The Secret of Winning Argument’s Grand Prize

Halifax Cornwallis

My grandmother had a little rhyming verse for almost every occasion. “If you convinced me and I convinced you, wouldn’t there still be two points of view?”she liked to lilt with a smile when we quarreled.


This is a long form article about getting the most out of the arguments in our lives.


This week the Cornwallis statue in Halifax came down. My friend Gail Lethbridge and other editorial and opinion writers took the occasion to have one more walk through the rubble. It’s a story repeating in cities all through North America. The statue was erected in the 1930’s by the railway company in a little park outside the station as an old-timey tourism promotion. Like many streets, river, schools and places around Nova Scotia, it was fashioned after one of the early English overseers of Halifax. As historical figures go, Cornwallis is typical. A butcher of my Highland Scots ancestors, he left my family decimated. A heavy-handed protector of a small community. A bureaucrat. A soldier doing as told. A hero to some. An enemy of the French, Acadians and Lnu’k. And to most… he doesn’t mean shit.


The discussion of dialing down the “Cornwallis” has been going on for years among local elites in Nova Scotia. He became the ultimate symbol of colonial white power, oppression and the historic patriarchy. School names were changed. And now the statue has been put away.


Cherry-picking the past


No serious, strong voices ever spoke for Cornwallis. Historians did say that the complainants misread, misunderstood, or purposefully misstated the historic record and Cornwallis’ part in our history. But few want to publicly parse history when the times are flowing on a certain popular theme. Public opinion polls and surveys also showed consistently that the majority would have liked to keep the statue. But it’s a silent majority. Few among them want to speak out or feel that strongly about the statue. No one wants to be called any of the “-est” names. The majority of voices speaking out wanted the statue gone and believed that this important move was long overdue.


“We’re from the government, we’re here to help”


A committee was struck, as it always is, to relieve our public officials and leaders from, you know… leading. As bureaucrats and politicians do, they used time, distance and dilution to slow-walk the issue. They did their work, dividing responsibility into small forgettable pieces. Presupposing the conclusion. Using fear and the threat of riotous hyperbolic harm. Casting any questioning voice as an outsider, alt-right, Trump-loving racist NAZI who hates Halifax.


Then last week something happened. Something big… at least to a few. Though real details are scarce, the media reported that tribal elders seconded to the committee quit because it was moving too slow. Fearing the threat of unrest, riot, resistance and allegedly even deaths, the decision was made to remove the statue. Note the passive voice, “the decision was made.” No sense of meaning, purpose, process, responsibility or author is given. In our modern world, none is needed. It was decided. The decision was supported by mayor and council many of whom eloquently repeated the orthodoxy of the age as I’m sure politicians did in the time of Cornwallis, and when the statue was erected.


Who has power?


Politicians, more than anyone else, know where the power lies and who has it even in a changing world where power is in play fast and furious. Want to know their secret? Just ask yourself who you would be genuinely afraid to publicly disagree with. That’s who has the power.


The social justice crowd cheered. The politicians patted themselves on the back for saving the city from certain crisis. The media quoted and opinionated. The ins wrung their hands. The outs shook their heads. Most paid no attention at all. Normal people have stuff to do.


But what was accomplished?



The tense of argument


When the Cornwallis statue issue first took the media’s interest I wrote that it was a great opportunity to talk about arguments and how they work. In particular, the notion that arguments have tense seems important in the modern age.


According to Aristotle, all arguments boil down to just three issues: Blame, Values and Choice.  “Did Cornwallis order scalping?” is about blame, “Is the statue offensive?” is about values, and “Should take the statue down?” is about choice. These three kinds of arguments are each associated with a different verb tense. If you understand tense you understand a lot about argument, others, and the world.


Blame = past tense
Values = present tense
Choice = future tense


Now the statue has been taken down and put away. No one is particularly unhappy. Some seem genuinely pleased with the move. Now what? What does it mean?



What is an argument?

An argument is an exchange of views. Each argument uses premises to form a conclusion. These conclusions can then be compared. An argument is something that is made, something that is offered, something that is given or put. It has a very specific purpose. An argument is intended to persuade, to support, to seduce, to change another’s point of view.


What’s the difference between an argument and a fight?


The distinction between and argument and a fight is of utmost importance in the modern world. It can determine the survival of a marriage, the fate of nations, or the future of the planet. You succeed in an argument when you persuade your audience. You win in a fight when you dominate an enemy.


Fights end in retreat and revenge. Arguments are about persuasion. In a fight, one side uses their power to take out aggression on another.


Philosopher Dan Cohen has spent decades perfecting the art of arguing. And yet in his popular TED TALK, this brilliant person reveals that he now loses intellectual debates more than ever.


Why? Because he’s come to the conclusion that in real argument losing means learning. “Losing” means you’ve gained enough new information that you were able to change your mind. This ability to change our minds is a unique trait and it is at the very core of what it means to be human. Most of us would agree that NOT BEING WRONG is a goal we would aspire to achieve. In all of human history, there has been only one tried and true proven way to achieve this lofty goal… the ability to change our minds. In the great book HOW NOT TO BE WRONG this idea is explored in detail with data and research to support how often and in what ways human brains consistently get things wrong.


Warning. There’s math in that book. Author Jordan Ellenberg pulls from history as well as from the latest theoretical developments to provide those not trained in math with the knowledge they need. Math, as Jordan Ellenberg says, is “an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength.” With the tools of mathematics in hand, you can understand the world in a deeper, more meaningful way. How Not to Be Wrong will show you how.

Who is the real winner in an argument?


According to Cohen, whoever has their worldview expanded wins in an argument. We should be anxious for this outcome. There’s no reason that needs to be limited to one person. In the ideal situation, everyone in a debate could come out with a greater understanding.


In Kathryn Shulz’s classic, On Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error she points out a related paradox — that while we all know that human beings are fallible, we are unlikely to admit when we ourselves are wrong. “So effectively, we all kind of wind up traveling through life trapped in this little bubble of feeling very right about everything,” says Schulz.


The unwillingness to change our minds is related to a cognitive bias recognized in psychology called the Dunning–Kruger effect wherein people of low ability suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their cognitive ability as greater than it is. As effects go, it’s really my favourite. Officially, the effect holds that those who have very limited skills or knowledge in a certain area tend to overrate their own abilities in that area.


The idea here is that a person needs a level of knowledge, skill or experience in that area before they can gauge how good they are at it.


Ironically, those who are good tend to under-rate their own abilities, because they are keenly aware of how much they don’t know.


More colloquially, the Dunning-Kruger Effect means some people are too stupid to realize just how stupid they are. People aren’t born to argue well. It’s a learned skill with many rules, conventions, and forms like music or painting. People who don’t know how to argue, who don’t understand the opportunity, will seldom persuade anyone of anything or change their mind themselves even when they see clearly they are wrong.


In the 1930’s Bertrand Russell wrote, “The fundamental cause of the trouble in the modern world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” This is surely truer now than ever.


Argument is about being smart enough to doubt such that you can be persuaded by facts. It’s our responsibility as citizens to argue. Canadian author John Ralston Saul says, “The citizen’s job is to be rude – to pierce the comfort of professional intercourse by boorish expressions of doubt.”


What is the goal of an argument?


How do you choose what you want to get out of an argument?


If your goal is to simply dominate another, to force them into doing things your way, to make them agree, you are not in an argument, you are in a fight.


Returning to the basics, the difference between an argument and a fight: an argument, if done well, gets people to agree willingly. We fight to win; we argue to win over.


The number one goal of an argument is to find agreement. Argument is a means to a solution of a problem. In lengthy studies on marriage psychologist John Gottman showed that though all couples quarreled, married couples that argued to solve problems stayed married, couples who fought to attack and dominate, or avoided argument altogether, ended most often in divorce.


Thank You For Arguing

What is argument’s grand prize?

Agreement lends to degrees, subject and type. There can be agreement in mood, mind, and willingness. More than just agreement. More than just compromise. More than just meeting in the middle. The grand prize of argument is consensus.


In his great book THANK YOU FOR ARGUING: What Aristotle, Lincoln, And Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion  Jay Heinrichs offers a modern masterclass in argument that set the bar for argument’s ultimate reward, consensus.


Consensus is a shared faith in a choice. Consensus moves far beyond fighting, agreement, compromise, or even logic itself. Consensus is about emotion and passion.


Power and force never win people over. People dominated by fighting are coiled springs, often vengeful and violent. Even logical argument alone will rarely get people to do or think anything. They have to desire to act. Consensus is the creation of a passionate desire to agree.


When we mistake fighting for argument we often lose sight of the notion that our goal is first and foremost to be right – meaning actually right – even if that means changing our minds, and to persuade the other to genuinely desire agreement because they naturally want to be right too.


Argument is never completely settled. Being right is never completely settled. Changing facts, complexity, and uncertainty mean that what is right today may not be right tomorrow. We need always sit down before the facts with an open mind and let them lead us where they may. In this sense doubt, even doubt of our own first principles is a hallmark of humanity. Adm. HG Rickover, one of the greatest managers of modern history liked to say, “To doubt one’s own first principles is the mark of a civilized person. Don’t defend past actions; what is right today may be wrong tomorrow. Don’t be consistent; consistency is the refuge of fools.” We will always need great arguments and great arguers. Today we need them more than ever but they are in very short supply.


Symbols and the thing Symbolized


The statue came down. Statues are symbols. We get to define their meaning – the thing they symbolize. But when we come to mistake the symbol for the thing symbolized we are fighting with ourselves, with our own intellectual constructions. People fought to get the statue removed. It was a battle. Violence was feared and threatened. The statue itself became a symbol of fighting and violence. The war was in the past. An imagined future riot was anticipated and avoided. The running battle was about blame for past actions and fear.


The argument was never put. Most people never even understood or concerned themselves with what was being fought about. It just wasn’t that interesting. To the vast majority of people on the outside of intellectual circles the stakes, the characters, the meaning of the outcome were not clear. There was no agreement. There was no compromise. There was certainly no consensus. In this broad sense, we did not move toward our stated and shared goal of reconciliation. All that happened was that some people used their power to have a symbol, which they had imbibed with powerful meaning, hidden from view.


If our society is going to become whole a larger majority of the rising generation must return to the books of history, Aristotle and the rest, and learn how to argue. If we don’t; if we continue along with arguing’s poor cousins fussing and fighting, if we are so polite as to regard argument as unseemly, then we will never have a better future. We must learn to argue. We will never be made whole unless we actively learn more about how often we are wrong, how often we are lacking, how often we need to do the human thing and change our minds and the minds of others using logic that loves facts, persuasion, and a passion for the highest form agreement – willing consensus.

And now the statue is gone


CBC’s Marina von Stackelberg says that a municipal staff report last week recommended removing the statue in the name of public safety.


The report stated there could have been attempts during Sunday’s rally to tear down the statue as well as riots and possible violent clashes between protesters.


On the weekend CBC reported that a small group of people played the drums on top of the concrete square Sunday afternoon where the statue of Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis once stood for 87 years.


“It’s very empowering to be here today and to see the statue is removed. It’s very moving that our collective voices are so powerful that we’re able to move mountains and move statues,” said Suzanne Patles, one of the organizers of the rally.


I have no doubt that is true.

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