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The art of argumentation

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Whether in writing or in oratory, proper argumentation is an essential component of any serious attempt at persuasion. Unfortunately, public discourse in America is largely bereft of well-reasoned arguments and instead features fallacious thinking, logical non-sequiturs, inapposite red-herrings and other intellectually spurious attempts at defending or critiquing a position. Even more lamentable, the level of dialogue at Duke, a supposed beacon of higher learning and enlightened thought, often fails to rise above the low standard set by the public at large. Thus, this column will shed light upon some of the most common failures of argumentation in the faint hope of elevating the intellectual quality of the discussion, exchange and interplay of ideas here on campus.

The most typical shortcoming is the usage of an ad hominem when addressing an idea. The phrase “ad hominem” is Latin for “to the person,” and when one engages in ad hominem, one is making an argument about someone instead of the ideas he or she is espousing. There are several variations of this fallacy which will be explored below.

The first version of the ad hominem is to simply assume that the opposition is either, one, too incompetent to understand the issue or, two, uninformed about the pertinent facts. That’s always the easiest and most intellectually lazy way out of any argument; just call the opponent stupid or ignorant. For example, I have frequently heard on this campus that those who do not support gay marriage are either “bigots or uneducated.” Sure, you can just assume a priori, without justification, that a full 40 percent of Americans either hold an irrational animus or don’t know what they’re talking about. Even though that’s an easy and perhaps tempting course of action, such an assumption robs you of the opportunity to constructively engage with the opposition and discuss the merits of competing ideas, while also discrediting your own thinking as lacking in rigor. Continuing with the same example, instead of knocking down a caricatured straw man of those who support the traditional, conjugal view of marriage, serious proponents of gay marriage should mentally joust with the likes of Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, or Sherif Girgis, a summa cum laude graduate of Princeton and a Rhodes Scholar, both of who unabashedly oppose gay marriage. It stretches the credulity of the incredulous to claim that these two scholars lack the intelligence or awareness to hold a learned view on the issue of marriage. While you may not agree with them, which is your prerogative in a free society, it behooves you to address the substance of their arguments.

Another form of the ad hominem is to attempt to discredit the opposition simply because of certain characteristics they do or do not possess, such as age, race, gender or wealth. For example, if you’re not a woman, you are disqualified from offering your opinion on feminism. Or if you are not yourself black, your views on race relations in America are void, irrespective of the actual merits of the argument. Or if you are not a white law enforcement officer, your thoughts on policing are irrelevant – oh wait, this example is purely rhetorical. In any case, these specious ad hominem arguments, based on an intellectually bankrupt form of identity politics, undermine the legitimate debate of these important issues, which do deserve to be discussed in a thorough and critical manner.

The last form of an ad hominem to be discussed here is guilt by association. In this variation, instead of addressing the message, the messenger is discredited by linking him or her to some other idea, person or group through a shared trait. For example, a suicide bomber clutching a Quran walks into a crowded marketplace, killing dozens. Does it logically follow that those who own a Quran are radical terrorists? No, of course not, and I will freely and readily defend any Muslim against this charge. Likewise, if a deranged individual bearing a Confederate battle flag murders a church full of worshipers in Charleston, it does not logically follow that those who fly the same flag are also racist white supremacists.

As a general matter, one should always engage with the most charitable and compelling version of an opponent’s argument, even if they themselves are unable to articulate it. This principle of charity ensures that your argument gives a fair but critical evaluation of the opposition’s ideas. In the words of Bryan Caplan, “the ability to pass ideological Turing tests – to state opposing views as clearly and persuasively as their proponents – is a genuine symptom of objectivity and wisdom.”

Sadly at Duke, the vast majority of students have never had to constructively engage with an opposing viewpoint because this university is an echo chamber of a single world-view. In a series of excellent columns, my good friend Daniel Strunk describes the value of facing opinions you find fundamentally incorrect or even offensive, the importance of respecting the opposition and why most students at Duke should be upset at being deprived of this essential learning experience. Michael Munger, a tenured professor at Duke and the former chair of the Political Science department, also notes the problem of professors unashamedly and purposefully attempting to indoctrinate students with their own ideological views instead of allowing students to develop their own views through mentally sparring with their peers.

More so than recalcitrant students who fail to thoughtfully consider the arguments of their opponents and the professors who giddily enable this ideological narcissism by actively pushing their own personal views, the larger failure here is higher education itself. A century ago, you couldn’t call yourself an educated person without having read Plato’s dialogues, Cicero’s orations or Kant’s critiques of reason, among other works in the Western canon. Now, you can graduate from a top university with a bachelor of the arts, purportedly receiving a liberal arts education, without having to encounter any of these works. As such, most students have never been educated in the art of argumentation.

I hope that this column will not be a vain voice in the wilderness, but rather the impetus for students to reflect upon their own thinking and the way in which they argue with others, particularly those they disagree with. It is incumbent upon us to raise the level of campus dialogue to a standard consistent with the intellectualism we aspire to as a university. Duke deserves nothing less from her students.

Jonathan Zhao is a Trinity senior and the Editorial Page Editor. His column runs on alternate Mondays.


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