Staff Opinion: Argue more

By Sam Cushing | March 1, 2018 3:58pm

Samuel Cushing
by Brennan Robinson / The Beacon

Argue more. Specifically, argue more effectively and about things that matter. Arguments, despite common misconceptions, don’t need to descend into a 2016 presidential debate. They can and should be civil. Controversial topics like politics and religion are social taboos in many circles, which is a problem. The only way to desensitize controversial subjects is by discussing them. 

It’s understandable why people avoid talking about these topics. It’s jarring to have your views challenged. You spend your whole life constructing a view of the world, and to have someone challenge it is disruptive. Because of cognitive influences like confirmation bias, humans are far better at pointing out flaws in other people’s thinking than their own. 

Constructive arguments provide us the perfect platform to do this. Even the process of explaining our views is especially enlightening. The illusion of explanatory depth, the feeling that our knowledge of a subject is deeper than it actually is, is exposed through explaining what you believe to someone else. 

The consequence of not explaining your views is continuing to believe in them for faulty reasons. If you avoid conflict, and don’t allow your ideas to be challenged, you never have to analyze them. And if you can’t explain what you believe, that suggests you believe it because you were told to, because it’s easier than accepting the truth, or for some other unknown reason. 

However, all these efforts are in vain if we argue ineffectively. It’s easy to get caught up trying to convince people of your point of view, but trying to prove yourself right is the wrong attitude to approach a discussion with. One conversation isn’t going to get people to radically change their beliefs, but it can get them thinking about them. Exposing your beliefs to criticism, and criticizing other people’s in return is a mutually beneficial experience if you allow it to occur. 

The problem we often face is how to criticize someone’s ideas without understanding them. A theory in social psychology known as moral foundations theory tells us that our moral reasoning is founded on five basic dichotomies: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal,  authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation. 

The reason people on opposite ends of the political spectrum disagree so often is because their moral foundations are different. For example, conservatives tend to value loyalty, authority, and sanctity more than liberals who prefer care and fairness. Understanding this difference is key to effective arguments. 

Everybody thinks their views are correct, and many are incapable of understanding why the other side holds their views just as tightly. For effective discourse to occur, we need to engage in moral reframing. 

This reframing requires an understanding of the moral foundations underlying others’ viewpoints and the ability to explain why your views support these morals. Arguments are both how we exercise and attain an understanding of other points of view.

Arguing in this manner means not only talking to people that disagree with you, but approaching conversations with the goal of understanding, not persuasion. Let your beliefs be challenged, go out of your way to do so, and help others do the same.

Sam Cushing is a sophomore sociology and psychology major. He can be reached at