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Visual book review: Critical Inquiry: The Process of Argument

book-critical-inquiry

I first read this book in October 2010 while scrambling to learn as much as I could about communication and rhetoric in preparation for marriage. Since then, there have been zero household arguments, which is not a bad thing. Fortunately, the Internet, newspapers, and books provide a steady stream of logical fallacies that let me exercise the skills I picked up from this book.

The insight that stuck with me from this book was that you should repair holes in your opponents’ arguments—argue their case more strongly than they did—before demolishing the strengthened arguments. People rarely do this, but I’ve seen a couple of good examples on the political/feminist blogs I read.

It reminds me of what we need to do in order to help people deal with their concerns to new ideas or technologies. It’s not enough to fight against straw-man arguments. You may need to be more concerned about people’s concerns than they are, before you can help them find a way forward.

Critical Inquiry: The Process of Argument
Michael Boylan (Westview Press: 2009) – ISBN 978-0813344522

See other visual book notes!

Rhetoric and advocacy: the value of a different approach

UPDATE: Changed the title from “the value of the right approach” to “the value of a different approach” – thanks to Aaron for the nudge!

I was thinking about how to respond to this. I found myself wanting to share rhetoric tips, so I’m posting this as a blog entry instead of a comment. =)

On my post about the Manila Zoo, Anna commented: “Don’t you love animals? Then why are you eating them? What’s the difference between the animal that you ‘love’ and the animal that is on your plate? If you really love them, you’ll stop having them for dinner.”

One of the benefits of learning about rhetoric and argument is being able to recognize what’s going on. Here, Anna tries to set up a dichotomy: either you love animals and are vegan, or you eat animals and don’t love them. Relying on such a premise weakens Anna’s case. I don’t have to accept this premise, and I can see other choices.

This looks like an inarguable situation: she’s not going to convince me to adopt a vegan diet through these words, and I’m probably not going to convince her to be more precise and more compassionate in her rhetoric. But I’d like to explore this anyway, because there’s something interesting here about the difference between what she’s trying and how I’d do it. (When life gives you lemons, write a reflective blog post about them!) If I were in Anna’s shoes and I wanted to nudge someone to move towards a more plant-based diet, here’s what I would try.

You can very rarely make someone do something. If you want to influence someone’s behaviour, you have a much better chance if you can inspire them rather than if you criticize them or force them. Part of that is building a bridge between the two of you so that the other person can understand and listen to you, and part of that is helping the other person imagine how much better their life would be with your proposal.

I know that can sound frustrating and slow. There have been many times I wished I could just wave a magic wand (or write a program!) to get people to change their behaviour, understand a new concept, or stop e-mailing huge files around. But in all the books I’ve read and through all the coaching I’ve done, I keep coming back to these lessons again and again: you can’t change people’s minds for them, and influencing cooperation can be much easier than sparking conflict.

So I would start by building common ground, instead of approaching it antagonistically. This is a common mistake for radicals, influencers, and people carried away by their passions. Goodness knows I’ve got enough examples of doing this myself in the early years of my blog. When you get stuck in an “us versus them” mindset, it becomes difficult to connect with people in a compassionate, respectful manner. Instead of trying to imply that the person I’m talking to hates animals or is hypocritical, I’d probably start off by highlighting things we have in common. Something like this: “I’m happy to see you love animals a lot.” This validates what the other person has said, affirms them, and starts off on a positive note.

Then I would use personal experiences as a bridge, showing people I’ve been where they are and they can relate to me. If you want to make it easier for people to see what you see, you need to show them that you’ve stood where they stand, acknowledging challenges along the way. That way, you can connect with people and help them be inspired. In this hypothetical argument, it might be something like “I love animals too, which is why I’ve been shifting to an all-plant diet. It’s sometimes hard to stick with it, particularly when I’m hanging out with friends, but it’s easier when I remember the troubles animals go through and the kind of world I’d rather build for them.”

I’d soften the call to action. People don’t like being manipulated by false dichotomies or preachy advice. I would probably explore the waters with a question like, “Have you thought about shifting to a vegetarian or vegan diet, too?” By backing off a little, I acknowledge the other person’s choices and reasons instead of trying to make decisions for them.

Depending on whether I thought it was necessary, I might include some social proof or alternative reasons. For example, plant-based diets can be healthier and less expensive than diets with a lot of meat. They can have a smaller environmental footprint, too. It’s good to anticipate and acknowledge the difficulties. Growing plants isn’t automatically guilt-free: see the clearing of land to support commercial agriculture; the dangers of monoculture, fertilizers, and pesticides; the consequences of transportation.

I’d end by showing my respect for people’s choices and finishing on a positive note. This would be a good place to thank the person again and highlight common ground, remembering that the goal isn’t to score points, but to open up a possible conversation enriched by personal experience. 

—-

So here’s what that might look like, if I wanted to influence someone to eat more vegetables and fewer animals.

Before: “Don’t you love animals? Then why are you eating them? What’s the difference between the animal that you ‘love’ and the animal that is on your plate? If you really love them, you’ll stop having them for dinner.”

After: “I’m happy to see you love animals a lot. I love animals too, which is why I’ve been shifting to an all-plant diet. It’s sometimes hard to stick with it, particularly when I’m hanging out with friends, but it’s easier when I remember the troubles animals go through and the kind of world I’d rather build for them. Have you thought about shifting to a mostly-vegetable, vegetarian, or vegan diet, too? I’ve found that it usually comes out cheaper than my old meals, and I feel healthier and more energetic too. Hope to hear from you soon!”

Your mileage may vary, of course. You might feel that this more compassionate I’m-on-your-side approach is too mild for you. I present it as an alternative, so it’s easier to see that not all advocacy has to be confrontational.

Having reframed the comment in a more positive tone, what would be my personal response to it? I’m aware of the arguments for and against vegetarianism and vegan diets. I do eat mostly vegetables, thanks in part to a community-supported agriculture program that keeps me busy figuring out what to do with zucchini, in part to concern over what goes into the food that goes into us, and in part to a stubborn frugality that dislikes paying the premium for steak. I don’t think I’ll ever follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, though, because I don’t like inconveniencing friends and family, or proselytizing at the kitchen table. I’ll follow my own decisions when it comes to food I can control, but I’ll try to go with the flow when it comes to what people share with me. (I still opt out of balut and other things that make my mind boggle, although many people consider such things delicacies.) So even this tweaked message isn’t going to make my decisions for me, but it will leave me with more respect than aversion to how people try to get their messages across.

Parting thoughts: If you come to a conversation prepared for a fight, that’s what you’ll get. If you come to a conversation with love and compassion, you’ll have more opportunities to learn and grow. It’s amazing how much of a difference your starting point can make. It takes practice to be able to consider different approaches and choose one that fits, and, if necessary, to translate what other people say into what they might have meant. Hope to help more people think about and consciously choose how to approach conversations!

Portal 2 and teachable moments in argument

Portal 2 became an obsession in our household after W- shared with us the Youtube clips of the ending songs, Still Alive and Want You Gone. I downloaded the demo today, and J- flew through it eagerly. The final demo level came all too soon.

Aha. Teachable moment.

“Do you remember the three Greek words we have in the kitchen?”

“Ethos, pathos, and logos.”

“Right.” I wrote them down, with brief descriptions, under the title, “Why should we get Portal 2?” I read the title out: “Why should we get Portal 2?”

“Umm… Because it’s educational?”

“How?”

“Speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out, that’s all I have to say.”

I look at her and do the you-can-do-better-than-that smile.

“I’m not good at this stuff.”

“Try writing all of your ideas down. You can make your arguments stronger by editing them afterwards.”

We’re still a bit fuzzy about the categories, but it’s great to see where she’s going. Here’s the list she came up with:

Ethos:

  • helps improve sense of humour
  • I will actually do my homework properly and thoroughly
  • can create a topic of conversation
  • can create more interesting stories to tell others

Pathos:

  • spend time together solving puzzles and getting a good laugh or two (bonding factor)
  • fun! (lolz!)
  • more inside jokes

Logos:

  • hand-eye coordination
  • momentum
  • solve puzzles – helps make you better at solving puzzles
  • may help me with typing faster
  • can create inspiration for writing a book or drawing a picture

“Try thinking of reasons why we might say no, too,” I said. After some thought, she listed:

  • might take up too much time
  • too close to screen too often
  • may not play it as often, may be wasted

“Now think of ways you can address those concerns.”

“Maybe I can set a time limit, like 30 minutes…”

“That would take care of the first and second concern. How about the third?”

“It’s like you don’t want to play it too much, but you also don’t want to play it too little…” she said.

“Right. Because if you played only a couple of levels more, it would be a waste. But you played the demo and…”

“… it was amazing…”

“… so the rest of the game…”

“… will probably be ten times as amazing…”

“… and you know you’ll enjoy it. There, see what happens? When you think of why someone would say no and you address those concerns, your argument becomes stronger.”

“Oh, I get it now.”

“Great! Would you like to take this further by organizing your arguments into a proper speech, like this”, and here I sketched out what the speech would be like, with English mixed with fast-forwarded gibberish and hand-gestures so that she could get the sense of it.

She laughed. “Sure!” she said.

Persuasion is a useful skill. Good to find opportunities to help people develop it!

2011-06-22 Wed 21:21

The three argumenteers

image

(Or arguers, more correctly? But Argumenteers is a fun little reference.)

Logos, ethos, and pathos. =) W- and I would like to help J-, her friends, and other people learn more about critical thinking, rhetoric, argument, and eventually negotiation. Someday I may even make a kid’s book about arguments so that kids (and grown-ups!) can get better at recognizing, identifying, and responding to arguments. First step: pick up more practice ourselves.

The sequence we might work with is:

  1. identify and break down arguments
  2. classify arguments
  3. identify fallacies and respond to them
  4. identify figures of speech and rhetorical effect
  5. repair and respond to stronger arguments

So I’m going to try reading the opinion pages of the New York Times and other news sources and analyzing the arguments there. First up: Teaching to the Text Message, Andy Seslsberg, March 19, 2011.

Argument: Short, Internet-focused writing assignments may be more effective than long writing assignments early in the college curriculum.

1. Long assignments don’t work.
1.1. Support: I’ve been teaching with long writing assignments for years, [so I know what I’m talking about.] 
1.2
Support: Students’ long writing assignments are of low quality (“font-size manipulation, plagiarism, cliches”).
1.3 Implied: Teachers don’t have the time to check long writing assignments in depth.
2. Implied: Short Internet-focused writing assignments will be more interesting and more useful.
2.1 Support: Alternative formats get people interested.
2.2 Support: Real-life contexts for communication such as networking e-mails, tweets, or comments will be more relevant to students than essays or book reports.
2.3 Support: Alternative assignments are more like students’ everyday life.
2.4 Support: Writing concisely is useful and more in tune with the world’s needs.
2.5 Support: Great thinkers can pack a lot of thought into a few words. [Therefore students won’t be missing out, and there might be useful ways to connect the lessons to past thinkers.]
3. Support: Short assignments can help students develop better skills and teachers give better feedback.
3.1. Support: Short assignments force clarity and reduce waste.
3.2. Support: Teachers can give short assignments more individual attention. [Implied: More individual attention can help students learn more effectively]
3.3. Support: Short writing assignments encourage conciseness and creativity
3.4 Support: Moderation – colleges can still have long writing assignments later in the curriculum.

Hmm… There must be lots of ways to make rhetoric and argument fun and interesting…

Disagreement and the road to trusting yourself

I’m glad whenever I find myself disagreeing with someone. Sometimes I change my mind, learning more in the process. Sometimes I understand my own reasons better, and learn more about why I think what I think. As long as I disagree well – in an argument instead of a fight, clearly presenting reasons and understanding alternatives – then I grow in the process.

Henry Will sent me a link to this Harvard Business Review blog post on teaching yourself to trust yourself.

…take the time, and the quiet, to decide what you think. That is how
we find the part of ourselves we gave up. That is how we become
powerful, clever, creative, and insightful. That is how we gain our
sight.

It reminds me of this slim book I tucked into my library haul: Anna Quindlen’s Being Perfect. Here are some excerpts:

p.12: Trying to be perfect may be inevitable for people who are smart and
ambitious and interested in the world and in its good opinion. But at
one level it’s too hard, and at another, it’s too cheap and easy.
Because all it really requires of you, mainly, is to read the
zeitgeist of wherever and whenever you happen to be and to assume the
masks necessary to be the best at whatever the zeitgeist dictates or
requires.

… But nothing important, or meaningful, or beautiful, or
interesting, or great, ever came out of imitations. What is relaly
hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning
the work of becoming yourself.

Connect that with this excerpt from Everyday Ethics by Joshua Halberstam:

p109: We live our lives within a changing moral climate, and the
temptation to adapt can be overwhelming. … The moral nonconformist,
however, pays little attention to the popularity or unpopularity of
his moral positions. He is–it’s embarrassing to talk this way in our
cynical world–after truth, not applause. Genuine moral nonconformity
is difficult to achieve and difficult to maintain. Don’t be too quick
to assume you’re already there.

It isn’t easy to figure out what one thinks.

For me, writing and drawing are the best ways to sneak up on myself. In conversation, I’m sometimes too malleable. I catch myself listening for approval. Even when blogging, I catch myself refreshing the pages, looking for comments, looking for validation. Because the feedback for writing tends to be slower and more in-depth than the reactive cues of conversation, though, I have more time to think about my reflections and develop them. I can also slow down and untangle the feedback on my message from the feedback on my way of delivering it.

When I can form a tentative understanding of a topic, then test it in discussion with other people or in contrast with other positions I read, then I gain a little more confidence that my reasons are rooted in more than the urge to agree or disagree. Running into the imperfections of my understanding is part of the adventure of becoming myself.

Tying it all together into tips for myself and for other people this might help: Feedback might be about your message or about your delivery. Be clear about what kind of feedback you’d find the most helpful – usually feedback on delivery, if you want to keep your message authentically you, although content-related feedback can also help you recognize what you resonate with. Don’t be limited by the idea of perfection or the need for agreement. Test yourself and learn how to trust your thoughts.

How are you teaching yourself to trust yourself?

2011-02-06 Sun 21:16

Book: Critical inquiry: the process of argument


Photo source: I Can Has Cheezburger

Critical Inquiry book

Critical Inquiry: The Process of Argument
Michael Boylan, 2009, Westview Press
ISBN: 9780813344522

I wish I had read Critical Inquiry (or a book like it) before going to school. It would’ve made my required courses in philosophy, theology, and literature much more engaging and more rewarding. The tips in the book are straightforward:

  1. Identify the conclusion and the premises,
  2. Organize them in a logical outline, and
  3. Develop arguments for or against premises that can be objected to, repairing minor flaws so that you’re fighting the strongest version of the argument.

This make sense. But for some reason, I didn’t have that framework before. If I had thought of those classes as partly about debugging arguments, applying the same decomposition skills I loved to use in computer science, I would’ve enjoyed the courses a lot more and gotten a lot more out of them. Better late than never!

The book also shares classic structures for developing a response in support of or against someone’s position. You outline the original position, develop the pros and cons, choose a position, state the strongest arguments of the opposing side, and refute those arguments with your own. Although this might feel a little formulaic–or too stifling for casual blog posts that start with captioned animals!–it’s a good way to make sure you thoroughly examine different sides.

I’m going to experiment with using these ideas when writing blog posts. I think the bigger challenge for me is taking a position. I’ve discovered there are a number of things I can’t help but get on my soapbox about, so there’s a start. Essays can lead me to more questions and arguments. It’ll be a fun way to discover what I think.