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How to Win an Argument

Don't argue on the other guy's terms. First, question the premise.

 
You want to write a better argument?

Stop arguing on the other guy's terms.

Recognize a false premise, then reject that premise. But to be able to do that, you have to get in the habit of recognizing when you're getting this little number played on you.
 
Here's a silly example, but one that demonstrates the principle clearly. Let's say Dave from HR waddles up and asks, Have you stopped stealing office supplies? You see the problem:  answering at all is a built-in admission that you're a thief. A question is valid only if both sides buy into the assumptions behind it.

By answering the question, you accept all their assumptions. In the case of Waddling Dave, the correct answer begins with, "I reject the premise that I have been stealing at all." Then you tear Dave a new one.

 
A question is worth answering only if both sides buy into the assumptions behind it.

Dubious premises usually are concealed much better than that. Here's a real and costly example. In 1996, former member of congress Jack Kemp debated Vice President Al Gore in the official vice-presidential debate for the fall election. Early on, Gore lavishly praised Kemp:
 
"Jack Kemp has been a powerful and needed voice against the kind of coarseness and incivility that you refer to in the question. I think it's an extremely valuable service to have a voice within the Republican party who says we ought to be one nation. … I compliment Mr. Kemp for the leadership he has shown in moving us away from that kind of attitude."
 
To which Mr. Kemp replied, "Well, I thank you, Al. I mean that very, very sincerely…."

Yikes. Keep in mind, this really happened, live, on national television.

And now, a Mike's Writing Tips version of slo-mo instant replay:  allow me to translate the exchange, in case you missed it.

Gore:  Jack, everybody in your party is a butt, but you're not!
Kemp:  Thanks Al! You're the tops, yourself!


Ever hear of pride going before a fall? This is an example of that. Kemp missed the slur because it was wrapped in a compliment. By responding without correcting the premise, he implied, even though he never meant to, that he agreed with Gore:  Yeah, my party's just like you said. Ick.


 
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Don't let that happen to you. Parse arguments and questions before you reply. Ask yourself what you are accepting as true if you choose to answer. If you do not completely understand or accept the premise then reject it, point out its ambiguity or hidden meanings, then write or say whatever you want.

 


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