What's the point of arguing?

May 30th, 2017

Why argue?

I frequently hear and read people ask, “What’s the point of arguing? Nobody is going to change their mind.” This is a common refrain on social media. There’s some truth to this claim. “The backfire effect” is a term given to the tendency for people to actually dig in and resist evidence that contradicts their beliefs. (Here is a good description of the backfire effect.) We are biased to accept ideas that reinforce what we already believe — especially about hot-button issues, like climate change, abortion, corporal punishment, LGBTQ rights or invading foreign countries.

Jesus had some advice for dealing with people who won’t be convinced: “Don’t cast your pearls before swine” (Matthew 7:6). Another friend puts it this way: You can’t reason someone out of an opinion they didn’t use reason to get to in the first place.

But both anecdotal evidence (see this article on Cracked.com) and research on social media (see this study) indicate that sometimes bystanders, or those who observe arguments, can have their minds changed. There has been plenty of research on the factors that actually lead someone to change their mind (see this article from the Washington Post and this one from Psychology Today.)

But I contend that the point of arguing is not always to change minds. Sometimes arguing has more important goals.

Purposes of rhetoric

In classical rhetoric, the three main purposes of communication are to inform, persuade or entertain. But sociologists, anthropologists and theologians have added to our understanding of language and communication. Language is performative or demonstrative: language can declare someone married, or demonstrate that the speaker belongs to a certain tribe or identity.

Sometimes we argue for entertainment, which people acknowledge when they talk about “eating popcorn” while watching an argument go down. This is not necessarily limited to “trolling.”

Sometimes the speaker or author may be addressing one party with the intent of being overheard by another party (which God does effectively in the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18:10-15).

Of course, changing someone’s mind can be a good and altruistic goal. As a pastor and a Christian, one of my primary missions is to convince people of their need for Christ and their intrinsic worth to God. But if I’m interested in persuading someone, I’m probably going to spend a lot more time listening than talking.

Other reasons to argue

I can think of many other reasons why our faith may compel us to argue.

1. Making a stand. Sometimes my faith calls on me to speak up, regardless of whether or not I think I’m in the majority or think I may change someone’s mind. The prophets often spoke because God called them to do so, not because they would effectively change minds.

While I do not compare myself to the prophets, I may not stay silent when someone makes a racist or transphobic comment, because silence is being complicit in racism and transphobia. My goal in speaking up in these cases is simply to represent that an opposing view exists, and to do right by my friends who are oppressed by such language. Argument, in this case, is about my identity (as one with an opposing view) and my loyalty to those who are not present, or who may be silenced.

2. Preaching to the choir. We use this phrase to disparage the idea that we are speaking to the already-converted. But as a preacher, I’ve always been conscious that the choir needs preaching, too! Moreover, the “choir” needs to see good and healthy ways of arguing modeled for them. Observers who agree with me need good models. They need to be taught to avoid fallacies and to distinguish between debating ideas and attacking someone’s character.

3. Arguing is part of Christian tradition. There is a tendency for some Christians to claim all kinds of argument are bad. They are quick to quote Paul’s calls for unity and harmony in the church (without noticing that Paul is almost always arguing). Rather than argue against the substance of a claim, they object to the way it was presented or to the fact that arguing is happening at all.

But the early church was full of argument. Acts 10 and 15 are full of the controversy of the early church about the inclusion of non-Jews in the new community. Jewish tradition was also steeped in a culture of debate. Even the “minority report” of dissenting rabbis were preserved in the Talmud for generations.

4. Disarming talking points. Sometimes the goal of an argument is simply to take a certain talking point off the table. For example, the Bible has often been used as a weapon and a tool of oppression. I’ve been in more than one situation where someone claimed that those of us who affirm LGBTQ folks simply “didn’t know the Bible.”

In this case, my goal with arguing may simply be to establish my credentials. Of course, I’m aware that “debating the Bible” usually leads to stalemate, but that isn’t the point. What usually happens is that my opponent grudgingly admits, “You know your Bible, but you can make the Bible say anything. Even the Devil can quote the Bible.” But they can no longer claim that I don’t know the Bible.

This is, of course, a double-bind, a choice between being perceived ignorant or being perceived evil or arrogant. Women and African-Americans in our country are intimately familiar with similar double-binds. Challenging oppressive rhetoric can get you labeled “angry” or “uppity.” All the more reason for me to use my knowledge to deflate oppressive talking points and remove them from discussion.

5. Creating space. Occasionally people will tell me “thank you” for something I said in a sermon or online that let them know there was a place for them in the church. These bystanders may not be directly involved in the conversation, but they become aware that the church I serve could be a sanctuary for them. In this way, argument can be part of evangelism.

In an ideal world, we could disagree respectfully, without being disagreeable; we could approach questions of policy or doctrine dispassionately, and we would stick to talking about issues instead of attacking each other’s character or motives. But the real world is messy, feelings get hurt, and we develop strong opinions grounded neither in facts nor in evidence.

Argument is not just about persuading other people to join your “side.” It’s also about using language — the creative power God first spoke into being in creation — to create a preferred reality, a prophetic imagination and an alternative kingdom.

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