement without getting personal. Out there in the wild west of the blogosphere, though, it can get pretty ugly. It’s like some of the helicopter scenes in “Apocalypse Now,” just with words instead of bullets.

At times, this has really made me want to withdraw from public conversation altogether. It’s not that I can’t take criticism. If you disagree with me, I want you to tell me. I often tell my students that at least 30% of what I teach is wrong; I just don’t know which 30% it is. I simply don’t appreciate certain ways of arguing. The blogosphere, moreover, generally has no editorial process and no peer-review process. Therefore, anything that one thinks can be stated in a highly public fasion. I’d like to offer some examples of a few ways of arguing that I think are unhelpful, but which are commonplace in our public discourse.

Exaggeration and misrepresentation: I run across this one quite commonly. “If you people had your way, we’d all be [insert wildly exaggerated statement]!” No, probably not.

Straw-man arguments: “Arminians believe that you have to do something to be saved. Therefore it’s works righteousness and doesn’t bring glory to God.” Any Arminian worth his or her salt could dismantle this caricature very quickly. The representation contains just enough truth to be recognizable, but not enough to withstand even the most minor attack.

Slippery slope arguments: “Sure, today we’re letting the pastor drink beer, but what’s next? Weed? Crack? Bath salts?” While one could imagine such a trajectory, there are numerous factors that might mitigate the descent down the slippery slope. In other words, the slope may not be all that slippery.

Begging the question:If you are arguing about the proper way to read scripture, you probably don’t want to say something like, “This would be a whole lot easier if you would just do what the Bible tells us!”  Assuming a disputed proposition in an argument about that proposition is not helpful.

Name-calling and ad hominem attack: Discussing arguments can be helpful. Attacking character generally is not. “Watson, you have the moral character of a swine!” Even if this is true, my argument could still be correct.

There are, of course, other ways of arguing badly, but these are the ones I see most commonly. Are there others that you’ve run across? If so, let me know.


16 thoughts on “How to argue badly

  1. Don’t attribute to animosity what can be attributed to laziness or apathy. Most who argue badly are probably not even trying, a phenomenon (I think no other word could describe it) exacerbated by the exasperating quantity of material bloggers ‘consume.’ When it’s a flood of words and writing and so on, it’s surely easier to shoot from the hip rather than sit down, think it over for a minute (much less an hour) and so on.

    • That’s a fair point. There may not be malice involved in a bad argument at all. We could attribute these to laziness or apathy, or perhaps to the fact that people have never learned to argue properly.

  2. One of the first books I was given in seminary was Reasoning and Rhetoric by Nancey C. Murphy. The professor told us he wouldn’t read a paper until we mastered this book first.

    I can still tell people who have read the book versus those who haven’t by their arguments.

  3. Pingback: Airport Syndrome, the #UMC, and Christian Discourse | David F. Watson

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