Arguments Always Involve Relationships

argumentAlastair Roberts has written very interesting post, well worth your time, in defence of the Christian practice of argument or polemical discourse about the truth. In the middle of it, partially in order to help overcome the silly split we often place between reason and emotion, he makes the claim that all of our conversations have various relational dimensions to them. And then he proves it:

Discourse is always relational in character. When engaged in discourse, we are engaging in relationship with:

  1. Our selves
  2. Other persons on our ‘side’
  3. Our own positions
  4. The conversation itself
  5. Our interlocutors
  6. Our interlocutors’ positions
  7. The truth
  8. Spectators and other third parties

In order to think and reason carefully, we must ensure that every one of these relationships is healthy. Where one or more of these relationships is unhealthy—and one of these relationships is seldom unhealthy without infecting the others—our entire discourse can be damaged. The following are a few examples of ways in which each one of these relationships can be unhealthy:

  1. Pride can give rise to an unhealthy relationship with our selves, making it difficult for us to acknowledge ourselves to have been wrong, especially in public.
  2. Fear of losing the friendship of other persons on our own ‘side’ can cause us to step back from making unpopular but necessary criticisms of unhealthy beliefs that have traction in our own camp.
  3. We can over-identify with our own positions, presuming that an attack upon them is an attack upon ourselves.
  4. We can react in fear, impatience, or hostility to the way that the testing and openness of the conversation can place our certainties in question.
  5. An instinctive reaction against our interlocutors can make it difficult to hear them out carefully and charitably.
  6. Negative associations that we have established with aspects of our interlocutors’ positions (dimensions of its rhetoric, terminology, labels, etc.) can cause us to react rather than thoughtfully respond.
  7. We can react in fear to the prospect of the truth as something that can unsettle the status quo, demand our loyalty, or undermine our claims upon reality.
  8. We can allow the tensions that we have with third parties to prevent us from giving people that they recommend a careful and charitable hearing. Alternatively, we could also allow ourselves to get caught up in the stampede of the crowd on social media and fail to think about the matter that they are reacting to clearly for ourselves.

Anyone who’s been on facebook for more than about 20 minutes can recognize these dynamics. Roberts continues:

This list is very far from comprehensive. However, it should give some sense of the many fronts upon which we need to manage our relational dynamics and the affective states associated with these. The thinking process is not just a matter of machine-like logic-crunching and brainpower: it is an interpersonal and relational process and a matter of various virtues, of patience, of charity, of love, of courage, of nerve, of self-control, of trust, of hope, etc. The sharpest minds can be worse than useless when their owners lack virtue or self-control in handling their affective states.

The lack of self-control in handling affective states usually owes more to lack of training than to vice. I have commented on various occasions upon the ways in which much of our education fails to prepare us for the real world situations where the relational character of healthy and clear thinking proves most challenging. In consequence, many people—even those with advanced education—lack the capacity to think well under pressure or to manage the relational dynamics that shape their thinking (dynamics of which many are entirely unaware).

In the rest of the post, he goes on to analyze more dimensions to the reality of argument and to defend it as a practice and our need to develop the emotional and intellectual resources to deal with it.

Again, I cannot recommend it enough. Indeed, this whole post is designed simply to tempt you to read it. Right here. Or again, I’m going to link it here.  Or, if you missed that, you can go ahead and read the whole article here.

Soli Deo Gloria

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