“Argument” often brings up the notion of quarreling, angry yelling -- even fisticuffs or a wish to apply a horse whip. But it has more civilized meanings, in debate, logic, mathematics, even computer programming. As Roy Maynard notes, “British writer G.K. Chesterton once said of his beloved brother Cecil, ‘We often argued but never quarreled.’ This would be a wonderful model for today, when it seems personal attacks and poor argumentation dominate public discourse.” Maynard’s essay on illogic as incivility is an early entry in what may become a series of civility pieces.
By Roy Maynard
An uncivil argument is almost always unsound.
That’s a bold statement, but as I survey my Letters box, I feel confident in making it. Personal attacks, logical fallacies and false claims are at the heart of nearly every uncivil argument.
As we strive to help raise the bar for discourse in this nation’s Great Conversation, I think applying the simple rules of logic will go a long way toward achieving our goal.
As the wise Civility Project Director Frank Partsch says, every opinion writer is the sheriff in his or her own county. What we police for civility, mostly, are our own words, the letters we receive, and the columns we run.
As editorial writers, we've been trained, either formally or informally, in making good, sound arguments. So I'll focus on letters and columnists.
The best of these make good arguments.
As all good debaters do, let’s pause for definitions. What is an argument? I define it, for my debaters and my letter-writers, as “a claim backed up by reason or evidence.”
The best arguments make clear claims, and support those claims. The support should be either sound reasoning or verifiable facts (and like you, I spend a lot of time verifying). The best letters and columns go beyond stating an opinion (“I don't like Sen. Cornyn”) and attempt to persuade the reader to agree with them. They do so with arguments.
Lesser letters (and columnists) don't do this. At least in my mailbox, most of these engage in ad hominem attacks – plain old name-calling. Others use unsound reasoning or logical fallacies to back up their claims.
I send these letters back, with an explanation of why they’re rejected. Most of the time, the writers will work with me. Columnists usually won’t.
This isn’t about political correctness or even politeness. Perhaps it's just my own bias, but I believe an argument, no matter how vehemently it's made, is pretty much going to be civil, as long as it's sound. The ultimate defense against the charge of incivility is, “but it’s true.”
NCEW member Larry Reisman asked the cogent question on the listserv, “Who will legislate what the lies and illogic are?” I can’t speak to the lies part; we all verify facts as best we can, and none of us, as far as I know, willingly allow misinformation onto our pages.
But there are laws of logic – dating back to Aristotle. They've been refined over the centuries, but classical rhetoric was an important art form and there were rules.
There are other lists and entire textbooks written on the subject, but I'll just list a few of the most common logical fallacies I see in the letters and columns I reject.
The Straw Man: A straw man argument misrepresents the opposing argument, and then attacks the misrepresentation, not the real argument. Scholars say of St. Thomas Aquinas, “He made his opponents' arguments better than they themselves did.”
That quote came back to me recently in the “Christmas tree tax” kerfuffle. The Obama administration proposed a 15-cent fee per Christmas tree, to be used to improve the image of live Christmas trees. Granted, the administration was just asking for it. But so many letters and columns about the fee missed the point that it wasn't a tax; it was something the industry had asked for. So the inevitable Grinch comparisons were unsound – unless you can imagine The Whos ringing up the Grinch and asking him to come down for a nightcap.
Ad Hominem Attacks: This is when the person, not the policy, is attacked. We have to be careful here; many of us (myself included) believe a person’s character is a factor in whether I offer my support. But the ad hominem argument is a deliberate attempt to distract the audience from the issue, and to the person being opposed. This is a big one I have to weed out from letters I receive; I will let my writers disagree with each other, but it stops at calling each other names.
Cause-and-effect Error: Because Event B happened after Event A, A caused B. After a president is elected, the economy melts down. Therefore, the economy melted down because of the president. We all know it’s more complicated than that. The Latin name of the error is Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc.
Assuming The Unknowable: Claiming to know a subject’s heart – his or her motivation for an action or a policy – is an unsupportable claim. It may be true that President Obama appeased both labor unions and environmentalists by stalling a pipeline. Letters on my page can go as far as that. But stating, as a fact, that his action was the result of his internal political calculation? That’s too far. I don’t know Obama’s heart, and neither does my reader.
This is an absurdly incomplete list. And making sound arguments is an incomplete part of the Civility Project – it just happens to be my small slice of the pie. But think about my initial claim, that an uncivil argument is almost always unsound.
Have I supported that claim? Can you find examples of uncivil, yet sound arguments being made in editorial pages and on editorial Web sites today?
Debate this with me.
(Roy Maynard is Editorial Page Editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. He adds, "I'm an editorial writer, but I'm also a teacher. I coach a high school debate team; I've recently written a textbook on debate and argumentation, and I teach logic every other year. Plus I have teenage children.")