Opinion | How to Argue Well

Once you’ve decided to argue, Seo says, know what it is you’re arguing about. To begin, determine the fact, judgment or prescription that you would like someone else to accept. Let’s say it’s “Jen is a team player.” In order to make that claim, add the word “because” and give your reason (“because she involves everyone in the department”). From there, you offer substantiation and evidence to back it up. (“She always goes around the room.” “She checks in with her crew weekly.”) That’s making your case.

Importantly, showing how someone else is wrong isn’t the same thing as being correct yourself. In debate, tearing down the other team doesn’t necessarily prove your team is in the right, nor is it likely to persuade anyone who didn’t agree with you in the first place. “No amount of no is going to get you to yes,” one of Seo’s coaches once told him.

Finally, never let a bully dictate the terms of debate. If faced with a brawler — someone whose aim is, as Seo puts it, “not to persuade but to silence, marginalize and break the will of their opponents” — your only hope is to restore the structure of the debate. In other words, see above.

Some say competitive debate is a flawed model for healthy discourse, whether for domestic disputes or political disagreements. In an essay in The Dublin Review, the novelist Sally Rooney, a former champion debater, characterized formal debate as overly aggressive and possibly immoral. “For the purposes of this game, the emotional or relational aspects of argument are superfluous,” she wrote. The novelist Ben Lerner, who also spent years as a debater, an experience he drew from in his 2019 novel, “The Topeka School,” told me he had to unlearn the idea “that every conversation ended with a winner and a loser.”

Whatever the shortcomings of school debate, our prevailing models for arguing — cable news and courtrooms — certainly don’t offer much hope. As Mark Oppenheimer, a former religion reporter for The Times and the author of a memoir about debate, told The New Yorker in 2010, “the sound-bite culture has ruined it all.” And that was 12 long years ago.

But Seo thinks we idealize a past of civil disagreement. “Those were times when people weren’t able to speak,” he told me recently. “The disagreements were there; they just weren’t visible. What we’re doing right now is unprecedented, which is to allow a diversity of people to speak.” Avoiding difficult conversations, he says, can “shade into contempt and otherness.”

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