The Argument

Before you commit your argument to words, have you considered your audience? Have you established their positions, their innermost desires and fears, their outlook on the world and the situation in question? If you argue about the specifics, your words will be lost, or worse, will entrench the other side. If you form the argument in the way that both, presents the negative aspect of your subject as something dangerous to their core needs, and your solution as beneficial to them, you will have a chance of getting the attention of their ears and enticing them over to your side.

The outward expression of any political stance, of whatever color or nature, is that of presenting a case for a government structure that is most beneficial to its people (beneficial as defined by them). But that is only the outward argument, a shell over its true core. The true argument is that for a government structure that benefits them in particular, that is, a setup that transforms their current situation into something they deem better. Your argument must bypass the outward shell and focus on the core – that is, you must discover what it is that constitutes a “better” life for them and how they believe their proposed changes would enact such a life. Their core outlook is reflected in all conversations, from petty trivia to fundamental questions, shaping their positions on every issue.

If their argument rings true, then there is nothing to argue about, but if there are flaws, then they must be presented in a manner that addresses your audience’s self interest – that is, you must accept their proposition of what constitutes the good life but challenge their assumption of the best way to achieve it, pointing out flaws in their current thinking and presenting a better alternative. Since the way you present your argument works in their best interests, rather than challenging them at the shell, they will listen to you. If they do not, it is either because you are not addressing their self interest, or because your suggestion is less sound than their current alternative.

Almost all political, philosophical and religions conversations involve reactions to issues with both parties defending their own interests, each making the mistake of assuming the interests of their audience mirror their own, or that the audience holds the same background knowledge as them. Since this is rarely the case, the result is a heated struggle between two opposing power centers, each trying to assert its dominion over the other. Such attempts to convince the other party make the situation worse by leaving them more entrenched than they were at the beginning of the argument.

As Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War: “The principle governing contested terrain1 is that if you let the enemy have it, you can get it, but if you try to get it, you will lose it.” This may sound counterintuitive but what happens is that the general focuses on the enemy instead of the terrain, creating his own advantage rather than chasing after one. If the enemy wants the ground, you let them have it. You feign a loud retreat while setting up your best troops in ambush. When the enemy takes the bait and leaves their position, you turn your troops around and strike.

You cannot win an argument by forcing your point, as if brute strength could somehow topple the opposing belief. You win the argument when your audience accepts your proposition by letting go of their previous position. A sense of doubt and uncertainty will weaken their ground, will make it less desirable to hold, while a sense of clarity and soundness of your position will make it more attractive for them to switch to. But logic alone won’t create enough incentive for them to move, only a strong link to their self interest will do that, a clear sense of the benefit they will derive from their new ground. You cannot force your opponent off their terrain, but you can make them abandon it through their own choice.

Look at how Socrates structured his dialogue. The Socratic method takes the form of questions rather than propositions. When Socrates tries to establish an idea he does not begin by proposing his hypothesis, but rather, he begins by asking leading questions that, firstly, work to dismantle any original assumptions his audience may have, and afterwards, lead that audience towards his desired goal. The form of the dialogue thus makes it appear that Socrates is on your side all the way through, that he is merely asking questions and trying, together with your help, to obtain the answers. By asking the questions, he forces the audience to lead the way themselves. Whether or not Socrates has an original position that he is trying to push for is irrelevant – the dialogue leads the audience along a route defined by him.

Machiavelli’s The Prince takes a different approach by piercing straight through to what the reader really wants. However much the audience works to surround themselves with an aura of ethical decorum, it is power that they really want, and Machiavelli’s writing gives it to them directly, without dressing it up with false gestures and pretenses. Whether or not Machiavelli’s writing is satire is irrelevant – the direct tone works to penetrate through to what the readers desires, and is thus effective at getting them to listen to what he has to say.

As a rule, do not challenge anyone’s political, philosophical or religious beliefs unless you are prepared to structure your argument in a way that will help your audience satisfy their core interests. Either address an audience that is ready and willing to hear you out, or address the audience you have in such a way that will entice them to hear you out – and if you cannot meet either of these requirements then don’t waste your time. Do not try to force your audience off their ground by telling them how bad it is (insulting their judgement in the process), instead, entice them to abandon it through their own choice by making the benefits of your ground appear irresistible.


  1. Contested terrain is ground that gives you or the enemy advantage if you hold it.
Published June 2013

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