Monday, August 25, 2008

Bad argument styles #1: The Bait-and-Switch

Closely related to my ongoing discussion on logic is the concept of argument style, which is really a part of rhetoric. As I can, I’ll explore that concept as well. Here’s the first installment.

One of the problems that face us when we’re dealing with arguments and dialogue is that, quite often, one side of the argument has done a good bit more consideration on the topic than the other side. This frequently leads to what I find to be a common problem in theological discussion: the Bait-and-Switch.

The Bait-and-Switch looks like this: Two thinkers walk into a discussion. Thinker one (we’ll call him Tom) is quite familiar with the topic of the discussion, while thinker two (who we shall call Ann) is only vaguely aware of the major points.

In fact, Tom is not only familiar with the topic, but is well-convinced of his position, and has ready access to multiple articles and books that support his view. Ann, on the other hand, has perhaps encountered Tom’s view before; maybe she has even read an article or two. It may be that she has a few reasons to question whether Tom’s perspective is right, but she is, at very least, unwilling to be quick to change her views of what she considers orthodox.

So when Tom encounters Ann, he tosses out a casual question to her that is phrased in such a way as to suggest that the question-- and (here’s the important thing) the
intent of the question-- is objective. Perhaps the question is worded ambiguously, or maybe it contains an asking phrase that requests the opinion of the other in an apparently sincere way.

Ann takes the bait. She answers with a sincere statement of her opinion. She probably shoots from the hip to a fair degree, and she may very well disclaim exactly that. Her answer is brief, but it probably states a good bit (even all) of what she might have to say about the matter.

So Tom sets the hook. If he’s really good at this, he might ask a few follow-up questions that are similarly ambiguous, again appealing for her honest answer. Then he reels her in: she is suddenly blasted with an overwhelming amount of information. It might be in the form of an article cut-and-pasted into an e-mail, or a series of quotes (lots of them-- 15 or more) posted in the comments of a blog post, or the spoken dialogue switches to monologue for a time. The actual form doesn’t really matter-- it’s the result that does.

If Tom gets his fish, then the result is that Ann is sucked into a discussion that she can’t possibly win, and Tom will eventually demonstrate that he is right because his opponent cannot sufficiently out-argue him. (If Ann is smart, she jumps off the hook at the point when the first wave of overwhelming information comes.)

Here’s what is wrong with the above style of argument:
  • It begins with deception. Tom presents himself as sincerely interested in Ann’s opinion, when he is not. He asks a question or makes a statement that is worded to imply objectivity when none is present. Tom has set out to convince someone of his point of view, but acts like he is still arriving at it.
  • From deception it moves to a psychological move on the order of Cialdini: because Ann has invested time and energy into this discussion, she feels obligated to continue. Tom capitalizes on this psychology, binding her into what amounts to a sales pitch.
  • Tom then beats her up and presents her as the defeated foe, which is a straw man fallacy (more on this in a future post). Ann never set out to be his foe, and she never presented herself as a representative for the “other side” of the topic. Yet Tom trumpets the “other side” as defeated because Ann has been defeated.
  • Overall, Tom has forsaken the loving fellowship that he might have with his sister in Christ for the sake of making his point. Deception, head games, and beating her up in argument is not the way to build a friendship, and surely Ann feels like she has been used and abused. Hardly a brotherly model.
I won’t judge Tom’s motives behind this, and I’m sure that what is in the heart of those who frequently employ this approach is not uniform. But I would suggest that one way to counter this instinct is to ask ourselves the following questions:
  • What are my motives in asking the questions I am asking? Have I presented myself as undecided about something that I am actually decided on? If so, why?
  • Am I aware of whether or not my discussion partner(s) are as well-versed on the topic as I am? If they are not, have I graciously extended patience to them as they get up to speed? Have I been careful not to overwhelm them with too many different points of information, or simply too much information?
  • Have I been easy to disagree with? That is, has my spirit been forbearing and gracious toward them, so that they still feel cherished and valued as a fellow believer?
  • Have I represented our discussion as being more than it really is? Have I inappropriately positioned myself or those with whom I am discussing as the final representative of a position or view?
  • Am I willing to be wrong, if I could be shown from Scripture or from other evidence that my perspective is incorrect? If I have succeeded in demonstrating that someone else is wrong, have I been gracious and loving in the way that I exposed error, not lording it over them in a haughty manner?
  • Overall, have I dealt with my discussion partner(s) in a manner that reflects love for a brother or sister in Christ? Would they gladly engage in another discussion with me in the future, even if they knew we disagreed? Would others inside and outside the church consider my manner of dealing with them as a credit to the gospel?

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