Arguments: An Inquiry (Part Two)

Last week I posted three case studies for our inquiry into the meaning and purpose of argument. Today I’m going to move quickly through five more, and then on Wednesday I’m going to try to reach a conclusion about how a vehicle as flawed and malleable as “argument” can possibly have validity beyond the problems found in these case studies. I’m still not sure where this inquiry will end, but here’s a few more examples to bring us closer.

4) Two drivers in a parking lot fender-bender

They stand there yelling at each other. Cuss words are exchanged, regardless of the presence of children nearby. Both drivers look kind of stupid to passers-by, who hope they’ll either shut up quickly or do something hilarious like get into a fist fight.

What are these two angry people doing? Mainly, they are venting. Each of them has been through a frightening crash, and each feels choked up, tense, confused, violated, helpless. So they yell, because that’s what people do when they’re freaking out. They insult each other in a way that civil people normally don’t, because they feel momentarily freed from social constraints due to their panic.

Their insults do have a pragmatic purpose, though. Each is instinctively trying to implant in the other’s mind (and in the mind of any observers) that the other one is at fault. By trying to convince others of this, they are probably trying to convince themselves of it as well. This is not a calculated posture, though, because neither has the presence of mind at this moment to calculate. So, the parking lot drivers are arguing to release tension, and their instinctual impulses to blame each other serve to help each one build their “narrative” of what happened, in which (naturally) each believe the other to be at fault.

5. A bicycle messenger who gets in a taxi driver’s face after a bad cut-off

This may seem similar to the fender-bender situation above, but it’s actually quite different. Both bicycle messengers and taxi drivers earn a living on the streets, and busy traffic intersections are a hotly contested territory. Bicycle messengers naturally feel vulnerable and endangered in their ongoing battle with taxi drivers, and so they are quick to snarl and kick, showing their ferocity. In this case study, the bicyclist is arguing to defend his or her territory against a known and familiar opponent.

6. A group of marketing executives making a difficult decision

An expensive and disappointing marketing project must be either renewed or canceled, and six executives sit in a room trying to make a recommendation which way to go. Two of them feel strongly that the project can succeed with a change of management, two of them represent the current management team and deeply hate the people who want to bring in new managers, and the remaining two think all four of the others are idiots and don’t particularly care what happens (note: this describes the decision-making process at most Fortune 500 companies in the USA).

The six of them engage in a mix of structured debate and emotional reflection. They feel closest to making a logical decision when one of them steps up to the whiteboard and tries to draw a matrix of possible decisions and likely outcomes. This kind of analysis helps, but the progressions break down frequently whenever each of the executives says something that offends another, or that insinuates blame or dredges up remnants of past incidents that highlight each others’ weaknesses. In the end, they hobble together some kind of recommendation to their manager, who may or may not even listen to their advice. What on earth are these six people doing?

To some extent, they are carrying out a process of dialectic, though the quality of the dialectic in these situations can be very low. Mostly, they are trying to buck up their interoffice alliances and ensure that the decision that is finally made is one that they can stand. For a middle manager in a modern corporation, argument is a tool for establishing and maintaining power, influence and job security.

7. A film critic gives a terrible review to a much-hyped new movie

On the face of it, there seems to be something cruel about the practice of dismissing or demolishing the hard work and great expense of countless moviemaking professionals with a few vicious paragraphs in a newspaper. And yet the critic feels completely driven by a sense of purpose and self-righteousness in doing so. What is the critic doing?

Let’s not settle on a cynical answer like “earning a living”, since the average film critic earns less money than any of the marketing executives above, and is probably motivated more by aesthetic than financial concerns. Let’s also assume that the critic does not know any of the filmmakers and is not motivated to trash the film by any interpersonal considerations. Most likely, the critic who writes a slashing review does so while infused in a state of idealistic exhilaration, temporarily allowing his or her self to believe that he or she is helping to discourage future filmmakers from making similar mistakes, and hopefully encouraging viewers to withhold their support from the current failed effort so as to help market forces correct the aesthetic or moral or creative failures that caused the current film to be so bad. The critic believes that he or she is doing something useful and important for the “art”, even if past patterns prove that bad movies will continue to be made even despite the existence of bad reviews.

8. A couple on a date see the same bad movie and then discuss it in a bar

Unlike the film critic above, these two people know that the world does not care what they think, and yet they still painstakingly dissect their reactions to the film and are disappointed to discover that they both dislike the film for different or even contradictory reasons. One of them says the comic scenes were the film’s only saving grace, whereas the other says the film could have been salvaged if it had restrained its attempts at comedy and better developed its tragic storyline. Furthermore, one liked the leading actor and hated the soundtrack, and the other had the opposite reaction. They sit over drinks and float their reactions towards each other, only to sadly find themselves unable to reach any connection at all. This is a “quiet argument”, because neither has anything at stake, and each would rather agree than disagree, but they find themselves unable to do so. They go at this for at least twenty minutes. What are these two people doing?

Of all the case studies presented here — and this is the last — this couple may be having the “purest” argument of all, because they both sincerely and completely wish they could agree, and they try over and over to find a basis for agreement. What they are doing is, simply, sharing the contents of their private thoughts, attempting as a couple to “think as one”. Perhaps they’d feel better if they applauded themselves for trying so hard to agree with each other, rather than letting themselves feel shabby and isolated for their failure to achieve this agreement.

The eight case studies are now finished, and I’m still not sure where this inquiry is heading. I’ll post the final piece in this series tomorrow, and we’ll hopefully figure it out then.

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