Books Review

Winning Arguments (Book Review)

My reading notes on a book by Stanley Fish, entitled ‘Winning Arguments”, What works and doesn’t work in politics, the bedroom, the courtroom, and the classroom. 

Argument Is Everything

Arguments consist of words, pictures, gestures and even silence.

Argument exists in almost everything people say, see and do.

Attempt to banish it to achieve peace, “harmony or unity” always fail.

We argue because we are human.

So, we need to embrace the natural state of arguments and try our best to get better at it.

Here are my notes on “Winning Argument”, hope that these are beneficial.

Main points from my reading notes

  • Argument are quite a significant part of life.
  • Argument, not agreement, is humanity’s natural path.
  • We can’t escape it no matter how hard we try, therefore, we might as well learn to master it.
  • Words as we know have immense power. They can maim, hurt, and tear people and nations apart.
  • People naturally will argue, but without resolution, since “old arguments never die; they just get recycled.”
  • Resisting arguing takes monumental and often impossible effort.
  • Since we must argue, becoming better skilled in argument and rhetoric is a logical moves.
  • Argument determines facts not the other way around, especially in politics. As we can see, those who can present their arguments better, would be seen as factual. Therefore, fact checking a politician should be a mainstream event.

Four Categories of Arguments

Arguments come in four categories with varying limits and boundaries:

Those with no rules : We were can say anything

  • Political arguments
  • Domestic arguments

Those which have written rules and boundaries

  • Legal arguments

Those which have unwritten rules but might have firm boundaries

  • Academic arguments

Skilled debaters, writers, orators and artists, for instance usually move arguments beyond the boundaries meant to contain them. And  “Argumentation” exists everywhere and in everything: words, gestures, body language, images, clothes, furniture, and more.

Further details are to be discussed in future posts.

A look into “Political Arguments” and failed manifestos

A look into political arguments and why the manifestos are really good during the campaign trail but not actually doable once the office was won.

Political arguments are usually obvious manipulation which even the audience recognize it, but doesn’t blunt the orator’s message. Even when the members of the audience are experts in the forms and techniques of arguments.

For example . . .

During the US 2016 Presidential election campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump was all over the map, philosophically speaking. However, his apparent incoherence seemed calculated to support his argument that he was different, unscripted; which could be seen as he wanted to show that he was talking “from the heart”, which he saw as being different from veteran politicians. Trump railed against the elite, even though everyone knew and recognized that he in fact are actually was “one of the elite”. But as we can see, it didn’t matter. His audience members heard what they wanted to hear. He seems to be aligned with them perfectly. This my friend, does illustrates that skilled argument can win even against the most staggering odds.

If we look at sound arguments, we could recognized that sound arguments neither shed lights on a question nor obscures it.

Aristotle knew the power of skilled rhetoric and vainly sought to confine arguments to presenting facts. He would have agreed with US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (and others), ” You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

But facts and opinions will blur during arguments, as I sometime accidental put myself in, but we need to be skilled in managing such situation. Skilled argument manufactures the facts and sways people. The only defense is better, much refined skilled arguments.

Arguments, much like history or ‘his-story’ are often what determined the facts, and not likely the other way around, especially in politics. That’s why, even with an unfulfilled manifestos, the same politician might be elected during the next election season. Politicians  usually take a position and then look for “principled arguments” to back it up, not look up the facts and then take a position. That’s why majority of the policies I knew off, are either whimsical or just plainly not well think off. And if we consider certainties, certainties don’t really exist since “truths” are usually emerged only after arguments and debate.  Unless something are measurable, it would be an awfully heavy task to prove a good orator’s wrong. 

Arguments involves persuasion. 

During an argument, we attempt to convince the other parties of the correctness of our position. But the techniques and tactics of argument will change depending on the discussion’s context, our authority and our believability (our expert-nes in the eye of the other parties or simply how much value our opinion carries).

So, getting better at rhetoric and argument requires understanding the context and rules. Example, an academic who borrows a politician’s technique and tactics of argument will face quick ostracism in a university atmosphere.

This is because unlike the normal discourse at a college, in politics, anything goes, without “boundaries” or rules.

“Spin” defines the process of argument. Spin arrives as a “sound bite”, which sums up a position in a few words such as “death tax” and hopes the audience will use it as shorthand for the entire body of opinion on a complex topic. Many people will oblige.

In politics, most people will tend to hold a deep convictions that place them in one camp or another. Entrenched differences rarely produce a winner, and debates continue for decades. Unpredictably though, a singular events may dramatically alter the standoff. 

For example . . . in United States .  .  .

The debate over the Confederate flag raged for years but quickly evaporated in 2015 when a white supremacist shot and killed black parishioners in a Charleston, South Carolina church.

Yet the gun control debate has not reached a tipping point, despite many horrific mass shootings.  And since we touch a bit on these, I would love to highlight the following.

As one of God creation on earth, God Almighty has mandated for us to manage this earth with consideration for life. This command is so clearly stated in the Quran and Prophetic sayings. For example:

“Because of that We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land – it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind.”


 Quran 5:32

This beautiful Quranic verse make it clear of the sanctity of a human life.

Even after an old argument seems closed and its adherents appear “converted,” it can return. 

Know this, no argument can ever truly ends. Take racism and white supremacy as a clear example. 

The civil war didn’t end it. The debate over racial-equality laws lasted decades after civil rights law were passed in the 1950s and 1960s. Even the election and the re-election of a black president didn’t end the racial arguments.

It worth noting that, even as president, Barack Obama faced years of harassment over his citizenship. The spirit of outlawed “poll taxes and literacy tests” permeates recent efforts to make voters have an “identity cards”.

A look into Marriage “Domestic Arguments”

Earlier today, I saw an article entitled, married couple whom fights the most are usually the most in love. Or something of the effect, can’t recall as accurately as I would like to.

But here is what I think of it, nonetheless.

Domestic Arguments
The words and arguments that marriage generates effect people viscerally. The first couple, Adam & Eve, is said to argued over her independence (is not what I believed of course). When Eve suggested that the two work apart to get more done, Adam thought she was “tired of him”.

Eve response to his hurt feelings was to claim hurt feelings of her own. She takes his arguing that she’d be safer with him by her side as an insult to her strength and ability to look after herself.

And to make matter worse, their argument only intensifies after the two eat the forbidden fruits; Adam blames Eve for leading him astray. As in any marriage, the argument goes on. No one wins, and it never actually ends.

*Note: This is not as per my believe of how the story of Adam and Eve goes, but, it a good parable for the context of domestic arguments.
Couples estranged by years of argument sometimes try to understand what led to the demise of their relationship and seek to fix it, but that brings its own dangers. People can’t determine the origins of the disagreement because arguments have no official beginning.

They start in the course of normal conversation and escalate, seemingly most of the time are out of nowhere. The person who set off the argument often has no idea what he or she said or did to inflame the other person.

Spouse literally don’t hear each other. Other arguments last years or decades because most of the time, partners try to change each other which in itself are almost impossible task.

Marital arguments, like political ones, simply can’t be won. Marriage manuals acknowledge this and advise partners not to engage in the first place.

So, what to do?
Instead of pressing our position, stop, hug our spouse, offer a gift and make dinner, and just let it go. Listen carefully to what our spouse says; try to understand the disagreement from his or her perspective.

Resist the temptation to respond with our “first thoughts.”.

Repeat what your partner said, say it “make sense” and give an example to show you understand. Offering disarming empathy creates a “safe space” for discussion. Restraining and measuring our words all the time is impossible.

Even if we read every marriage manual, we’ll probably relapse when a crisis occurs. Gradually, the time between our bad reactions will extend as we learn to suppress our instincts.

Just don’t expect this resolve to hold our impulses at bay forever. Forever is a very long time.

“Legal Arguments”, What’s about it?

While political and marital arguments have no bounds except those that combatants place on themselves, legal arguments have formal, structure rules.

For example . . .

Rules of evidence forbid lawyers to use arguments based on prior convictions or charges against the accused. In the normal practice of law, a “fiction” emerges in which relevant information doesn’t reach the jury member’s ears, so they can remain impartial.

Arguments don’t really occur in law or at least they’re not actually supposed to. Lawyers use argument to bring out the evidence according to the rules that applicable in court.

In the “adversary system” of law, each party presents evidence in a light that’s most favorable to its case. The judge or jury decides which set of evidence carries the most weight. Even in “closing” arguments, attorneys follow procedural rules and restrict themselves to arguments based on the evidence from the trial.

Remember this well
Good argument can demolish the rules. The first amendment allows Americans to “say whatever they like”, but not to do whatever they want. Yet saying and doing intertwine.

For example . . .

Effective lawyers can turn an act of defiance, like “burning the American flag,” into a form of free speech such as a protest.

Other lawyers have argued that pornography shouldn’t fall within First Amendment protections of free speech because it constitutes an act against women. Lawyers use the bounds of legal arguments to their clients’ advantage.

Their knowledge of rules and context make attorneys essential to success in the fictionalized setting of a courtroom. Even contracts, which seem final once all stakeholders sign off on their content, don’t stand up if a judge deems that they fail to “honor the intentions” of the parties.

This exposes a fiction in the complex world of legal arguments: Written words, agreed to and signed, are actually not a guarantee if a judge deems otherwise.

This signifies to the power, “malleability” and infinite interpretability of words.

“Academic Arguments” and its strict boundaries

hile anything goes in political and marital arguments, academic arguments, like legal ones, occur within strict boundaries. Academics have few documented rules to guide them; their strictures are mostly unspoken.

Academic arguments earn praise for their “originality,” and academic lose stature even jobs when they commit plagiarism.

But who determines originality?
Everyone builds on the work of others. And this I believe also inclusive of those who advocate for universally sharing and owning knowledge want credit for their thought and their originality. In academia, nothing exceeds originality in value; it shapes the rules of academic arguments.

Where did the Academic Argument came from?
Academic arguments don’t come out of nowhere. We join an old argument every time we engage in a debate. At best, most academic arguments bring a new perspective to an old argument.

The rules demand that we ground our new interpretations in evidence. In a court of law, a judge can deem certain evidence as “inadmissible,” such as arguments that break the rules.

That doesn’t happen in academia. Students take hard personal and partisan positions in their papers and dissertation, and professors sometimes teach their personal political views. Happened to me in my university years. Increasingly, the bounded argument space of academia is opening to near unbounded argument.

For example . . .

As we want to argue that the Holocaust didn’t happen, for example, the rules overwhelm the discourse as being built on falsity and the argument goes nowhere. Even on less contentious matters, unless we have a professorship and acknowledged expertise (degree of our believability), our arguments won’t get a serious hearing.

As in the courtroom and other venues where bounded argument prevails, expertise always wins. If scientific consensus supports evolution, for example, proponents of “intelligent design” can find no place in most classrooms or peer-reviewed journals.

Academic arguments don’t get things done; they shape thinking. This separation from direct action distinguishes academic argument from political, marital and legal arguments.

Academic arguments occur for their own sake. And most academicians knows the rules and rarely stray.

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