On “Good Arguments” (and Bad Ones)

1. Arguments require us to disclose ourselves in a way that physical brawls or simple forbearance do not. In conflict with the world, we discover the boundaries of who we are and what we believe.

Good Arguments is a book written recently by Bo Seo, a writer at the Australian Financial Review who debated for the Australian national team at a high school level and for Harvard at an intercollegiate level. It’s difficult to reduce the book into a singular, coherent message in the same way that can be done of the typical debate speech or Malcolm Gladwell bestseller. But if there were one, it would probably be: debate is important and, at its best, has the capacity to bring us closer to one another, to ourselves, and to our political system.

I’m inclined to agree. Seo observes that, while current political systems have led to painfully divisive and unreasonable debates, nothing about disagreement inherently requires hostility, illogic, or vitriol; argument can be structured to enrich rather than enrage. In a section discussing the importance of setting clearly and fairly defined topics, both in competitive and real-world debates, he illustrates this point neatly: “The roots of the term topic trace back to the ancient Greek word topos, or place. Whether we conceived of this space as shared and open, to be discovered together, or as a narrow battleground, hostile and booby-trapped, seemed to be our own choice.”

Over and above the book’s content, I appreciated its elegance and precision in language. I guess I anticipated this to an extent: Seo’s debate speeches from university, though excellently logical and well-informed, are most widely renowned for their eloquence, clarity, and authority. But it was interesting to see this lucidity imposed upon a discussion of speech itself, and even on telling stories from his own life. I read this book on Kindle, and found myself highlighting words and phrases that gave their sentences a particularly nice shape. Habitual use of the word “inasmuch,” for example, or an especially nice analogy between the atmosphere of a tense moral discussion and the draining quality of treading water. The observation, later in the book, that there lies “a certain fragility beneath the instinct to dominate.” It’s maybe a bit peripheral to spend much of my reading time gleaning and admiring these linguistic snippets, but I think good rhetoric provokes this response.

I didn’t love the style uncritically (and this is fitting, because much of the book centres around the claim that there is no love unblemished by disagreement). I found some of the extended passages on ancient mythology, political history, and Ivy League traditions to be a bit esoteric, and at times disruptive to the central narrative surrounding discourse in a modern context. And while I enjoyed the nuance of the book, it was difficult occasionally to track the author’s precise position on the ethics of disagreement given his cyclic transitions and personal revelations. (I’m not convinced that this is intrinsically negative — the dialectical structure is in some ways the most authentic way to recount a complex and intellectually rich journey into debating — but I did find it more challenging to distill by the end of the book what my specific takeaways were.)

2. Midway through his book, Bo Seo recalls himself as a high school student, watching recorded rounds of competitive debate from the World Universities Debating Championships (WUDC). He describes: “I would record these rounds and replay them so many times that I could recite entire rounds from memory—a party trick with a biochemical effect.” I wondered while reading this if the author had witnessed the hordes of young people who have taken part in this same (scary and cultlike) ritual with his own speeches. I once watched a student I knew attempt to plagiarise the introduction of one of Seo’s addresses in an elimination round of a high school competition. His speech from the WUDC 2016 final round, in defense of Marxist revolution, has 334 000 views on YouTube.

Competitive debate is interesting in this sense. The activity is not so small in objective numerical terms, especially in an era where tournaments have largely gone online and become more accessible. But the community takes on a more intimate, isolated, and occasionally self-absorbed quality than most competitive activities. (This is probably partially due to significant socioeconomic and academic barriers, and also because there is some understandable public disinterest in watching people give eight-minute speeches compared to chess or college football.) And so it was satisfying to read a book that catered to this rich yet somewhat niche cluster of experiences.

He writes about the odd way in which debaters establish social hierarchy based on argumentative rigour, and his habit of sitting in a corner breathing before rounds. And the way that preparation rooms tend to devolve into entropy over time (which he astutely analogises to the Second Law of Thermodynamics). This is my favourite thing about good writing and good arguments and Good Arguments — the distillation and tidy articulation of observations I hadn’t realised were common among many.

I do think my impression of competitive debating has led me to be marginally more sceptical of the activity than Seo. In particular, the structure of parliamentary debate is such that you often speak extemporaneously on topics about which you have very little background information or intuition. This does force critical thinking and accumulation of general knowledge outside of debates, but it also allows for a certain flavour of intellectual arrogance to develop. It suggests to us that we can speak convincingly about people we have never met with problems we have never witnessed in countries we have never heard of — and most dangerously, that we can do so persuasively, winning trophies in the process. Not all debaters treat the activity with as much humility and discretion as Seo seems to, and I think the book would have benefitted discussing more extensively the limits of competitive debate in dissecting complicated problems.

Of course, I am still significantly convinced that we are better off arguing than saying nothing at all (or worse, blindly agreeing with Jordan Peterson or Nancy Pelosi or God etc). And I do think the book successfully shifted my intuitions further along pro-debate end of the spectrum. One of his overarching arguments is that much of what we value in discourse — passion, empathy, and moderation — is best achieved deliberately rather than incidentally. He redefines conviction as “less an input than an output,” pointing out that we can most meaningfully commit to ideas when we have had the opportunity to explore multiple viewpoints and dialogues. He suggests similarly that empathy is not always “a spontaneous psychic connection, or a reflection of virtue,” but happens equally when we intentionally put ourselves in the other side’s shoes and construct their arguments for them.

I find this intuitively true. Much of competitive debate demands that we defend opinions deeply contrary to our own. (At a recent tournament, for example, my friends and I debated on behalf of Team Canada whether all babies should randomly be swapped at birth.) Over time, this occupation of other points of view has softened, narrowed, or defeated many of my convictions. The moderate opinions that I hold are I think held more strongly — after having heard many of the counterarguments and having seen their demise. Maybe, with enough arguments, even the mass baby-swapping scheme will gain appeal.

3. Before my ninth birthday, I lost the ability to disagree. I experienced the loss as a kind of erosion: there was no disabling moment, only a slow and steady fade. In the beginning, I resisted. Though the words caught in my throat, I found ways to spit out my objections. But then I tired of the effort, risk, and self-disclosure that arguments entail. So I began to linger in the silences between speech and, once there, told myself I could find a way to live in this safe and hidden space.

Though I can’t substantiate the following claim with any remotely reliable statistics, I would estimate roughly 65% of competitive debaters begin their careers with the archetypal traits of the successful orator. These are people who were loud and outspoken voices of playground justice as children. They were class presidents in their middle school classes. By high school, they navigated political discourse over the cafeteria tables with deftness and glee. The rules and demands of debate as a competitive activity, then, were just ways to structure and maintain this underlying fondness for persuasion. 

The other group of us, a significant but quieter minority, started the activity with a set of less widely anticipated characteristics, as Seo describes. I don’t think I was ever particularly quiet or agreeable when I was younger, but the notion of public speaking always seemed untenable at its face. Words in a written context were reliable; they could be planned and polished to the extent desired. When spoken aloud, to an audience, words were less deliberate and less predictable — and sometimes, they came out in mangled, imprecise versions of the thoughts that preceded them.

So I didn’t partake in very much oratory which, as an elementary school student, was mostly easy. I avoided classroom confrontations and spent lessons reading copies of A Series of Unfortunate Events under my laminate grade school desk. I weaselled my way out of reciting Remembrance Day poems in front of schoolwide gatherings. I hid in corners at grown-up dinner parties to escape the passionate conversations and political arguments that are characteristic of the South Asian diaspora — interactions that, after five years of debating, I have come to appreciate and enjoy, but which at the time felt either inane or impossibly intimidating.

Only a few years of competitive debating later, I stood meekly in my blazer and rain boots (an unfortunate miscarriage of fashion), in the finals of a national parliamentary debate event, in front of probably more than two hundred people. I spoke, mostly extemporaneously, about the values of infrastructure reconstruction following natural disasters for what was a bit over five minutes but contracted in my mind to a space of a few satisfying seconds. I probably gave hundreds of more speeches after this round — many of them shaky, misinformed, and painfully abstruse. I’ll probably give dozens more in the next few months in preparation for the Worlds Schools Debating Championships this August (the same tournament Seo won in 2013 with Team Australia). Still, my rainboots-laden address from Grade 9 stands out as the first time I spoke voluntarily among a sea of people and felt heard.

My adventures from the origins of shyness are common among the odd group of people who call ourselves debaters. The story Seo tells in Good Arguments is far more dramatic and impressive than most of ours. He writes about immigrating from South Korea to suburban Australia, learning an entirely new language and cultural vernacular, and the quietness that followed this transition — as described eloquently in the introductory passage quoted above. Seo tells this anecdote partially as a vehicle for communicating broader lessons about the benefits of formal argument. Still, I found the tale powerful in and of itself as an expression of what it is to aspire to something and to eventually achieve it. Many of the book’s readers have presumably not experienced the structured, formal venue of competitive debate. But I think the narrative is resonant among anyone who has experienced the empowerment of stepping slightly outside of character to try — and succeed, even in small ways — at something new.

4. The claim underlying much of Good Arguments is that the refusal to engage in argument threatens not only political outcomes, but our capacity to live honest and connected lives. He writes early on in the book that sustaining “an agreeable life… requires too many compromises and self-betrayals,” that it “saps one’s relationships of… candor, challenge, and vulnerability.” To me, the idea of self-betrayal in particular is a keen identification of why it is uncomfortable to agree blindly and perpetually — that even when it generates smoother conversation, passivity defies the obligations we owe to ourselves to be expressive and truthful.

“The decision to remove oneself from the conversation [is] a choice not only to walk away from other people but also to deny the self that exists in communion with the world,” Seo describes at one point. The power of honesty, even when it revolts against a glorified ideal of consensus, is what gives discourse the potential to be empowering and even emancipatory.

2 thoughts on “On “Good Arguments” (and Bad Ones)

  1. Does oratorical skill with intent to “win” make for better more self satisfying relationships? Or does the training, hard work and devotion to being “expressive and truthful” and guarding against “self-betrayal” isolate us with our rain boots and what if’s.
    In any event – keep the rain boots!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is a really good point and I think correct in many situations. In particular I think the mindset of competitive debate lends itself to occasionally forgetting that the ultimate objective of interpersonal arguments is to find consensus or at least a fragile sense of peace. Instead we sometimes tend to plow mechanically throw arguments; this can be a definite problem.

      I do think there are a few mitigating factors to this:

      1. I think over time most debaters learn to intuitively distinguish between the objectives of interpersonal arguments and simulated competitive ones. This is largely because, in interpersonal conflict, we are forced to reconcile with the visible emotions of a person we care about, and restrain ourselves as a result.

      2. What is missing in many arguments — interpersonal and otherwise — is the ability to truly understand the other side. Competitive debate helps with this because you are artificially forced to represent positions that you disagree with. I don’t think this skill always transfers naturally to the interpersonal realm, but if it’s done consciously, I think it becomes much easier with debate experience. The author of this book describes his process of “side-switching,” or trying to make the other person’s arguments for them in his head, which I found interesting.

      3. I’m not sure that the alternative situation is better. I think many if not most people struggle with articulating themselves clearly and accurately during interpersonal conflict. This means people often either express themselves imprecisely, which can lead to more hurtful things being said, or they avoid confrontation altogether and accumulate resentment over time. Oratory adds structure and clarity to these tense situations.

      It’s a good observation, though, and one that I think about a fair amount! And not to worry, the rainboots aren’t going anywhere anytime soon 🙂

      Like

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