The Uses of Argument

Recently, I had a confrontation with someone close to me, a confrontation that left me feeling hurt and defensive. I knew my immediate reaction (to withdraw entirely) wasn’t very healthy, but I wasn’t sure what I should do or say.

That afternoon, I was teaching a writing class where, not so coincidentally, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about rhetoric. In the middle of my lecture, I had an epiphany. I knew what to do.

I needed to argue.

Now, before I get misunderstood, I don’t mean “argue” in the classic, pick a fight, act contentious fashion. In fact, most of us who study rhetoric would distinguish between a fight, where one person aims to “win” regardless of cost, and an argument, or discourse intended to persuade. Arguments can (and I think should) be civil.

The cool thing about rhetoric, and one of the things that initially drew me to its study, is that rhetoric is ultimately about getting things done with language. Anytime we use language purposefully—to apologize, to make romantic overtures, to heal a rift in a friendship—we’re using rhetoric. And most of the time, we’re making an argument. (Of course, not all rhetoric is about arguments. Sometimes rhetoric can be used simply to invite understanding.)

In my writing class that day, we talked about Jay Heinrich’s three categories of argument (which he, in turn, gets from Aristotle):

  1. Arguments about the past, where the goal is to determine praise or blame. These arguments are often couched in past tense. Anyone who’s had children knows about these arguments: “He started it!” “ No, she did!” According to Heinrichs, these arguments often aren’t very productive because they make us defensive, and they often degenerate into fights.
  2. Arguments about the present, focused on differences in values. Sometimes, these are the most painful confrontations, because values are often so personally held and for most of us, values are non-negotiable. When we argue in the present tense, we’re often focused on establishing ourselves as more morally virtuous than our opponent.
  3. Arguments about the future, focused on choice. Heinrichs believes that these arguments are the most productive, because they allow us to move past disagreements about value and blame and decide what should be done. Focusing on the future allows us to say, “Yes, I may have been a jerk, but what are we going to do about this problem?”

As I outlined these different categories for my students, I realized that the confrontation earlier was conducted almost entirely in past and present tense. The focus on the past (on things I had done or not done) left me feeling like I was being unfairly blamed. (Or perhaps not so unfairly, in all honesty). But the essential disagreement stemmed from differences in values, differences that were unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

I realized that, while I couldn’t change the past, or persuade my friend to change her values, I might be able to heal our rift by focusing, as Heinrichs suggests, on the future–on choices.

The next time I saw my friend, I apologized for my initial, defensive reaction, and then offered a compromise in the form of a course of action. I would try to do better, if she tried harder to understand where I was coming from. We both agreed to try.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this method—shifting the tense of our arguments to focus on the future—is fool proof. Human relations are too unpredictable and too emotionally charged for any one method to work all the time. Not only that, but some audiences are simply not a rhetorical audience: they’re incapable of being persuaded by any kind of discourse.

But for me, I find that thinking about my relationships rhetorically—that is, thinking about what I want to achieve through language—helps me focus more on cooperation, and less on my own (often selfish) interests.

What about you? What strategies do you find useful in your own disagreements? What value do you find in rhetoric (the purposeful study and deployment of language)?

About Rosalyn

(Prose Board) currently lives in Southern Utah with her husband and three small children, where she teaches writing part-time at the local university. She has a BA in English from BYU, and an MA and PhD (also in English) from Penn State. She served a mission in the Hungary Budapest mission. In her spare time (what's that?) she likes to read, write, try new recipes (as long as she doesn't have to clean up), watch movies with her husband (British period drama is her favorite), go for walks, and generally avoid anything that resembles housework.

12 thoughts on “The Uses of Argument

  1. Thanks for this, Rosalyn.

    There is a lot of wisdom here about how to improve human relations.

    I’ll be trying them out more often!

  2. Rosalyn:

    Thank you for your insightful post about using language to connect meaningfully with others. I’ve been a student of rhetoric for 20 years for many of the same reasons that you list, and I agree that human relations are so complex that our understanding of how to use language effectively is always in flux. (And I am amazed at how poor my communication can be despite all the hours I’ve spent reading about rhetoric!) This is a useful rubric, one that I have not considered.

    Coincientally, my 10 yo daughter was mad at me this morning because I was posting a picture of her on FB and made her late for school. She made it about how I “always” and “never” in my past dealings with her. I agreed that my past actions this morning were wrong, but I implored her to focus on what I could do in the future to make up for my bad choice so that we could move on.

    Now that I’ve felt the sting of that, I need to not dwell on past actions of others but focus on hopeful, positive, healing future choices–that we both can make (so as not to overburden just one person in the relationship). Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  3. I used to be passive. I used to be a doormat. What’s funny is people who know me now don’t know me as that person. But I found my voice, my ability to express myself – never hostile, but always firm.

    Great article. Thanks!

  4. beautifully written and something very useful to think about! don’t we all feel like we have the same arguments over and over … maybe with a childhood friend or a family member – when there is a lot of history that can be brought into the conversation.
    i LOVE that you can focus on the future — how to make it right. thank you for sharing!

  5. I think the use of rhetoric, well-reasoned discussion and logic is under-rated, especially in all areas of discourse, personal, public, political, and private.

    I find myself often unable to articulate my thoughts in a meaningful and rational way when speaking with people. Too often, I’m quiet.

    I’m much more well-spoken or well-written, when using a written form. Though I can be too aggressive. I don’t tolerate shoddy or illogical arguments very well.

  6. Thank you to everyone who has commented! For me, this was a real epiphany–it was funny, too, because, like KDA, I’ve studied this stuff for a while, but somehow it’s easier to grasp something intellectually than actually apply it.

    @Tasha, I have a hard time picturing you ever being passive!

  7. Interesting. I’d never thought of rhetoric that way before. That gives me a starting point to work from when my kids start fighting over something. Thanks!

  8. This is GREAT, Rosalyn! How funny that I’ve been studying rhetoric for so long and never thought to apply it this way to my relationships. Like momonhermitmom said, I also love that it gives me a way to redirect my kids with their arguments.

    As for the value of rhetoric, as someone who does not naturally have a lot of copiousness when I speak (I do better in writing), I find it immensely useful in my daily life whenever I give any sort of planned response, from church talks to family home evening to meetings with teachers at school, and so on.

  9. I was on debating teams all through high school, have a significant dash of contrariness in my nature, and like to discuss – or as you defined – argue in conversation about ideas and situations.

    It always annoys me when people start taking the argument personally, that it becomes about being RIGHT instead of learning or thinking about other points of view. Of course, as a parent, I’m cast as judge when it comes to my sons’ arguments, but since reading this post yesterday I’ve realised that I have taught them how to consider the other side of the situation as well. Which I’m pretty pleased about.

    Words are fantastic, and I LOVE finding someone I can play rhetoric with. Thanks for the great fun post!

  10. When my husband starts his busy time at work our relationship also seems to become strained. We are both working hard and long hours. He at work and me at home.
    Has we disagree I see the first 2 examples in our complaints about how things are being handled so just last night I decided to try something else.

    I said that I know that we have a hard time when he works so hard and we are both doing our best and putting in all that we can so lets try to be notice what each of us do, and try to not get worked up about what doesn’t. Lets talk kindly and be supportive instead of expecting more right now.

    Guess what? It felt wonderful! We both left feeling good and no one was hurt. Did it solve the house being messy and the towels that have been waiting to be put away for 2 weeks. Nope, but I did notice how he comes home to see me and to put the kids to bed and THEN goes back to work.

    I did notice that he wakes up at night when kids are crying even when he gets home at midnight.
    I did notice that we have smiled at each other more and we have been more kind to each other.

    The future always seems be happier place to be.

  11. I can’t say how happy it makes me to see that these tools are helpful to more people than just me! @ CountryHungry, thank you for sharing your experience.

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