by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

Funny thing about arguments, they can go both ways if you’re not careful.  Listening for example to Breitbart News Network does not assure a predictable line of attack on Big News, Big Journalism and Big Hollywood.  In fact the opportunity for rogue “spin” from almost anyone on any point of contention is certain to send one reeling from what was expected. Perhaps “spin” implies an unfair connotation, suggesting as it does that one is “twisting” words.  A more accurate rendition of the purported distortion may be logic. Consider the most recent debate swirling about the removal of American historical statues because of the association of their Founding Fathers with slavery.  I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one to dismiss that argument as mere spin.  It is an argument with some strength. Where the twist comes in however is the innuendo that the slavery connection somehow doesn’t matter because everybody was doing it.  Not exactly.  Just the white people. Nor does ennobling the statue as part of the national culture palliate the acidity of the revelation.  Still seems pretty one-sided to me.  Some realities are more than just inconvenient truths. Maybe a better place for those things is in a museum, much like tanks and artillery in a war museum – not as a monument but as a relic.

Anyway the point is that arguments can go back and forth endlessly if there are two capable advocates on either side. If the only goal is to “win” then it is likely that one or the other will sway a putatively disinterested audience but I’m not convinced that being on the side of the majority necessarily constitutes a winner.  This is not to be confused with the democratic election process which is a matter of choice rather than about absolutes like right and wrong.

In philosophy and logic, an argument is a series of statements typically used to persuade someone of something or to present reasons for accepting a conclusion. The general form of an argument in a natural language is that of premises (typically in the form of propositions, statements or sentences) in support of a claim: the conclusion. The structure of some arguments can also be set out in a formal language, and formally defined “arguments” can be made independently of natural language arguments, as in math, logic, and computer science.

I was moved today by the exceedingly sober comments of a mother who lost her young daughter in a pointless act of violence at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia to counter the removal of a confederate statue of Robert E. Lee. Instead of condemning those involved in her daughter’s death, the mother said it was time for each side to listen to the other to understand what was bothering them. Obviously that posture will dissatisfy those who insist on eliminating opposition. But what is undeniable is that the arguments for and against anything can degenerate into relentless refinement without ever approaching the harder task of understanding.  Nor does it help merely to prattle about the constitutional right of people to say what they want even if it isn’t what you prefer to hear. That tangent is about argument itself not about the substance of the argument.  It gets us nowhere to “win” an argument even if it is by non-violent process.  The abyss will continue between people who are not reconciled. Breitbart News Network for example seeks to strengthen its arguments by saying it openly speaks its agenda while CNN touts a party-line under the guise of being open and all-inclusive.

 

It seems to me that the greater object of argument (or should I perhaps say “discussion”) is to attempt at least to do what can be done to achieve the ultimate goals of the conflicted parties without having to defeat the other. It is readily recognizable that the importance of a statue for example is more symbolic than anything else. There are hundreds if not thousands of statues around the country which largely go unnoticed until their “symbolism” becomes a flashpoint of disagreement on larger issues. I cannot imagine that the life of anybody in the United States of America will be improved or suffer deprivation depending upon the existence or removal of a statue. Surely the greater object of enquiry must be the elevation of the conditions of living which those people feel the removal or preservation of the statue somehow symbolizes. To distract ourselves from that primary goal – by pretending to dignify the argument related to the bronze sideshow – is nonsense and it trivializes the deeper human concerns. No amount of debate will persuade me that the iconic value of an historic inanimate statue will outweigh the pressing tribulations of living human beings.

So often an argument descends into a perceived necessity to “stand up for what you think is right”.  By the time an argument reaches that point of self-aggrandisement its outcome is likely too far removed from any chance of reconciliation to be of any consequence. Again the failure is to overlook the understanding of the other person’s qualms. Once the conflicting parties become entrenched in their positions (through the diverting mechanics of culture, propriety, race, entitlement or religion) they do nothing but push themselves further and further apart – often irreconcilably. When that happens the argument can go either way and it really doesn’t matter how since its result is meaningless as a solution.

Time and again it is apparent that getting to know the other person and the reasons behind their thinking is the answer to settling disputes. There is no logical basis which supports any one person or group on the basis of race, culture or religion. As has been said many times before, no one is born with inherent prejudice. But prejudice can undeniably be learned.  It begins with the alienation of people from one another, frequently prompted by fear and ignorance. The native instincts of humanity to fight against encroachment and change of any kind is well-known. Crowds and hype do nothing to dilute the inspiration.

If there is only one piece of meat on the table and there are two hungry people vying for it then there can be a serious fight. While that is an incontrovertible argument I do not think that the United States of America is at that point. I have enough confidence in the ability of that nation to solve its problems without a fight. And I really don’t think I’m over-estimating the capacity of the Americans to provide for all their people without having to eliminate the so-called competition.

It doesn’t help in this headier scheme to make oneself higher by standing on others.  The current repugnance directed at Donald Trump’s moral bankruptcy isn’t merely rhetoric. It isn’t just his failure to call out egregious behaviour; neither has he promoted loftier ideals or encouraged people to take a higher road with one another. So long as the combatant’s code of success prevails, there will be diminished interest (if any) in doing otherwise. As long as we see others as a threat, as predators, as people whose only calculation is to overcome, each of us regresses and assumes a similar mantle. Unfortunately we must look for guidance from the “top down”. It is too huge an enterprise to rely upon individuals to “do the right thing” at any cost; it is simply unrealistic to suppose that while each journey begins with one step, the world is changed by one individual at a time. The corporate activity of a nation is required to energize these mammoth projects and ambitions.  Call it moral crowd-funding, just a little from us all, but we need enlightened leadership and support.  When once we direct our attention to understanding the concerns and fixing them, we will have eliminated the argument. If Trump does other than pretend to “drain the swamp” of its putrid elements he might consider abandoning the tactic of pitting one group against another for political gain. It should utterly dishearten the electors that they are but expendable capital in trove of mercenary political warfare.  And if anyone dares to suggest that this thesis is either unrealistic or improbable, my only question about the alternative is, “So how’s that working out for you?” It’s a small victory to wallow in the juice of one’s own rancour.