Articles, Miscellaneous

How to Win a Political Argument

Presented by the Marianopolis Debate Society

You and a friend find yourselves in a debate about an issue in the news. You truly believe you have a stronger case, but you can’t seem to communicate it in a compelling way. We’ve all been there; at the Marianopolis Debate Society, students participate in formal debates on a range of exciting topics, and many of the skills learned in this arena are applicable in everyday discussions. Below are the tricks you should use to gain the upper hand in an argument:

  1. DEVELOP YOUR POINT: Simply stating your argument is not enough. At the Debate Society, we encourage the following format: statement, analysis, link, example (or SALE for short). Begin by stating your reason (e.g. renewable energy creates jobs); then, expand on your point with analysis (explain logically how manufacturing solar panels requires high-skilled workers, while building and maintaining hydroelectric barriers is a significant source of jobs); link this to an example (cite a precedent for where renewable energy has caused job growth, like in Germany). Remember: your example, whether it be a statistic or an anecdote, is not a substitute for a clear logical argument.
  2. REFUTE YOUR OPPONENT: In professional debating, a good debate has what is called “clash”; both sides are directly addressing each others’ arguments – it’s what differentiates a debate from two public speeches. Listen intently to what your opponent is saying and look for ways to counter it. There are 4 main ways to refute a point: a) show that there is a logical or factual flaw; b) point out that their position is hypocritical based on a different belief they have; c) demonstrate that while true, their argument is irrelevent to the debate at hand; or d) accept that the point is valid, but argue that the impact is less important than your point. In any situation, one of these 4 tricks will be applicable, and you can emerge with your argument intact and theirs in tatters. The best thing to do is to anticipate common arguments that might be brought up so that you already know how to resond to them. Indeed, this is one of the skills we focus on at the Debate Society’s Opening of the House workshop.
  3. ADAPT YOUR RHETORIC TO THEIR VALUES: This is a really important point. If you are a liberal, you will think of an issue in terms of liberal values. However, to convince a conservative, you need to use arguments that are founded in conservative values, and vice-versa. For example, if you are a liberal defending environmenta protection, explain it in terms of natural purity and working-class economics. Convsersely, if you are a conservative defending military spending, explain it in terms of the need to protect the vulnerable and expand human rights.
  4. FOCUS THE DEBATE: Whenever a conversation gets heated, one of the best things to do is to remind everyone where they stand. Simply say, “Here is where we agree…, and here is the point where we begin to disagree…” The debate should focus on that particular point, since all other disagreeements are consequences of that fork in the road. For example, if you are debating the merits of Obamacare, the initial hurdle you need to surmount is whether both parties agree that healthcare is a right. A common tactic that people will try to use is to shift the focus of the debate to an area that they are more comfortable with. This may involve making strange parallels or accusations. Do not address these; simply remind your opponent what the debate is about and return to arguing the crux of the issue.
  5. AVOID SLIPPERY SLOPES AND RIGHTS ARGUMENTS: Slippery slopes are where you say that changing something is bad because it will lead to changing other things. For example, a common argument against gay marriage is that soon, we’ll legalize polygamy and bestiality. However, most slippery slope arguments come off as desperate: it is far better to argue why the issue at hand is important, rather than the future impact on issues only tangentially related. In a similar way, we often defer to notions of rights – “privacy rights,” “body rights” and “freedom of speech,” to name a few. While these may hold compelling arguments within them, it is not enough to simply state them. Often, rights are in conflict with each other (for example, government surveillance places security against privacy). Explain in human terms why having this particular right is important, or more important than the alternative argument.
  6. DON’T GET FRUSTRATED: Stay calm. Sometimes, the person you are debating is so entrenched in their position that there is nothing you can do. Other times, you hold the upper hand initially, then falter later on. Look at each situation as a teachable moment: What were the points that made the deepest mark? Where did you weaken your argument? By looking back from an analytical perspective, you can avoid the same mistakes when the topic inevitably comes up with someone else.

And there you have it! Those are basic tips to win a political argument. If you enjoy debating, join the Debate Society – you’ll get to debate political, social, and moral issues in practices and tournaments, and even some crazy and fun topics like Harry Potter and alien invasions. To try it out and meet cool people, sign up below for the Opening of the House Workshop on Monday, September 11 or visit the Debate Society’s booth at Join-a-Club-Day.

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