Archive for May, 2007

Arguments: An Inquiry (Part Two)

Tuesday, May 8th, 2007

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.

Arguments: An Inquiry (Part One)

Thursday, May 3rd, 2007

I’ve recently been observing people around me who are arguing, trying to discern behavorial clues as to what motivates a person engaged in an argument. What exactly are people doing when they argue? Let’s look at some case studies and find out.

1) A married couple who fight every night after they put the kids to bed

Mr. and Mrs. X love each other, and neither want their marriage to end. However, they bicker bitterly about everything. They can barely get through a dinner in a restaurant or a movie on TV without insulting, demeaning or pointedly ignoring each other. They put on happy faces for the children and for friends, but in private they are locked in an endless cycle of blame, disappointment and anger. Why are they doing this?

In one sense, for this couple arguing is a form of communication. It makes both of them feel vulnerable to express any kind of happiness or satisfaction with their lives together, as if doing so might reveal too much to the other. The “grouchy face” has become a permanent mask for both of them, and they have settled into bickering as a form of confortable equilibrium. In this sense, their fights are not actually arguments at all.

However, at least once or twice a week they move from snide bickering into full-blown, horrifying battling. One might conclude that they are cruel and love to inflict pain on each other, but this is not true. In fact, it might be that they are engaging in a form of territorial negotiation. There are a number of ongoing unresolved issues between them (say, she feels he doesn’t help enough with the kids, he feels she is irresponsible with money, they each want to be able to go out with their friends more than with the others’ friends, both fear the other will have an affair). Each is constantly afraid of losing the advantage on any of these issues — and so they argue constantly to let the other know that they will still not yield on anything. Despite the fact that their fights are emotionally devastating to both of them, these fights have become functionally necessary to this marriage. It is with these fights that they define the rules and boundaries of their everyday lives: argument is a form of both communication and negotiation.

2) Politicians in a televised debate

Debate season has opened early for 2008 Presidential candidates in America, and if you watch one of these broadcasts you’ll see that each participant is engaged in a performance for the benefit of an audience. They are not attempting to directly persuade each other, because to do so would be pointless (after all, Barack Obama knows there’s little chance he’ll get Hillary Clinton’s vote). Instead they are competing to impress viewers, and so in this case the so-called argument is merely a framing device for a roundtable of rehearsed performances.

But there are rare moments when politicians do challenge each other directly on meaningful issues in a televised debate. In these cases, what are the individual politicians actually doing? On an intellectual level, it seems they are attempting to establish an interpretation of reality, attempting to make a case for a particular position by presenting evidence, supplying metaphors or presenting logical conclusions. It’s during these moments that the debate will seem most substantial to viewers — though, ironically, it’s almost always against the rules of a televised debate for one candidate to directly challenge another, due to the sanitized format our bloodless modern politicians always insist on.

But when they do clash on an issue, what each politician is doing is attempting to create a complete picture of a reality for the audience to accept as “the” reality. A pro-choice politician says a fetus is not a human being, a pro-life politician says it is. Both want to “establish” this point in the mind of each viewer. Furthermore, the politician is attempting to prove his or her ability to continue to create persuasive realities that others will follow, and they do this by appearing forceful, confident and assertive. They are each trying to control the discussion, and they will use rhetorical touches such as raising their voice, interrupting each other and psyching each other out with veiled insults to do this. If they succeed, viewers will intuitively notice that they are controlling the conversation, and will think of them as having strong leadership skills. This final result is probably the most critical of all. In all the above senses, though, for a politician an argument is a form of performance.

3) A bunch of baseball fans in a bar

A bunch of loudmouth Mets fans are sitting around arguing about whether or not Willie Randolph just blew it by letting reliever Aaron Heilman pitch the middle innings in a close game (note: the answer to this question is often “yes”). There are some Heilman believers in the crowd, though, and the tone of the discussion gets a bit hostile. What are these people doing? Simple: they’re having fun. They are speaking loudly, calling each other names, bringing out all the insults they can think up, and despite the displays of ferocity it really all amounts to nothing more than a verbal hacky-sack circle. They are relishing their chance to exercise their knowledge of statistics and/or their comic skills (assuming they have either, which they often don’t) and they’re enjoying each other’s bon mots. For these guys, an argument is a form of entertainment.

I think I’m going to stop this sample here, and present a few more cases in my next post (hopefully tomorrow). And yes, I am building up to a point with all of this, though I can’t describe exactly at this moment what that point is going to be. That’s what an inquiry is for — if I knew the answers now, I wouldn’t need to inquire!

Stay tuned for installment #2, coming soon.