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. Whenever I consider quitting blogging it is because of the nature of commenting. People can be downright rude. I think your list captures it. I used to try to respond to these sorts of comments, but now days I tend to ignore commenters like that and eventually trolling types get bored and go elsewhere.

  2. Dr. Watson, I don’t answer/engage every comment on my own blog. Sometimes, it is best just to let the trolls/kind hearted folk berate, yell, etc… than it is to engage them at any level, in any arena.

  3. One advantage of having a blog is that you have some control. One can moderate the comments and choose not to publish them. I have had several people post inappropriate things, like PERSONAL information with emails and phone numbers. I just don’t make those things public. I would do the same with offensive or disrespectful material.

  4. Reblogged this on John Meunier and commented:
    David Watson gives a good over view of the bad arguments that happen all the time in the blogosphere. Of course, none of the people who comment on my blog ever do this, and certainly not your intrepid blogger.

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