President Trump continues to trash any effort to have a rational discussion about US foreign policy toward Iran, among a number of other issues that cry out for rational discussion. Critics of Trump’s policy have been personally attacked by him in the most scurrilous manner: by calling into question the patriotism of the Democratic Party leadership and accusing it of fraud.
Paul Graham, a computer scientist, in his essay “How to Disagree” analyzes persuasion techniques from the least to the most effective. This hierarchy isn’t really new or original to Graham (he borrows heavily from earlier thinkers on the subject) but his essay has gained a bit of popularity for his attempt to rate different kinds of persuasive approaches.
Working with the opposing viewpoint to improve it is among the most effective persuasion techniques one could use. Unlike forensic debate techniques, the cooperative approach emphasizes that the search for truth is a collaborative enterprise and not a competitive one. Forensics turn an argument into an “I gotcha” contest. But the truth is not a contest. It is a journey we take together.
Accusing your political opponents of aiding and abetting the enemy (as President Trump did following criticism of his decision to assassinate a foreign leader) is counterproductive and unethical. This technique used to be called ad hominem or “to the man” because it amounts to a personal attack rather than a discussion of the central point at hand.
We argue ideas, not personal characteristics. We present rigorous support for our claims and do not tolerate sloppy, misleading claims designed to impugn the character of those who disagree. Don’t try to corner or trap anyone who presents questionable claims; the idea is to try to help those who disagree with you to come to a smarter, improved point of view. In a disagreement, don’t tear down. Build up. “You got this part right, but maybe we could improve things over in this section” is a statement we all could utter more frequently.
When does an accusation cross the line? When it lacks support and is not on topic. The ad hominem attack is a clever trick that can catch those who aren’t paying attention and sway their thinking for the wrong reasons. It’s bad enough these tactics are being used by the President, but what’s even worse is that we all seem to be getting accustomed to these tactics and simply shrug when they come up in argument. But be warned: this is not politics as usual.