For many, the words argument or argue convey a conversation marked by negative emotions such as anger - often used synonymous with contention, bickering, hostility and unhealthy conflict (“why can’t people stop arguing?!?”) There is another sense of these terms within healthy deliberation, however, wherein parties to an exchange bring forth different, strong arguments in the service of finding a way forward together.
These nearly opposing meanings of the word can lead to confusion. For example, John might say, “I would like to argue that this policy is sound,” meaning that he would like present a rational position. Jack might reply, “I don’t want to argue with you, but I’m going to have to disagree.” Jack’s reluctance to use the term “argument” might lead John to believe that Jack hasno legitimate argument (that is, no case) to make, possibly because Jack has not thought through his position well enough.
These conflicting meanings of the word also influence how people view discussion among people who disagree. If an argument must always involve destructive emotional conflict (put-downs, one-upping, bad-mouthing, ad hominem attacks, and so on), an argument is a sign of an unhealthy society. However, if an argument is a reasonable contribution to a calm discussion - that is, if an argument can be constructive and even productive - an argument is a sign of a healthy society.
- How do you habitually use the word “argument”? What do you think would happen if you started to use it in a different way? How would it change your conversations?
- Think about the last time you had a difference with someone. To what extent did your conversation meet any or all of the definitions of “argument” presented here? What would have happened if it had been a different type of argument?
- Do you know someone who seems to use the word “argument” differently than you do? What would happen if you switched meanings? What would your conversations be like then?