Arguing With a Goal
Arguing is one of my favorite things to do. I mean, I’m a philosophy major. I’m getting a degree in continually challenging ideas and questioning understandings of reality. Some of my favorite times in the classroom have been class-wide debates about antirealism and the rationality of the universe in Philosophy of Science, or Achilles vs. Hector in World Lit, or social and ethical implications of The Awakening in American Lit. I’m getting excited just remembering. What I recall—and love—most about these arguments is how intently we all had to listen to one another to understand the diverse facets of meaning within what we read or what we thought, how we had to build off the comments of one another in order to deepen the conversation, and how I never left with the same opinion I came in with, even if I didn’t outright agree with my honorable opponents. (I just had an argument this past weekend about Matt Smith as The Doctor; it was rousing, excited tones of voice were used, nobody came in or left with exactly the same opinion, and we all became better friends.) Getting better at listening and arguing have been some of the most valuable skills I’ve learned at college.
I won’t pretend that this is easy. From getting called out on an argument, to getting punched in the face, it is not usually our first instinct to investigate why someone is communicating something before we defend ourselves or our ideas. (And it can feel like being punched in the face when our ideas get challenged. You should’ve been there when I, a language-lover, first read Wittgenstein and discovered that language is an unstable game of self-references. Ruined my summer. Anyway.) This is the moment we must choose to first see the other point of view before we start yelling, swinging our fists, or running in the opposite direction. It is important to keep in mind that we are part of a dynamic community of life, and in order to form opinions and contribute, we all must try to understand and engage with others’ contributions (even the punches and the shouts).
This, obviously, is difficult. The best way I have become aware of doing this comes from something I’ve learned from Professor Ruth Huston, Greenville’s resident Molly Weasley and one of the most fiercely intellectual and unfailingly kind-hearted women I’ve had the pleasure of learning from. One of her main emphases at the beginning of her courses is the passionate pursuit of the “Imago Dei”—image of God—in all people. She points out to us that when we see those around us—even the meanies or the weirdos (especially the meanies and weirdos, maybe)—as living pictures of the many facets of God’s character, we see their actions and thoughts differently. This re-focuses us from making statements such as, “What a stupid thing to say!” or “Those thoughts are worthless!” or even just “I don’t care what he/she has to say!” and, instead, leads us to ask, “What truth could I be ignoring if I choose not to engage with this person?” or “How can I learn about God’s truth in how this person is different from me?” or “What can we come up with together if our two vastly different viewpoints engage with each other?” It certainly leaves us free to disagree, (and free to disapprove of harmful actions and words) but forces us to engage with, rather than ignore, the other viewpoints around us. Classmates and professors and bloggers and protesters cease to be opponents, and instead become brothers and sisters in the pursuit of multifaceted truth in existence.
When I look back at the discussions I’ve had in college classes, I’m looking back with rose-colored lenses, I’ll admit. Until I was able to take in an argument or perspective, understand it to the best of my ability, and then comment on it, I wasn’t really arguing. I was protecting my fledgling intellect and charging in to prove myself. It’s been a lesson learned through verbal butt-kickings and embarrassment at my ignorance, as well as observing examples of loving and thoughtful disagreements and compromises among my intellectual superiors (of which there are many at Greenville). Real arguing has been a learned skill. And I do mean skill. In my experience, it is not at all a weakness or a lack of intellectual ability to hear the arguments of others and be influenced by them. It is, in fact, the only way to be intellectually active and influential. In other words, you can’t say anything new if you don’t already know what’s been said, and you can’t shed new light on a subject if you aren’t versed on what others have said on the subject. Whether or not you do this comes down to your goal in argument: being right, or contributing to the discussion in a meaningful way.
Not hearing your opponent is the best way of being “right” no matter what. If your goal is to be “right,” then listening is fatal. A watertight argument in your own mind will remain that way as long as you are the only one critiquing it. From this point of view, altering one’s argument or point of view is to be defeated. On the other hand, if you want to contribute to the discussion in a meaningful way, so that new stones are unturned, new solutions to problems are discovered, and new ways of seeing beauty and making meaning are brought to the surface, then educating yourself and listening are key. Ego can no longer play a part in why you are arguing, “victory” and “defeat” can no longer play roles in discussion, and choosing to remain ignorant for the sake of preserving a viewpoint becomes most irresponsible. Martin Luther King Jr. said it much better than I could when he said: “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” If your goal is to participate in the challenging but ultimately inescapable intertwined network of humanity, and channel your passions to help make the world excel into the most creative and loving mechanism it can become, then listening and becoming informed are the essential first steps.
As we journey on in our intellectual pursuits here as GC students, or move on and engage with the outside world post-Greenville, this goal in argument is important to keep in mind. As Christians, as students, as bearers of the Imago Dei, as humans, we must, as best we can, attempt to understand what has come before us, learn what is happening around us, and then accept our roles as dynamic components in the continuing narrative of humanity’s strivings.