Do We Need New Metaphors for Argument?

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One of the delights of reading is when you come across an insight that feels like that missing puzzle piece you have been searching for. In this case, I was reading Richard Hughes Gibson and James Edward Beitler III’s new book, Charitable Writing. Gibson and Beitler teach together in a writing program and are writing as Christians thinking about how Christian virtues, like humility and charity ought shape how one writes, and how one teaches writing. One of the obstacles this aspiration bumps up against is that writing is often about making an argument. It can be as simple as who has the better team, Alabama or Ohio State?

The challenge is that arguments often descend into rancor, and many of us shy away from argument, even when we have a significant disagreement with some. We’ve seen this end badly, whether on Facebook where stock clichés and one line repartee substitutes for real conversation, or when shouting matches and physical violence jeopardize the safety as well as the future of a marriage. Arguments split churches and undermine business partnerships.

Gibson and Beitler observe, drawing on the research of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By, that our basic framework of argument is war. They offer these examples:

  • Your claims are indefensible.
  • He attacked every weak point in my argument.
  • His criticisms are right on target.
  • I demolished his argument.
  • I’ve never won an argument with him.
  • You disagree! Okay, shoot!
  • If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
  • He shot down all of my arguments.

The way we think about argument shapes the way we think of the person with whom we argue. We consider them as enemies or opponents or adversaries. They may be colleagues, classmates, fellow citizens, business associates, part of our religious community, or even family members. But the “war” framework turns them into enemies.

Lakoff and Johnson (and Gibson and Beitler following them) propose that we need different metaphors. Some of these include dance, cooking, barn-raisings, joining pieces of wood into furniture, and conversation. I like the idea of performing a musical composition. Compositions have a variety of instrumental and/or voice parts. They don’t all sound the same. Musical pieces often involve parts where a tension is developed, and then resolved. Most of the time we like to sing in harmony, but dissonance has its place. It wakes us up, and often the resolution takes us to a new place.

What all these have in common is that everything or everyone is needed. Applied to argument, that means both, or all the parties to an argument are needed. In fact, in many situations, they have common interests and goals, but different ideas of how to get there. In a war metaphor, where someone wins and someone loses, what is really lost or diminished is the overall capacity to reach a common goal–whether it is a flourishing marriage or a flourishing nation. Just as all the instruments or parts are necessary to achieve the composer’s intention, we need each other in an argument. All the ingredients are needed for a good bowl of chili. The whole community is needed for an Amish barn-raising with some doing carpentry, some roofing, and some cooking!

This does not mean we should not believe in our own arguments or seek to persuade others of them. But in a good argument, one must hear and answer what the argument of the other. Where someone differs, if we do not understand why they differ, we cannot address the difference. In good arguments, we sometimes discover considerations left out in our own arguments. Sometimes, understanding differences makes the resolution better than what either of us has proposed because we’ve been forced to think about how is this good for all of us, for our shared interest, and not simply our personal interest. Good arguments refine our thinking (another metaphor), getting rid of the unneeded to focus on what is pure gold.

Whenever you have two or more people together in a room or an enterprise, you are going to have an argument sooner or later. Will it be a war with wounded or even dead (hopefully only metaphorically, although even this is bad)? Or will it be like a group learning to make music with each other? When you first “read” through a choral piece together, the result is often not pretty. The beauty and power of the piece are not apparent. Entrances are late or tentative, wrong notes are sung, rhythms are out of sync, some sing too loud or soft. It comes together both when each does their own work of practice and all follow the director, keep time, and not sing so loudly that you can’t hear the others in your section, let alone other parts.

And so it is with argument. Often it is the power of “and.” Adversarial arguments are framed as either/or, win-lose. In dramatic improv, the basic rule is that when one makes a statement, the other actor’s response is, “Yes, and…” and so it goes. Reaching the point of singing a piece as it was meant to be, where all the parts are working together can be exhilarating. So it is with a good argument, when the sum of our ideas are better than what either could come up with alone, where each of us refines the thinking of the other.

Our metaphors matter. I’d rather make music, dance, cook, and build than make war. How about you?

5 thoughts on “Do We Need New Metaphors for Argument?

  1. Very helpful…thanks Bob! Last night we watched a video of performances of Bach’s 6 Brandenberg Concertos, so the connection with making music has special meaning. One of the beauties was seeing the individual expressions that included not only the beauty of the sounds coming from musical instruments played with incredible skill, but also the physical movements of the players (who “incidentally” were a mix of white, black and Asian men and women of different ages) as their bodies moved expressively and their faces often revealed delight in what was going on. I wondered what had gone on in the rehearsals as these very different people worked to resolve differences that must exist in such a diverse and committed group.

  2. Perhaps use a dead language from antiquity?
    Argumentum ad hominum/feminam
    Argument against (attacking) the person, not about the issue.
    The irony of etymology:
    English: argument
    from
    Latin: argumentum, meaning
    proof, evidence

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