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David Doody: Obama and the Art of Argument

September 29, 2008

“You could not argue in a vacuum, as if only your opinion matters. It would be irresponsible to try only to prevail in such a case. Rather, you would want to recognize what others think and try to draw people together.” -from The Informed Argument by Robert K. Miller and Robert P. Yagelski

Much has been made of Barack Obama’s willingness to state that John McCain was right about some issues brought up in the first presidential debate. While, in direct opposition to what he has been claiming—that Americans want to stop yelling at each other—John McCain refused to participate in an actual discussion with Obama (or—and again, much has been made of this—to even look at him). Instead McCain chose condescension as his main tool of attack, claiming over and over again that Senator Obama just doesn’t get it, that he is na├»ve about the issues this country faces.

In The Informed Argument Robert K. Miller and Robert P. Yagelski examine the workings of a well-constructed argument and the importance of argumentation in our society. Early in the book they define an argument by what it is not:

“In the first place, a quarrel is not an argument. Typically, when we use the term argument in casual conversation, we mean a quarrel or a disagreement….Quarrels rarely involve any genuine effort to engage in a dialogue for the sake of understanding an issue, and very often quarrels have nothing to do with trying to resolve a conflict….[T]o engage in genuine argument requires an effort to address the issue at hand in a substantive way, not just to criticize or oppose another’s position.”

What John McCain was doing on Friday night was quarreling with Barack Obama. And, as was pointed out by some of the political pundits in their commentary just following the debates, this is indeed what McCain needs to do in order to partake in a discussion with someone with opposing views: He needs to vilify is opponent in order to create a sense of me against him, a sense that the two sides are at war on issues, and his is the “right” side to be on in that war.

This is not what Obama does (or did last Friday night). Obama has been called a mighty rhetorician, both in praise and in condemnation. The latter argues that he is a lemon with a nice paint job—little substance lies beneath the shiny exterior, and his oratorical skills are all that he brings to the table. Record aside, to dismiss Obama’s skills in argument as nothing more than pretty words is to do a disservice to one of our most essential tools in resolving conflicts, furthering our society, and advancing ourselves—a tool passed down from Aristotle to Thomas Jefferson to Marin Luther King, Jr. It is only in true discussion of the most important matters that we can come to a situation where all the parties involved are happy with the outcome, where everyone “wins.” Only when we participate in “argumentation as an intellectual effort that is intended to solve a problem by drawing people together,” rather than in “other kinds of discourse in which [we] seek to win or persuade without concern for the truth of [our] claims or positions” can we move towards a greater good for us all.

In order to do this, Mr. Miller and Mr. Yagelski state, we must make concessions:

“Often, especially when we are addressing complex and controversial issues…we can find ourselves believing that our position is right and those who believe otherwise are simply ignorant or harbor dubious motives. But serious controversies almost always continue because each side of the issue has valid concerns that cannot be dismissed. Identifying these concerns enables you to understand the issue better and to construct an argument that might be not only more convincing but also more useful. This might mean conceding a point or two to those who oppose your position. If you have no rebuttal to a particular point and recognize that your opponents’ case has some merit, be honest and generous enough to say so. Making such a concession should not be considered simply a strategic move on your part. Rather, it signals your willingness to take your audience seriously, even when they disagree with you, and it reflects your genuine interest in addressing the problem at hand effectively and ethically. In this way you might bridge the gap between you and members of your audience who oppose your position, making it easier to reach a more substantial agreement. Insisting in a belligerent way that your opponents are completely wrong will hardly convince them to take you seriously. Life is seldom so simple that one side is unequivocally right and the other wrong.”

In conceding that John McCain was indeed correct on some issues in the first presidential debate, Barack Obama was not showing a weakness or an incapability to lead. Rather he was being “honest and generous enough to say so” and showing his willingness to take the American people seriously and address the issues we are all facing effectively and ethically. In contrast, John McCain’s unwillingness to participate in even the most basic levels of civility necessary to actually argue over such important matters showed his belligerence and should be responded to with an inability to take him seriously. By not extending the same respect to Barack Obama as Obama extended him, John McCain also chose to not extend that respect to the citizens of the country he wishes to lead.

-David Doody

All quoted sections of this piece are from The Informed Argument [Sixth Edition] by Robert K. Miller and Robert P. Yagelski.

To read more entries from David Doody and others at GUERNICA click here.

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