Oxymorons and Effective Argument

Don't disagree; but do raise precise objections

I recently looked up the definition of 'oxymoron'.
1. (Rhetoric). A figure of speech in which a pair of opposed or markedly contradictory terms are placed in conjunction for emphasis.
2. More generally: a contradiction in terms.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary)
I had previously thought that the definition of an oxymorons was (2.) a self-contradiction. However, in fact an oxymoron, in the older sense (1.) is the concatenation of two concepts which are almost opposite. The intersection of two opposed concepts is considerably more precise a concept than the intersection of two similar concepts.

On a similar track I've been struggling for some time on how to effectively disagree. Disagreeing when best done may be a bit like an oxymoron; it allows the common ground to be specified more exactly.

Disagreeing effectively is pretty important, especially in the case of complex issues where a degree of consensus is important. People may want to disagree effectively, because they want to
  • understand each other better;
  • get to the bottom of things;
  • come to a collective or consensual decision is order to take collective action.
Quite often these factors are combined.

Disagreeing is difficult to pull off for a number of reasons. Mostly this is because people feel threatened if you disagree. That is because individuals' identity or self-worth is often wrapped up with what you agree or disagree about. If you attack their arguments, you are often felt as if you are attacking the person themselves.

A second and related argument is that broad, imprecise, concepts are often understood differently by different people. So what you are attacking might be quite different from what is being defended. (Tongue in cheek...) ...I'm often struck by how rubbish other people's arguments are, and how I have much superior arguments. But if people were to look at my own expressed work, they might similarly criticize it. We are comparing our own mental representation of our ideas to our understanding of someone else's expression of their ideas. Both the saying and the listening are opportunities for misunderstanding however good the original idea.

Agreeing is perhaps a way of being simple. The content of political agreement e.g. in the case of voting for a particular party might be broadly 'forget about the details the key point is X': where X might be 'we want broadly more/less government/social support'.

Disagreeing is perhaps a way of being precise. So if you are 'being more precise' then say so: you are not attacking them, but rather providing an alternative view that can give a more exact crossover.

Disagreeing is also sometimes a way of generating a useful alternative representation of a problem. If your representation of a problem is alternative, then just say so. In this case, it behooves you to express yourself well. The easiest way is to appeal to more general thoughts

For these reasons and more the best way to disagree according to 'how to win friends and influence people' is not to do it at all. But there remains some benefit to argument and critique; it makes our arguments more precise and more solid.

How to argue and critique given time constraints is another important question. Perhaps, then express the argument that is being made and make a single comment to it. This is positive and win/win for both parties.

4 comments:

Robin Smith said...

I like this post a lot. May I suggest that when you use the phrase "I disagree" you mean "I believe" in truth?

My view on this has been taught to me by a priest, who is highly active and energetic on economic justice and jurisprudence.

He basically says that we spend too much time disagreeing and too little listening to reason. We are not being true to our own self as a result.

Any rational person could not refute that once they had heard reason they could not deny it, or at least if they were still uncertain they would pause and think harder until they had found reason. The only exception must be if they had a special interest to deny reason.

Is it not true then that people only disagree with you when the imperative actions required by agreeing are too much for them to bear. This is so evident in climate and economics.

I put it to you that this is the only roadblock to the existential problems ahead of us. Without truly seeking reason, all actions taken must fail. It is the natural law.

TheClimatePhilosopher said...

>I like this post a lot. May I suggest that when you use the phrase "I disagree" you mean "I believe" in truth?

Maybe yes...

>He basically says that we spend too much time disagreeing and too little listening to reason. We are not being true to our own self as a result.

Yes, so true.

> Any rational person could not refute that once they had heard reason they could not deny it, or at least if they were still uncertain they would pause and think harder until they had found reason. The only exception must be if they had a special interest to deny reason.

>Is it not true then that people only disagree with you when the imperative actions required by agreeing are too much for them to bear. This is so evident in climate and economics.

Yes, this is true too. But they may also have interesting things to say.

>I put it to you that this is the only roadblock to the existential problems ahead of us. Without truly seeking reason, all actions taken must fail. It is the natural law.

Yes. But beware how phenomenally difficult it is to follow reason; and how difficult it sometimes is to define reason and rationality. E.g. see Alisdaire Macintyre's work "After Virtue" or "Whose Justice, Which Rationality".

So I think an element of common sense, respect common humanity and plain 'getting by' is necessary too in the absence of everyone being reasonable and rational in the same way.

Robin Smith said...

I'm not sure if I made myself clear on the last point. If you break the laws of nature you should expect to be punished. If you follow them expect to be rewarded. Its not a complex argument that requires a book to describe.

That we have been burning fossil fuel much faster than coal, chalk and limestone can deposit it is one example. Nature is about to punish us. Why are we surprised.

That the economy has collapsed once again because we have been taking from those who been creating wealth and donating that fund to those who have done nothing to create wealth has collapsed the economy. Nature again is about to punish us. Why are we surprised, not least of which it happens with monotonous regularity, always for the same reason.

"getting by" would be a just a nice way of saying we are breaking the law because we woudl rather remain stupid and ignorant.

It has nothing to do with "deciding" what is morally right or wrong. It has everything to do with what "is" right or wrong. Nature says so. It keeps telling us, we keep ignoring it. Very simple.

In the mean time the opportunity for untold wealth is forgone.

TheClimatePhilosopher said...

Yes, thanks Robin for the clarification.