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<xTITLE>In Search Of A Better Argument</xTITLE>

In Search Of A Better Argument

by Diane J. Levin
November 2009

From Mediation Channel

Diane J. Levin

Better arguments

Conflict.

There’s certainly plenty of it to go around. Daily life is made up of discord, debate and disagreement. I for one would hate to see conflict vanish. Not only would it put me and all the other mediators out of work, but life would be far less interesting. No doubt quality of life would suffer, since conflict after all famously provokes improvements. (Besides, in a world without argument imagine how erotic love might suffer without make-up sex to spark things up.)

What we need is not fewer arguments in the world. It’s not the quantity that’s at issue, it’s the quality. Friends, we need to bicker better.

Regular readers are familiar with a recently added feature on this blog, the Fallacious Argument of the Month. With the goal of promoting clearheaded and reasoned debate and improving discourse, each month I skewer a different fallacy. One consequence of creating that feature is that it has sharpened my eye for real-world instances of mistakes in arguing. Hence this post: I found a whopper.

One common mistake when arguing is to make cheap appeals to emotion through an old playground trick: name calling. The intent is to arouse the disgust of one’s audience against the target of one’s attack. Using words designed to inflame the prejudices of your audience can certainly be effective. Unfortunately, this ruse can backfire. Your audience may turn on you and not your intended target.

I spotted an example of this in the pages of the local paper, the Boston Globe. One particularly touchy subject these days is a proposal concerning a public law school for Massachusetts, one of a handful of states without one. Under this proposal, the state higher education system would take over private Southern New England School of Law. The Globe has run several opinion pieces on the subject, pro and con, including one, “Bailing out a failing law school,” penned by two University of Massachusetts trustees.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that I oppose this plan myself.  But I winced when I read the UMass trustees’ opinion. Instead of focusing on relevant facts to sway the undecided or the committed, the writers vitiated their argument by throwing in deliberately demeaning language, lobbing phrases such as “fourth rate”, “raw political pork”, and “‘Lawsuits ‘R’ Us’ justice”. Not surprisingly, it provoked angry letters from insulted readers.

How much more effective this op-ed piece would have been had its authors  stuck with facts and reasons, leaving the sneering provocation behind in the first draft.

Biography


Diane Levin, J.D., is a mediator, dispute resolution trainer, negotiation coach, writer, and lawyer based in Marblehead, Massachusetts, who has instructed people from around the world in the art of talking it out. Since 1995 she has helped clients resolve disputes involving tort, employment, business, estate, family, and real property issues, and serves on numerous mediation panels, including the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Training and coaching are an enduring passion -- she has taught thousands of people to resolve conflict, negotiate better, or become mediators -- from Croatian judges to Fortune 500 executives.

 

A geek at heart, Levin consults on web design and social media to professionals.  She blogs about ADR at the intersection of law, science, and popular culture at the award-winning MediationChannel.com, regarded as one of the world's top ADR blogs.  She also tracks and catalogues ADR blogs world-wide at ADRblogs.com, where she has created a community for bloggers writing about constructive ways to resolve disputes.

 

web site: http://dianelevin.com



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