Tuesday, February 19, 2002 Volume 67, Issue 96


 
 









 

And now, a lesson on how to argue

Michael Ahlf
Daily Cougar Staff

One of the most entertaining parts of writing opinion for the Cougar is getting "fan mail," the letters you wonderful readers write from time to time.

While there is the occasional letter of support, most of what we see tends to be from readers who disagree with our viewpoints and who think they can persuade us to
change our minds.

Over time I've seen too many flawed arguments in letters sent or published, most of which fit into four categories. With that in mind, I'd like to offer a primer of arguments
that just don't work.

Appeal to authority: This takes numerous forms. Sometimes the authority is God, sometimes an "expert," sometimes an abstract concept like "justice." When invoking
God or another abstraction, the problem is definition: one person's God may not be another's, and we all have differing viewpoints on ideas like justice.

Too often, a supposed "expert" may have been paid to come to a specific result, or at the very least had a specific result in mind before beginning research. Having to
rely on a position of authority to place yourself above your rhetorical adversary weakens your case, since any invalidation of your authority renders your entire argument
invalid.

Name-calling or "Shooting the Messenger": If you find it necessary to address a columnist disparagingly, ridicule that columnist's sexual organs, make fun of the
columnist's clothing or demean that columnist in any other way, you need to rethink your approach. The idea is that by attacking your rhetorical adversary, you can
somehow invalidate his or her argument. In reality, personal attacks on the columnist merely signal that one's argument as fundamentally weak or invalid to begin with.

A ready example is profanity. This is a signal to the reader that whoever used the profane word was too lazy to think of a substitute. At that point, any arguments the
person made are forfeited.

Proof by emphatic declaration: This is the most basic attempt to win an argument, usually practiced by small children who repeat "Yes it is!" and "No it isn't!" ad infinitum
until they get their way. In rhetoric, this takes the form of ignoring the arguments made by an opponent, and instead restating one's own argument as if it were already
proven as fact.

If you never disprove your opponent's point or back up your own with logic, then there isn't really an argument going on, just someone being repetitive in hopes of
making the other give in to his or her wishes. If both sides of an argument are doing this, then it's just a shouting match.

Arguing the consequences: This is claiming that an opponent's argument is invalid because it leads to an undesirable conclusion. "If you are right, then bad things will
happen, so you must be wrong." The attempt in this case is to change the nature of the debate in hopes of gaining an advantage.

The problem with arguing the consequences is that the initial question is never dealt with. Those who argue that a point of view must be wrong because it is
inconvenient if right are usually the people who wind up hearing "I told you so" six months down the road.

I hope this will help our readers and columnists alike, making our debates a bit clearer and less hot-headed. Happy writing.

Ahlf, a senior electrical engineering
major, can be reached at mahlf@mail.uh.edu.


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