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How arguments avoid issues

Building upon Why seek a single truth?, it occurs to me that people often seem happy to derail discussions to win a point and feel that slight personal satisfaction. However, in doing so, truth and understanding are often lost. This raises the question of what we’re aiming for in communicating: is this a battle of personal ego or one seeking greater truth?

As discussed before, we’re often trained to use argument, rhetoric and debating in how we communicate; the Western tradition becoming this battleground of ideas where we employ words as weapons for personal victory.  Of course, taking a broader perspective, all communication is essentially the use of language for a purpose; so it makes sense that we learn how to persuade, inform, entertain, captivate, and so on. To my mind though, training in the use of language is training in the nature of thought and in how we employ that to relate to others and the world around us (ideas touched on in Writings on Education and “Education’s End”).

The question then becomes: how do we determine our purposes? Is every conversation to be an argument, where we attempt to convince others our views are right? Does our sense of what’s right then lie in the hands of those best able to employ language for their own ends and undermine their opponent? Are we sure that path leads to wisdom, rather than laying us open to the misuse of the power of language for personal satisfaction?

In other words, are we communicating for our sense of self or for a deeper sense of truth and mutual understanding?  The format of “the argument” often seems to lead to this terrain where those skilled at arguing overshadow others who may be seeking something more.  The question of personal motivations and objectives seems an important one.

Looking to the wisdom of language itself, “communication” comes back to the idea of being “shared”; so, the ways we are able to bring our experience and understanding into this space of common knowledge. I see it as this opportunity for diverse people to share their perspectives and for others to suspend their own ideas to live through the eyes of the other, to see another side of our shared reality and obtain a fuller picture. Conversation then becomes a place where a larger understanding of reality can emerge as we gain insight into how others are affected by it. All of this is lost when we focus instead on opportunities for taking out an opponent.

Lately though I’ve noticed some people voicing the desire for dialogue: articulating how conversations are simply descending into conflict and issues being lost in the fray; people seeking ways of relating that overcome these limitations and allow us to meet one another and tackle the issues at stake. Having been so caught up in the mechanics of the argument however, it seems we lack the tradition of dialogue – this may be a new way of being we must now create.

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