How to argue. For when the Peace and Goodwill is wearing a little thin.

Peace and Goodwill to all?  When I am knee-deep in children and elbow-deep in giblets? Not a chance. For me, Christmas is the perfect time for the perfect argument.

If the magazines are to be believed, many of us spend a lot of time at Christmas trying to ensure an argument free-zone. One disagreement over the dinner table, we feel we have failed. Given how stressful I find arguments, I don’t find this surprising. Indeed, if you knew me you would be surprised to hear me suggesting Christmas as the perfect time for some heated debate.

The fact is, I don’t like confrontation. It leaves me flushed, flustered and mute.  From board rooms to bars, I’ve noted that arguments often involve aggression, degrading the opposition and ‘winning’ at all costs. But if an argument is good enough, then there is no need to serve it with these irrelevant and intimidating trimmings.

I am fortunate in that over Christmas I am normally surrounded by family and friends who I love and respect and who love and respect me. I feel able to say what I feel without fear of reproach. We disagree, but we try to conduct ourselves with aplomb and a mutual desire to find a resolution to our seemingly conflicting concerns. That’s surely what a good argument is all about.

Saying that I am sure we often talk utter nonsense. Especially once the top’s off the sherry. But we are not the only ones. And itt is one thing to argue illogically over the correct way to position the little plastic cheeses in a game of Trivial Pursuit. It is quite another for people of great influence to rely upon well packaged yet illogical statements that bamboozle and befuddle an audience, an audience just trying to work out what on earth to believe.

When I did the philosophy degree, there was a module on logic. I failed the logic exam. I found it dull and mechanical. I wanted to discover the meaning of life, not pontificate on the logical way to structure my musings. As I have become increasingly disillusioned with the poor excuses for arguments I have come across in the media, in politics, and in articles by child-rearing ‘experts’, I wish I had listened more.

I got out an old textbook this week. I found an explanation of  28 different fallacies commonly used in arguments. I’m just going to list 3 to give you a flavour of what I mean. Here they are (and if you didn’t fail your logic exam, and you think I have got these wrong then please let me know!):

Would you like turkey with that?

“Shall we get Turkey crown, or a whole turkey?”
“Or neither?”

To give people fewer options to choose from than are actually available is called the false alternative. It’s a common ploy I use when trying to ram vegetables down my children’s necks – “peas or carrots?”. It tricks them into thinking that they have to answer one or the other. The ‘neither’ answer is not as likely to follow. When given a few options to choose from, make sure you are not being manipulated into thinking that, by picking one of them, you have made an informed choice. There could be so many other options available when you think about it a little more.

Too many cooks

“Can I help with preparing the Christmas dinner?”
“Don’t make me laugh. You can’t boil an egg.”

So what if you cannot boil an egg (something, by the way, I am hopeless at)? Does that mean you are incapable of boiling any food item effectively? If someone smugly suggests that you can’t cook anything, using only an egg-based failure as evidence for their argument, they have committed a hasty generalisation.

The Vicar of vested interests

“Malcolm says the choir is really good this year.”
“Malcolm would say that, he’s the vicar.”

Trying to win an argument by directing the argument towards the person making the claim, rather than evidence for the claim, is called the Ad Hominem Fallacy.  Ad Hominem translates as “To the man”. The vicar in question here may well have a vested interest in promoting his church choir. However, there may be plenty of other evidence to support his claim. To dismiss him outright because of who he is would be rather rash.

I guess the examples above were fairly trivial in the grand scheme of things (even though they might not feel it in the heat of an overcrowded, over-decorated home after one too many after eights), but a quick look through the unread newspapers  strewn around our home show some more serious examples:

  • A column inferring someone must be a communist because they have a couple of issues with unchecked capitalism (false alternative).
  • An interviewee alleging that a migrant community are a threat to the locality on the grounds that one of them once allegedly offered to sell a local a baby (hasty generalisation).
  • An article seemingly trying to attack a celebrity’s character via reference to alleged drug-taking,  in an interview that purported to be about her being assaulted (Ad hominem). You see, quite unforgivably, examples of similar sorts of arguments used to undermine victims of sexual assault.

Not nice really, is it?

With that in mind, this year you wise men can keep your gold, your frankincense and your myrrh. Instead, if you could bring my kids the ability to argue well -logically, kindly, with the aim of finding a resolution, rather than securing a hollow victory – then, while I may not have a peaceful time of it, I will have a very Merry Christmas indeed.

I hope you all do too.

6 thoughts on “How to argue. For when the Peace and Goodwill is wearing a little thin.

  1. josandelson says:

    Very good – as I see you have Wednesdays off, this is the day all your l’esprit de l’escalier will come to mind. Just memorise it and start up an ongoing argument for when kids and OH come home. Mum : 1 Kids : 0


  2. Soraya Cotwal says:

    Really like this post and never think it is too early to teach your children the art of arguing well. Just know how easy it is to slide into those fallacies. However think I’d be better at teaching them this than let’s say mathematics!!! Am off to find the remaining 25…


  3. pirahnatrust says:

    There’s something genuine and poignant in this post. I despise how the media manipulate our thinking through these techniques and no one calls it out! I hate it when work adversaries do it too. Good luck with the turkey and the kids. BTW I failed philosophy too!


    • Abby says:

      Thank you. I too am just getting sick of the media, especially the so called high brow shows. We deserve better! Oh, and I have delegated the cooking of the turkey – that should aid a peaceful day (for me!).


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