When you start studying Law, you’d better be ready for a good argument. If you’ve not got the basic skills for that, you’d better learn. And quickly. Much of studying and practicing law is putting across your side of an argument across, and if all you can bring to the table is “I’m right because I am”, then you’re dead in the water.
The first module we started with was an introduction to Law. It was a two hour arguing session. I was amazed at the arguments people put forward, and how they did it. I’ve recently heard all kinds of gems, both in class and out. I’ve been told how the Germans are all authoritarian and violent, how wikileaks has proven that AIDS was invented in a lab in the Congo, how we obviously didn’t land on the moon, and other gems. Now, when challenged, most of these arguments have devolved into “It is true, I promise.” This isn’t an argument. It’s an assertion, backed up with nothing. If I, or others, challenge you, and your best response is akin to stamping like an angry child, then you’ve lost. You brought a knife to a gunfight, and it didn’t work out. You simply didn’t bring the tools for the job.*
If you want to make an argument, keep some things in mind:
- Don’t just say “this is the way things are”. I’m looking at that point about Germans here. If you’re going to make sweeping claims about an entire nation, and the way they act, you’d better be able to back it up. If you can only point to the Nazis, then sorry, you’re not trying. A nation did a thing once does not equal a nation always does that thing.
- Choose your examples wisely. Now, when the point about Germans was made, I had to listen to how one person had an ex that spent some time in Germany, and knew a couple of people like that. Well, bully for you. It proves nothing. I heard about how someone else had been there once. In total, they had experience of less then ten Germans, and most of those second hand. If your evidence group isn’t enough for a football team, it’s not enough to extrapolate to an entire nation. I could, at this point, have pointed out that I spent nearly ten years in Germany as an army child. I could have pointed out that I go there about once a year. But that destroys the point. It’s not relevant. It’s one person’s experience of life in that country.
- But do bring evidence. The Wikileaks/AIDS thing? Not a scrap. Nothing. My point was this: If this news had been in there, and there was proof that one of the most devastating diseases of our time was a man made atrocity, wouldn’t the media have picked up on it? If you can’t evidence a claim like that, you’re going to get laughed at. I am going to ask where your tinfoil hat is.
- Ad hominem is bad. Ad hominem attacks are where you attack the person, and not the argument. If you can’t pick apart the argument being made, don’t go after the person. It makes you look stupid. If your response to my point about how everyone deserves a fair trial is to attack me personally, you’ve lost. You’ve got no point to make, and you’re just embarassing yourself. With that in mind…
- Stay calm, be reasonable. If your response to my argument is to tell me to “f*** off”, well, see above. You might have decent and valid points, but no-one’s going to listen to them if you preceded them by swearing at them. If you can’t be reasonable, no-one is going to think your argument is reasonable. If you can’t keep to this basic rule of discourse, your chances of changing minds are very slim.
- Admit when you’re wrong. Cede the ground when a superior argument has been made. If you’re doing this with the smaller points, then you’re stronger for the bigger points. Learn to say “I’m sorry, I take that back”, or “I take your point there”. Otherwise you’re just a can rattling in the wind. No argument will change you, and no-one else will feel that they should change.
In outlining all of this, I’m addressing myself as much as anyone else. I’m just picking up these skills, and I’m sure I will be on the wrong end of a good beating every now and again when I get it wrong. This isn’t an exhaustive list of do’s and don’ts either. Right, who wants an argument?
*This you/I language makes it sound like I’m holding myself up as a fine example of how to do it right. I’m not. It’s just a bugger to write this any other way.