This week’s note is a bit of a call for research, a survey of sorts. I have been talking in this space and elsewhere lately about the nature of good faith argument and about the poison of bad faith argument. There is much to debate in this country, as there has ever been, but there seems to be less meeting of the minds even over the terms of disagreement that at any time prior. People increasingly talk past each other or don’t talk to each other at all. When they do, it is often toxic invective or sneering dismissal. Persuasion seems a quaint concept of late. Given the vitriol, what passes for modern-day debate and discourse should perhaps be re-coined as “discoarse.”
Part of this sorry state of affairs, to my mind, arises from a stubborn rigidity of thinking and a self-assuredness in the rightness of one’s own positions to the exclusion of contrary facts and narratives. There is, to be sure, such an explosion of bad faith, of performative BS, that it can be tempting or even natural to dismiss the whole lot of those who disagree with you as Satanic sophists whose every point is to be immediately rejected out of hand. Also, where the stakes are so high, especially in national politics or with respect to existential threats like climate change, there is a temptation to cudgel rather than convince. The world is burning, we think, and there is no time to trifle with mild-mannered talk. There is a nation to rescue, after all. There is a world to save.
But I still hope for improved discourse on all issues, naïve as that hope may be. In time, I still believe, the force of the better argument wins favor. Some principles of discourse recur when I talk to Stay Tuned guests and others about these issues. One principle is this: honestly present the actual argument of your adversary when you are rebutting it. This bars cherry-picking, exaggerating, distorting, and deliberately misunderstanding the argument being made. It also takes off the table ad hominems and whataboutism and straw men. When you meet the actual arguments being made, you begin hopefully to engage the ear of the adversary, rather than just the emotions of your allies. When the adversary is wrong overall but makes a decent and good faith argument that can nonetheless be countered, I think it’s best to acknowledge the point, even concede it if necessary. As I wrote in my book, smart lawyers do this in courtrooms all over the country every day. It earns credibility, which is the single greatest asset to persuasion. It also allows you to hone your own arguments, reshape and perfect them.
On the other side of the coin, the best advocates – no matter their level of passion – avoid bad faith arguments and cheap shots, even though they may inspire and intoxicate the choir to which they are preaching. Inserting one bad faith ad hominem when the bulk of evidence and logic is on your side corrupts your enterprise and, most importantly, tends to turn off the ranks of undecided you presumably hope to bring over to your side.
So, in this vein, I ask for your reflection and input. As I sort through what I think of my own positions and the most effective and fair ways to argue for them, I have been asking myself (and some guests) two questions:
- Can you identify and acknowledge a good faith argument made by people in favor of a policy or idea that you strongly denounce?
- Can you identify and acknowledge a bad faith argument made by people in favor of a policy that you strongly support?
I’d like to hear your answers to either or both of these questions, and I hope to revisit the point here in the coming weeks. Please let me know if I can use the examples you provide, without identification. Your answers can cover any issue – they can be about Trump, taxes, trade, abortion, the minimum wage, vaccines, guns, police reform, climate, Afghanistan, or anything else under the sun. Also, I wonder if you find the exercise helpful, frustrating, or counter-productive. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.