Do We Need New Metaphors for Argument?

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on

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?

“America is Addicted to Wars of Distraction”

Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich, by David Shankbone [CC BY-SA 2.5] via Wikipedia

Barbara Ehrenreich, a writer who has described herself as “a myth buster by trade,” made this observation in the Times of London on April 22, 1991. I don’t know the context of the quote, although this comes toward the end of the first Gulf War. Whether Ehrenreich (of whom I’ve not always been a fan) is referring to America’s actual wars or some of the metaphorical wars of political discourse, I wonder if she has a point.

I wonder if so many of the conflicts on our political landscape, whether intentional or not, are distractions from larger issues, ones that, if true, are really uncomfortable to face. Perhaps the biggest of these is the future of life on the only place we really have to live. It seems to me that it would be like arguing about the size of the iceberg if you are a passenger on the sinking Titanic.

Every year seems to be the record hottest for the planet. Cities like New York, Washington, DC, Miami and our naval base at Norfolk could be the new Venices. Summer temperatures in some parts of the world inhabited by millions are reaching levels that pose significant dangers to human life. Often, the populations most affected by the changes that have already happened or that will happen are the least equipped to handle them. There have already been massive species die-offs. Are we being presumptuous to think we are exempt? It may be more comforting to us to keep fighting about all this, calling each other tree huggers and climate deniers.

I could go on. I cannot help notice that there are deep flaws in a society where life expectancies are declining, where deaths from suicide are on the rise, where we have more than one “mass shooting” incident a day, where large swaths of our population are wrestling with substance addictions. Are we concerned with the disparities of health outcomes that depend on zipcodes, and that life and death (or bankruptcy) often depends on the health coverage one has, something that could change with a merger or a layoff.

It’s not that people aren’t talking about these things. They are. They tend to be fighting about them. It seems to me that often fighting is like turning up the car radio when the car starts making unusual noises we haven’t heard before. All our political arguments seem like distractions that mask or divert our attention from the ominous noises our society, and our planet are making.

I disagree with Ehrenreich in one important regard. Creating “wars of distraction” is a human rather than American thing. We all do it to avoid facing unpleasant things. The problem is that distractions can kill if they are ignored long enough. On the other hand, silencing the distractions and paying attention to the big scary thing that seems insurmountable is actually empowering. Getting to the hospital at the first sign of a heart attack can save one’s life, and subsequent lifestyle changes may extend it.

Instead of the arguments that distract us from big hairy problems in our world, perhaps it is time to stop arguing. We may not know what to do (or we may have some notions). What if we shut up long enough to really pay attention to why our life expectancy in the US has been going down. What if we paid attention to gun violence long enough to wonder why so many mostly young men in good health are choosing to end their own as well as a number of other lives, which is often the way these things conclude.

If you notice, I’ve said nothing about political party proposals or government solutions. Right now everyone is talking past each other, mostly distracted from the realities they are arguing about. What if we started paying attention to what is happening in the world instead of fighting about it? What if we started taking personal steps on the basis of what we see? I suspect we all might notice things that have been hidden in the arguments of others. We might conclude that things are urgent enough to start listening to each other and stop fighting. I just hope it is soon enough.

If you are tempted to argue about climate change, or gun violence, or other realities I mention in this post, you’ve not understood the point of the post, which is that our arguments often distract from the things we are arguing about. I will take down argumentative comments in the interest of promoting paying attention to the things we have been arguing about and considering what personal action we might take.

Do We Need to Fight Over Books?


Image by RyanMcGuire via Pixabay

A couple of interesting things came across my screen today that suggest that even book lovers may act in very unlovely ways toward each other. One was an article on Literary Hub titled “Chuck Wendig on the Time He Enraged a Bunch of Tolkienites.” It seems that the author committed the unforgiveable sin of admitting on Twitter that he just could get through The Lord of the Rings. He learned that you don’t question this holy trilogy of books. Angry Tolkienites even made YouTube videos in response. I read that and thought, “These people need to get a life!”

Now I am a fan of LOTR, having read the books five or so times over the course of my life. But I have many friends like Wendig–and we are still friends! A friend of mine saw this story and commented, “I just don’t understand people’s rage against someone who likes different books, movies, etc than they do.” Truth is, I don’t either. This is like getting into a spat over what flavor of ice cream is best. It seems to me far more fun to celebrate how good ice cream is in all its flavors.

It seems to me that it ought to be that way among lovers of books. I’ve hosted a Facebook page over the past year liked by over 2000 lovers of books. I like the thought both that there are so many like me who delight in this wonderful gift of what we find between the covers of a book (or on our e-reader) but also how different we all are. As I write, people have been responding to a question I posted on how they organize their books. It is fun to see the differences between those who have highly organized systems and those who say, “organize?” I’ve enjoyed times when people could disagree without becoming disagreeable, and discover different perspectives. For example, a recent discussion explored whether you could help a reading averse college grad to come to love reading. There were those who said “impossible,” those who suggested ideas from their own experience, and a few who said, “I was once one of those people and now I love books.”

That brings me to the other thing that crossed my screen. I’m in another Facebook book group, and saw a post from an admin who apologized for an individual who was bullying others in the group, and informed everyone that the individual had been “blocked.” I’d seen similar messages elsewhere on Facebook, but never in a book group. I did not see the offending posts so have no idea what was said, but I guess people can be trolls, or at least very obnoxious, anywhere. I appreciate admins like this one who act promptly to keep pages or groups from going toxic.

It is ironic, and frankly puzzling to me, that there are people who love reading, but haven’t had their minds opened enough by their reading to discover that people see the world differently, have good reasons for doing so, and that people like different things. I suspect it has to do with wounds in other parts of their lives that take more than books to heal. Sometimes it is the case that “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1, NIV). Sometimes all you can do is block continued abusiveness online, and celebrate all the others who enjoy the common love of books, and all the different ways we love them. That’s actually pretty good, and often, pretty good is good enough.