Here I compare basketball offense – attempting to score when your team has the ball – with modern argument.
The fun part of basketball is shooting. Almost everyone who takes up the sport spends a ton of time shooting the ball, and also doing those things which are concomitant with shooting the ball – dribbling, passing, working on their moves – all the stuff involved in offense. In fact, unless you happen to run into a really good coach, you can get all the way through high school basketball without spending much time on defense. Defense may win games, but it’s definitely delayed gratification compared to scoring. People hoot and holler when you make a basket. The crowd doesn’t cheer when you rotate correctly on defense.
Further, anyone can work on their offense by themselves – just get a ball and a hoop, and practice. But defense, especially once you get to the more sophisticated help defenses, requires a bunch of people to learn – you’re not just shooting or dribbling, you’re reacting to the movements of the ball, the other team and your teammates.
Of course, at the highest level, it all begins to merge – that’s why you hear commentators talking about ‘transition offense’, which is the art of turning defense into offense as quickly as possible. In other words, professional basketball players are looking for offensive possibilities while they are on defense, and for defensive responsibilities while they are on offense.
In sum – for beginners: on offense, you make decisions, the other side reacts. On defense, the other side makes decisions, you react.
What’s this got to do with argument? The vast majority of people who argue are like beginner basketball players – they like offense, and don’t even understand defense. They like attacking your positions with the ‘moves’ they have worked out for themselves – they may have heard an ‘argument’ made somewhere, but have never seen it attacked and have never had to defend it. They like to ‘score points’ and hear the cheers of the crowd. They don’t understand defense and don’t play it very well.
Now we must be clear on what argument means. It is not yelling your position at the other party (or, as often as not, the onlookers) and then smugly dismissing your target’s counterarguments before they are even made, if you even acknowledge that counterarguments even exist – that may be political theater, modern higher education or journalism, but it is not argument. If that’s what’s what your interlocutor is doing, you may attempt to be kind, listen, attempt to change the subject, pray – but you can’t argue.
Neither is it merely ‘a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition’ – that’s not quite the half of it. What we’re talking about, ideally, is the pursuit of truth. So, the prerequisite for any real argument is that both sides really want to know the truth – that they are open, however imperfectly, to entertaining new information, new reasoning, new points of view.
With all this in mind, I hereby formalize the approach I’ve been trying to take for years: make the ‘other side’ play defense. In basketball, once you start getting any good (and I was a very mediocre high school player), when you face a new opponent, the first thing you do on offense is take it straight at them, because the important question for you is: can he play good defense? If not, you just keep taking it at him.
Failure to play defense = you lose. You’re also revealed as a poser.
For reasons that maybe we’ll look at some other time, the chief schools of ‘offense only’ argument in America today seem to be atheists and progressives. <Warning: Generalizations Coming! Of course, there are exceptions – you just don’t run across them very often, in my experience.> The atheist tactic seems to favor straw men and name calling: how often have we heard that Christians believe in an ‘invisible old man in the sky’? Or heard it proclaimed that belief in God is just dumb? These are not arguments, nor are they parts of arguments. Progressives are a little trickier, since, as discussed elsewhere, they take ‘power dynamics’ analysis as the height of sophisticated argument – identify the power structure, and you’ve already dismissed any possible argument made by the Oppressors – they are tools of da Man!
As always, it boils down to the ability to restate our opponent’s positions in terms they would acknowledge as accurate. This serves the double functions of making sure we’re arguing and not just yelling at each other, and conveying to your opponent that you have actually listened to them and heard them. Next, you would list the individual arguments of your opponent, again in terms they would agree with.
Now, you make them play defense. Why do you take X to be true, when Y and Z are clearly true , and contradict X? Can you explain how B falls out from A, because it doesn’t seem to. Etc.
Hey, it could work. Beats despair or open warfare.