Let’s argue – like Americans

Our nation was founded on an argument. It's our responsibility to continue it.

Well-meaning and reasonable people have spent recent years begging their friends, family, and more than a few elected officials to embrace “civil discourse.” Some folks are asking for peace, some for quiet, and others for a space to have tough conversations. Most popular writing about civil discourse unmistakably emphasizes the first word – civil. It’s taken for granted that we know how to discourse, and popular opinion is nearly unanimous that we could all use some help with the civil part. 
   But our problem is not with being civil. Our problem is that we don’t know what we mean when we say discourse. Discourse is argument. They’re not just similar, they’re two words for the same thing. Discourse comes from the Latin word discursus, which literally means “an argument.” If we’re going to improve our collective ability to engage in civil discourse, we must first confront fundamental problems with how we think about, talk about, and respond to argument.
The language we use to talk about our society is almost exclusively the language of building. Language is our toolbox with which we do the building. Argument is the most essential and most frequently used tool, and we spend most of our time pretending like we’re not using it, at the cost of our effectiveness, relationships, and even our health. But we all tinker, build, tear down, and rebuild. Like any primate on any project, we use tools to accomplish those tasks. Argument is, on both a small and large scale, one of the defining tools of our society. 
Americans neither invented nor own argument-as-tool, but it is certainly one of the more readily available tools in our toolbox. Our most prized civic possessions are arguments put to paper – the Declaration of Independence is an argument for why King George lost the right to govern American colonists and a justification for the new path we new friends were taking. The Constitution is an argument for what a government needs to do to “establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
Nearly everyone has used argument as a tool to advocate for good, to justify evil, to demand inclusion or independence, and to promote a product or a philosophy. Argument co-creates meaning with other people. Without it, we’d just be a bunch of bumbling word-sayers live-laugh-loving our way through the world with a severely limited capacity for making meaning. 
We don’t often think about argument as a tool because it’s so ingrained in our way of being, so instinctual, at this point. Sometimes wielding an unseen tool like argument is conscious; most of the time, it’s not. And while there’s nothing wrong with instinctually or subconsciously using tools to accomplish our goals, there are a few basic principles that even the most experienced tinkerer would do well to remember. 
Tools are value-neutral. There is nothing inherently good or evil about a hammer. There is nothing inherently good or evil about argument. All tools can be used or misused, squandered, or used to have maximum impact. One of the most foundational dangers to the long-term health of our civil discourse is our predisposition against argument. Argument is usually associated with negative connotations. Calling someone “argumentative” signals that they are stubborn and taxing to be around.
Our rules against politics and religion at the dinner table have nothing to do with politics and religion but the arguments they tend to invite. Argumentative children are bad children. Someone who argues just for the sake of challenging ideas is called a “devil’s advocate.” We are taught that argument is evil, to be avoided, and not something to celebrate or practice. 
Having been raised to understand argument as morally wrong and a punishable offense, we grow up and can’t for the life of us understand why we fight with our partners, have awkward miscommunications with our friends, feel discontent at work, and continue electing an incompetent Congress whose defining characteristic is its inability to function.
Underpinning much of our misbelief about argument is the false assumption that argument always (and only) serves one function: the function of rebellion, or defiance, or opposition. This is often true, both on the individual and societal level. The Declaration was, among other things, a proclamation of rebellion. But the important part of that last sentence is the least obvious part – “among other things.” The Declaration was a declaration of rebellion. A voter calling their senator to express concern over a vote is an act of opposition. A young child resisting bedtime is an act of defiance. But they are not only those things. They are all, to varying degrees and to varying consequences, seeking to understand, trying to inform, asking for help, questioning assumptions, making assumptions, expressing needs, testing boundaries, challenging authority, exploring their relationship to that authority, claiming territory, and aspiring to a world they think, in that moment, is better. 
Arguments are doing all of those things, all of the time. And the more aware we become of this versatility, the more difficult it becomes to dismiss arguments with the hollow moralizing many of us were shown as children, instead embracing the rich messiness of communicating with people we value about ideas we value. 
Are there ways to argue more effectively, more persuasively, in a way that can make you a “better” arguer? Sure. We’d all benefit from an improved awareness of sound argument structure, social cues to know whether now is really the time to say this thing on our minds, and knowing how certain tones will or won’t serve us with a particular audience. But conflating efficacy with morality is another common mistake hindering us in our quest for more effective civil discourse. 
Most of us have a shared understanding of the “correct way” to use a hammer. But what if someone decides to use a hammer in a weird, unusual way? What if they use it to smash a marshmallow, or put a dent in their workbench, just because they feel like it? Is that wrong? Of course not. There would be practical consequences – a dented workbench and probably nobody willing to linger while they make really loud noises, but the hammerer is well within their rights to dent the workbench and live with the consequences. 
It’s difficult to hear everyone from politicians to parents telling someone that they “can’t” argue in a certain way. Of course they can. It won’t make them very well-liked by the person they’re protesting, and it probably won’t give them much access to short-term influence with that person. But who says that’s the point? The folks who believe they have a monopoly on the proper function or form of argument are usually the folks who wield “civility” like a weapon in a way that is, at best, tone-policing and dismissive – and at worst, violent and blatant racism. 
One of the most dangerous consequences of our predisposition against argument is the belief that argument is something you can choose not to do. Argument is everywhere. If you are in any way attempting to influence another person’s perception, attitude, or beliefs, you are engaging in argument. This can be as obvious as arguing with your dad about the president or as subtle as trying to cheer up a friend. We are all arguing all of the time. But the stronger our ingrained distaste for argument, the harder we pretend that we’re doing something besides arguing. And there is simply no way that using a tool while pretending we’re doing something else gives us access to the healthiest, most effective, best version of that tool.
We don’t always have to like it. We want people to like us and many of us feel other people’s discomfort with argument, especially obvious arguments (i.e. politics and religion) deeply. But whichever layer of society you’re concerned with, you are engaging in some kind of building metaphor – and argument is a tool you simply can’t afford to not use. Is your focus on building meaningful friendships? The very notion of authenticity is an honest presentation of your core argument: “this is me.” Building a professional network? You are constantly engaging in arguments about the very definition of words like “professionalism,” “good work,” and “fair compensation,” and you are performing your understanding of those words in a way that is defended, criticized, and renegotiated at every turn. Engaging in politics? Campaigning? Voting? You are engaging in some of the largest and most foundational arguments about the direction of our nation, the competency of elected officials, as you argue for your definition of “the right direction” for the country, state, city, or neighborhood. 
It would be hypocritical to write about the harms of moralizing arguments, then tell you that you must engage in argument. And to splice the various times when certain people’s participation may or may not be morally required is beyond the scope of this little essay. But it seems a fact that if you don’t engage in argument then you will simply be a passenger. Your life, both daily and as a whole, will be dictated to you by others, and you will watch others’ lives be dictated to them.
If you really aren’t arguing, you will have no option but to look at change in the world – change for good, change for evil, advances and setbacks – and simply nod your head and say, “this is so.” And that is fundamentally out of step with the spirit that both started and sustains our nation.  
– Westin Miller

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