Friends are valuable for all sorts of reasons, but chief among them is that every now and again they present you with ideas or make you think of something that you would never have gotten to on your own.  I had that experience this past week when I was talking to an old friend of mine, who I will call Tasha Girl (I’m sure he approves!).  Anyway, we were talking about conflict and arguments and how, by and large these have become a very negative words in our culture.

I got into fights when I was a boy.  Some were serious, most started on a very illogical note, and now that I’m an adult I can do quite well without someone punching me, thank you very much.  I won’t lie, I was vicious as a kid, and the one time I got expelled from school, not only was it for fighting, but because I also kicked the other boy when he was down.  My logic was simple: I didn’t want to have to fight him again, so I made sure he got the message I won.  In retrospect, I think I got off light, and when I tell that story to some people who know me today, they just can’t see it.  Apparently I’ve become a rather mellow guy.

But then I recently read about a boy expelled for having a two-inch plastic gun at school this past month.  Now it may just be me, but I think American society has gone a little overboard in wanting to protect our kids from violence and harm.  At most that should have been a teacher collecting the offending item, and then sending the toy home with the boy along with the message not to bring it back.

I point that out though, as it spills over as adults, but in much more subtle ways.  From the pundits and politicians to the average person debating issues in the coffee shops, I think we have forgotten the benefit of a good argument, and I think the reason is that most of us never learned how.  For example, to have an argument, both parties have to agree on a certain set of assumptions: the common ground that you both will start from to try and prove your point.

Finding Common Ground

I know this is not a skill pushed in schools anymore, and you can see that it is not something most people know just by listening to the way they argue.  Additionally, it requires enough thought to put yourself in the other person’s shoes (even if that person is a fourth grader) so you can understand where they are coming from and not overreact.

The other problem is that in order to argue, you have to recognize things like circular logic and illogical statements. For example, you can say the grass is green because it rained, but you can’t say it rained because the grass is green.  For all we know a malicious garden gnome might pop to life every night and paint the grass green. Not the most likely of scenarios I grant you, but hey, coming up with arguments of the extreme is a favorite trick of mine.

Now I’m a realist and I know not everyone needs this skill on a daily basis, and most people don’t need to know the terms applied to various parts of an argument. But I think all people need to learn it anywhere.  Here is why.  The best way to learn this skill is by doing, and I promise that the first time you argue with anyone who knows how, if you are unskilled you will lose, and lose badly.  Not only will you feel a bit stupid, but you might even be a little resentful, but a good argument is to ideas what a smelting fire is to metal; it cleanses it of impurities and makes it that much stronger.

I’m not sure if it is practical to make everyone take debate in school, but I think it would help.  And maybe it would temper the tendency of people to try and win an argument with volume, name calling, or relentless repetition, which seem to be the most common forms of “winning” today.

Who is Winning?

I also think teaching debate is much more practical then instituting the “magic bullet” rule.  The magic bullet rule would grant every person over the age of thirty a firearm with one bullet in it, and that person could shoot whomever or whatever they wanted, consequence free.  Then we really would have a reason to fear confrontation, because who wants to worry if the person they are fighting with has already used their bullet?  Too extreme?

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