Whenever you get into an argument, whether you’re discussing politics with a colleague or the distribution of chores with your spouse, you likely feel like you’re floundering. You feel worked up, but you don’t feel like you’re getting your point across, much less convincing the other person of it, and the conversation simply goes in circles. You can feel like a rank amateur at arguing.
Maybe what you need are some pro tips from someone who’s spent his life arguing competitively. Enter my guest: Bo Seo. Bo is a two-time world champion debater, a former coach of the Australian national debating team and the Harvard College Debating Union, and the author of Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard. Today on the show, Bo and I discuss why learning the art of rhetoric and debate was once an integral part of education in the West, why the subject disappeared from schools, and the loss this has represented for society. We then turn to the lessons Bo’s taken from his debating career that you can apply to your own everyday arguments, whether big or small. Bo explains why it’s important to establish what an argument is really about before you start into it, and shares a rubric for homing in on which of three types of disagreements may be at the core of a conflict. He then explains two things a strong argument has to do, and four questions to ask yourself to see if you’ve met these requirements. Bo also unpacks his three P’s for creating persuasive rhetoric and how to effectively rebut someone else’s claims. We end our conversation with how to determine when it’s worth getting into a particular argument and when it’s better to walk away.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- AoM series on Rhetoric 101
- The Winston Churchill Guide to Public Speaking
- The Art of Rhetoric by Aristotle
- AoM Podcast #639: Why You Should Learn the Lost Art of Rhetoric
- AoM Podcast #799: Getting Along Is Overrated
Connect With Bo Seo
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Listen ad-free on Stitcher Premium; get a free month when you use code “manliness” at checkout.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Whenever you get into an argument, whether you’re discussing politics with a colleague or the distribution of chores with your spouse, you likely feel like you’re floundering. You feel worked up, or you don’t feel like you are getting your point across, much less convincing the other person of it, and the conversation simply goes in circles. You can feel like a rank amateur arguing. Maybe what you need are some pro tips from someone who spent his life arguing competitively. Enter my guest, Bo Seo. Bo is a two-time world champion debater, a former coach of the Australian national debating team and the Harvard College Debating Union and the author of Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard.
Today on the show, Bo and I discussed why learning the art of rhetoric and debate was once an integral part of education in the West, why the subject disappeared from schools, and the loss this has represented for society. We then turn to the lessons Bo’s taken from his debating career that you can apply to your own everyday arguments, whether big or small. Bo explains why it’s important to establish what an argument is really about before you start into it, and shares a rubric for homing in on which of the three types of disagreements may be at the core of a conflict. He then explains two things that a strong argument has to do, and four questions to ask yourself to see if you’ve met these requirements. Bo also unpacks his three P’s for creating persuasive rhetoric and how to effectively rebut someone else’s claims. We end our conversation with how to determine whether it’s worth getting into a particular argument and when it’s better to walk away. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/argument.
Bo Seo, welcome to the show.
Bo Seo: Good day, Brett. Thanks so much for having me on.
Brett McKay: So you are a two-time world champion debater. You also served as the debate coach for the Australian national team, and you got a new book out called Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard. Now, I think a lot of people listening to this podcast, they probably had a debate team at their high school, and they might have had a friend or two that was on the debate team, but they probably haven’t seen a competitive debate in action. So for those of us who don’t know what this is like, walk us through. What is a competitive debate like? Because the way you described it in the book, it sounds really intense. So like, what’s involved? How long do they last? How do you keep score? Give us the… Introduce us to the world of competitive debate.
Bo Seo: Sounds good. And I do think it’s a good thing for people to know because otherwise you have these kids in ill-fitting suits in your high school, walking around looking very serious and you don’t know what they’re up to. A debate round is pretty simple, really. It’s between two sides, and on each side, there’s a team between one to three people depending on the format of the debate, and one side argues in favor of the topic, the other side argues against them. So if the topic is that we should introduce an inheritance tax, one team is saying, yes, we should, the other is arguing against, and it goes from the affirmative to the negative, affirmative, negative, affirmative, negative until all the speakers have spoken, and an independent adjudicator who is watching them comes to a decision about which team was more persuasive.
And so depending on the format of the debate, you either have some period of time, a couple of weeks to… One week or a few days to prepare for the topic, in other formats, you get between 15 minutes to an hour, and the debate itself takes about an hour as well, and then you get the adjudication. So it takes on average probably two hours to do a debate round, and in a debate competition, in a typical tournament, you would have two to three of those per day, and you would do that probably for a week end, and at some point, it will get to a knockout stage until one team in the competition is named the winner.
Brett McKay: Okay. So that’s… And so one question I had. I had a friend in debate, and I always saw him carrying that tub of… [laughter] Is that just like the prep meal, like the prep materials, is that what that was?
Bo Seo: Yeah, it is, it is. And so that’s the format of debate where you get to do advanced preparation, and it’s usually articles that they’ve flagged or bits of research, and they’re big tubs, aren’t they?
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Bo Seo: And people are called two-tubber or three-tubber based on how many tubs they’ve got carrying around, and it becomes a bit of an arms race at that point of who can do more research and come up with more stuff.
Brett McKay: And when the adjudicator is determining who’s more persuasive, what factors are they looking at?
Bo Seo: They are asked to consider three things for the most part. The first is manner, the way in which someone presents the material. The matter, which is the arguments and the evidence that they present, so it’s what they say. And method or strategy, which is usually how they respond to the other side and how they prioritize arguments, so it’s more about the overall strategy they employ in the debate. So those are the three main factors they consider: Manner, method and matter. But in the end, for the ultimate decision, they have to just consult their conscience on one question only which is, which of the two sides persuaded them.
Brett McKay: And what’s interesting, you’re from Australia, and this seems like debates are really… It’s a big thing down there. And also, if you look at throughout all of countries that derive from the United Kingdom, so we got the Commonwealth countries, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, and then even countries that were part of the British Empire, America, debate, that used to be a… Competitive debate, it played an integral part of the education in 18th and in the 19th centuries. What was going on there? Why did schools have young people debate each other? What was the purpose of that?
Bo Seo: Yeah, I love that, Brett. There’s an older origin story here, which stretches back to antiquity actually, and the ancient Greeks had an idea that to be a citizen meant to possess the skills of persuasion, of being able to talk to your fellow citizens and to make your case in front of them, and that this was integral to self-governance, which is what democracy really is. And there are eastern counterparts, and obviously the Talmudic tradition is really rich in debate, and that’s a different kind of a heritage. So it is a kind of a long history and one that is common across a lot of different cultures. The more immediate background for the kind of debate I was engaged in, as you know, comes from the UK. And I think this is actually a misconception about debate, that it comes out only out of the chambers of Parliament, but in fact, where the kind of competitive debate I was engaged in comes from is next to the Parliament. There were pubs and coffee houses where people would mimic some of the structures of parliamentary debate and take what was on the agenda and have these kind of raucous, public discussions about the issues of the day.
And so there is a kind of a real grass roots, communal, fun, rambunctious kind of tradition that it grows out of. And the way it came to this country, the United States, is the founding fathers were themselves debaters, they often started the first debating societies at the university level in the United States. And one of the things that struck me when I came to the US for college and I went to Philly, is that the place that’s credited as the birthplace of this nation, which is Independence Hall, isn’t like the seat of a monarch or even a battlefield or a shrine to a deity, it’s a debating chamber. And for much of the early years of this republic and of many parliamentary democracies around the world, it was a feature of the school system that you would learn rhetoric, and that as part of a well-rounded education, you would engage and… They had different names like disputation and debates, but they were essentially opportunities to argue your case before an audience, before an opponent whose task it was to disagree with you and to handle yourself in that kind of exchange.
Brett McKay: And when did that started to go away, ’cause I didn’t take debate in high school. Debate was like an elective. It’s like an extra-curricular activity. When did it stop being a required part of education?
Bo Seo: Yeah, that’s a good question. It came… I think I charted in the book to sort of the rise of the written writing requirement at universities, and this was in the 1800s, and there were probably lots of different reasons for it, one of it was the universities themselves becoming much larger, there being this trend towards standardization in the education system. There might have been an impulse to take politics away from the education system too, and the idea of learning being kind of less political, a little bit more pure skills-based, being able to apply across lots of different contexts, so for some of these reasons, the practice of speech-making and of argument kind of declined over time, and I think maybe the other reason for it is there’s always been a kind of a suspicion of rhetoric. And for as long as there is being arguments in favor of it, there has been opposition to it. And I think probably a number of different factors converged that made the argument against rhetoric went out, so that nowadays, when we talk about rhetoric, we kind of mean it in a pejorative sense.
Brett McKay: And what do you think have been the consequences of the decline of rhetoric in America and other Western countries?
Bo Seo: That’s a big question. One of the things that I’m very interested in with the book is what I perceived to be the loss of a shared set of skills that we used to possess, and that’s the skill of making an argument for yourself, but also being able to discern it when it’s presented by other people. And I think the consequence of that has been that, first of all, many people don’t feel like they’re communicating in a way that’s getting through to people, and on the receiving end, I think we’ve become less sensitive to what we would have then understood as manipulations of rhetoric, being able to discern good arguments from bad arguments, and the atrophying of that skill set, both of expression on one hand, but also being able to discern and listen and critically judge, I think that the consequence of those two things has been a kind of a degradation of the quality of our public conversation.
Brett McKay: Yeah, without those shared skills, I think people would resort to just yelling at each other as well.
Bo Seo: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Well, let’s talk about how we can revise some of these skills. So in your book, you lay out, you extract lessons from your career in competitive debate. This goes all the way back when you were in middle school. You extract these lessons that can be applied to everyday disagreements that we have, and even the big disagreements we have, and the first lesson from competitive debate that we can all take is to figure out what the debate is actually about. And this is actually harder than you think it would be, you think it’d be easy, when you’re yelling at someone, you know what you’re yelling about, but typically most people aren’t very good at sticking to a topic, rather you say that people have a tendency to talk topically than sticking to the topic. What do you mean by talking topically?
Bo Seo: Yeah, I love that. So we’re talking about climate change, and you make some point about needing to take greater action on it, and I say, But you drive a Hummer [chuckle] And both are kind of topics, both comments related generally to environmental issues, I guess, but there’s not really any real sense in which those two claims are talking to one another. And you see this a lot in discussions, where there’s an attempt by both sides to rest the debate onto more favorable terrain. And you can’t, I guess, begrudge people for wanting to eke out an advantage that way, but the consequence is that you don’t end up meeting on shared ground at all. And so one of the first insights that I start the book with is that every disagreement has to begin with an act of agreement, and that is an agreement about what the discussion is actually about. So we are just talking about your ideas for responding to climate change, not about your car or what you said in the past or your personality. Those can be conversations we have later maybe, but for the moment, this is what we’re talking about. And being able to agree to a topic of conversation, and by extension, being able to say some things are irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion, I think that’s one of the ways in which we can keep our discussions on track.
Brett McKay: And you provide this really useful rubric. I thought this was a… It’s so simple, but once you see it, you can’t unsee it. You make the case that when you’re in any debate or argument, people can disagree about three types of things: They can disagree about facts, they can disagree about judgments, and they can disagree about prescriptions. Tell us, what is the difference between like… How can people disagree on facts, judgments, and prescriptions?
Bo Seo: Yeah, thanks for pointing that out. So the key thing is these three types of debates tend to… They tend to be alive, even when we… In what we consider to be one argument. So let me give you an example. So let’s imagine two parents are having an argument about whether to send their kids to the local public school, and you might start by saying, “Oh, that seems to be a debate about prescription,” which is a debate about what we should do, namely whether we should send the kids to the school or not. But you might find, in actually having the conversation, there’s also a descriptive disagreement, which is a disagreement about the facts, just about the way things are. So one parent might believe this school does have adequate sporting facilities, whereas the other parent might not believe that. So that’s not a debate about what they should do and whether they should send their kids there, it’s just a disagreement about the facts. And it has a pretty simple fix, or a simpler fix probably than the prescriptive debate, because it just involves going to the school or giving them a call or looking up the information. Then in having discussion further, they might find they also disagree about…
In their normative views, which is a kind of sort of a disagreement about judgment, disagreement about what’s morally right, what’s morally required. And that might be a normative disagreement about what their obligations as citizens might be. So one parent might think, “As a citizen, as a resident in this community, as a neighbor, we have an obligation to participate in this public education system, to do what we can to improve it.” The other person might think, “Actually, our main obligation as a parent is just to get the best possible education for our child.” And, again, that’s not straightforwardly a prescriptive debate about what we should do, it’s more about the beliefs that we have about the way things should be and how we should behave. And so within this one disagreement, which just looks like a decision about where we send the kids, there’s a prescriptive debate that appears on the face of it, but there’s also descriptive debates and there’s normative debates. And being able to identify which of those is at the core of the dispute I think is a really good first step to making some progress on it.
Brett McKay: Alright. So yeah, before you even get into the debate, figure out what you’re actually debating. Is it a debate of fact, judgment, prescription? And I think that can solve a lot of problems, just taking that five, 10 minutes to do that.
Bo Seo: Yeah, exactly. And I like that, and I like how you put a fine point on that. I mean, it’s 5-10 minutes, slightly awkward, talking about the talking rather than doing the talking, but as anybody who’s been in a contentious disagreement knows it can stretch for hours, right? So it is a time saver to have that kind of preliminary agreement.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay, let’s say you’ve honed in on the point of disagreement, let’s say it’s just a point of prescription. You’ve agreed on facts, you’ve agreed on judgment, now you have this point, like, “I want… I think this should be the thing.” How do you go about forming a strong argument, or a strong logical argument?
Bo Seo: Yeah. So the starting place is knowing what we want our arguments to do. And I think at the moment, just the general perception of what an argument is, is just anything that vaguely supports your case or that expresses your point of view, which is not really what an argument is. An argument has to do two things, the first is it has to show that the main claim that it’s making is in fact true; and the other is that it is important, which means it supports the conclusion that you’re advocating for. So let’s say you’re arguing that we should send the kids to the local public school because they’ll get a great academic education there, let’s say.
So the first is you need to show that that is in fact true, that they’re gonna have a good academic experience, and you might give some reasons why. You might say something about the local curriculum seems really rigorous to you, or you might marshal some evidence of how the school has performed in the past, or the kinds of classmates they would be learning alongside. So all that is to show that it is in fact true they’re gonna get a good academic experience, and then the second, which I think people often neglect is, it’s not enough to just show that what you’re saying is true, you have to actually explain how that gets you to home base of being able to prove what you’re trying to prove, which is we should send our kids there. So why is them having an academic experience so important as to justify us making this decision, as opposed to all the other things we might care about, like them having good sporting facilities or other things that you might get if you send them to a private school, for example. So there’s an argument about truth that you have to prosecute and then you have to flip and say, Here’s why that then means we have to do what I’m arguing we should.
Brett McKay: Yeah, this requires knowing your audience, you could… You can have this great argument, it’s like, yeah, it’s true, but your audience is just like, Yeah, no. Okay, it’s true. So what?
Bo Seo: I love that, I love that. It’s about… The aim of any argument is you’re trying to get a person from point A to point B, and point B is just somewhere that’s probably not point A, and I think people usually have a pretty clear sense of the destination, which is where they want the person to be at the end of the discussion, but they often ignore or overlook where that person is starting from. And you do, as you say, Brett, wanna be really attentive to what the person who’s listening, where that person is at, and what they care about, and at least two of the most basic desires that I think we have when we’re responding to an argument is to know that it’s true, and to know that it justifies the conclusion that you’re trying to persuade me of.
Brett McKay: And you use… You have this rubric when you’re constructing an argument or a point. I think it’s really useful. It’s the four Ws. What are the four Ws?
Bo Seo: Yeah, so this is a kind of a quick short hand to make sure you’re meeting the two burdens that I’ve just described. The first is being clear about what point you’re actually making is, so what is the point? The second question is, why is it true? The third is, when has it happened before? So that’s kind of an invitation to give an example or a case study or some evidence that supports your claim, and then the last point is, who cares? So again, who cares whether the kids are getting a good academic experience? Why is that important? Why does that justify the main claim that you’re making? So what’s the point? Why is it true? When has it happened before? And who cares?
Brett McKay: Okay, yeah, I think the big takeaway from that chat that I got, it was make sure don’t overlook importance in your argument, because I think that’s happened to a lot of people, you feel like you’ve really got this strong argument and it just falls on deaf ears, and…
Bo Seo: I feel that way too. I feel that way too.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s ’cause you didn’t think about how is this important to the listener. So let’s talk about how do we… We want the argument to feel like it’s important to someone, so how do you form an argument so that it hits home with people, where they start listening, it’s like, Yeah, this is important?
Bo Seo: That’s a really good question, and it’s obviously very… It’s gonna be very situation-specific, and I think… Again, this is the point about getting to some agreement before we get into disagreement. I think sometimes when you’re in the heat of a disagreement, you can get so caught up with the sound of your own voice and so burning with conviction, you just try and steam roll over the other side, whereas I think there is probably a moment to pause and even ask questions of what is it that you care about, what is it that you’re hoping to achieve, what is it that you want for our kids in that example that we had before, and by listening to the other side, and sometimes by asking them what is it that most moves them, that they’re most interested in, I think that’s probably where we can tailor our argument to respond to that question of why is this important. So the truth is probably less reliant on the other side because it’s the truth and you’re trying to prove it, but that important point, which I agree with you, Brett, is kind of where… What a lot of people overlook, that’s the point where you’re inviting the other side into a conversation and where you’re making them a kind of a collaborator and a co-author to your ideas.
Brett McKay: And this is where rhetoric can come in. Aristotle in his work, The Rhetoric, he talked about in any argument you have, you have to appeal to someone’s logos or was it the pathos. What’s the third one, emotion? What’s…
Bo Seo: Ethos. Ethos.
Brett McKay: Ethos.
Bo Seo: So that’s the personality. Yeah.
Brett McKay: And so this is when you’re constructing an argument using rhetoric, you want… This is your opportunity to figure out how can I really reach and touch this person emotionally…
Bo Seo: Yeah, I love that. I love that.
Brett McKay: So they can connect.
Bo Seo: And you’re right, and so far we’ve been kind of on the straight and narrow of trying to come up with logical arguments and that’s important, but in debate, the truth of your argument and it’s persuasiveness are two separate skills that you have to develop. And as you say, the logic part of it, the rational part of it, is one important puzzle, but another is I think debate doesn’t shy away from the fact that we are people who are emotional, are passionate, are personally invested in our arguments and in the quality of our conversations, and in that instance, how we use words, how we put together sentences, the order of our paragraphs, how we say something, that tends to be really important.
Brett McKay: So you got your logical argument down pat, it’s just get the evidence, but now you’re thinking, how am I gonna deliver this in a way so that it connects with people? Are there any… I don’t know, I don’t wanna call them hacks or tricks, but just heuristics that you use when you’re constructing that.
Bo Seo: Yeah, there’s a number, and I go through word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph paragraph in the book, but maybe the easiest thing for me to just communicate briefly is this principle that I call the three P’s in the book. The first is proportionality. So one of the ways in which our rhetoric feels kind of weird and difficult to listen to is when it’s grossly over-selling or under-selling the argument. So the way in which you’re speaking, the language you’re using, the gesture, the tone, the stance that you’re taking has to roughly fit with what you’re saying. The second P is personality, and this is that Aristotelian triangle that you were talking about before, Brett. People are pretty… We don’t know everything about everything, [chuckle] and we don’t know about the particular evidence that’s being presented sometimes, the particulars of the argument that is being presented sometimes, but we’re pretty good judges of character, most people, because we have to do it every day. And so putting yourself into the argument a little bit, explaining how you went through the journey of becoming convinced of your point, and using it as an opportunity to acknowledge that you are kind of one perspective, not a sort of a voice of God omniscient, all seeing kind of person, but you’re just you.
And you’re trying to make this argument best you can, I think can often be humanizing and can lead to connection. And then the third principle of rhetoric that I put forward is called panache, which is I think one way to elevate the quality of our discourse is to invest in rhetoric again, to put aside some time to thinking about what’s the combination of words that’s going to most effectively get across this argument. And in debate we call it the applause line, it’s the kind of short snappy encapsulation that you could imagine the audience clapping to, and there’s something a bit self-important about that, but viewed a bit more charitably, it shows a kind of an attention to the audience that you’ve put together this rhetorical passage, this line, to be able to move them and to cut through in a world where there’s a whole lot of noise to be able to cut through that and to make your mark. So the three P’s of proportionality, personality, and panache are one set of ideas to think about.
Brett McKay: With that panache part, find the applause line, I know Winston Churchill, when he wrote his speeches out, he’d actually find moments he’s like, alright, pause here, because this is when people are gonna be like huzzaing.
Bo Seo: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And you know, again, it takes a bit of thick skin to do that because the world might look down on that. And even in debating, one of the things that was said about me was that he’s obsessed with talking pretty, and there’s a set of assumptions about that and a preciousness or maybe they’re trying to pull something over you, but I don’t think we can elevate the state of our public conversation unless we start acting out the kind of conversation we wanna have. And I think one of the things we wanna have is a conversation that’s respectful and faithful to the real power that words do have. And Churchill was obviously one master at that, and there have been many others, but we want a conversation that is alive to that possibility of what words and language can do.
Brett McKay: I wanna hear arguments that sound pretty.
Bo Seo: Yeah, me too.
Brett McKay: Okay, so you put out your argument or maybe you’re listening someone give their argument, you have to rebut. I think people are typically terrible at this because when you’re rebutting, you’re in the defensive mode and you tend to get angry and nasty, what are some ways that we can rebut arguments more effectively?
Bo Seo: I think the… And I share your view on that, Brett, it feels almost like a kind of a personal attack when someone’s making an argument against you. And maybe the first step is just a mental one of just saying it’s not an attack, it’s an argument that they are presenting that demands a certain kind of response, and maybe the other brief thing I would add there is, there’s something very distorting about platforms like Twitter where you’re meant to own them at every exchange, and we know that a conversation isn’t like that, it’s… We try in our best way to express our view but we usually don’t get it 100%, but you often get another chance at it, and so the conversation develops. In terms of then how we do that, I’d say two things. One is the framework that I presented in presenting an argument can often be useful here, so just the way that an argument needs to show that it’s true and that it supports its conclusion. Those are the two main areas where you can focus a lot of the critique of is your claim that the opposing argument is in fact not true, or is it that it doesn’t support the conclusion, and by being clear about what the nature of your criticism is, I think you can be a little bit more focused than just generally saying things that are contrary to what the other side has said.
The second thing which I think is often overlooked, is we can get very caught up in highlighting the floors of the other side’s arguments, but that’s really usually half the battle, because the other side is, well, if the opposition’s argument has all of these flaws then what are you for? What do you stand for? And so this is something I call the counter-claim in the book, which is saying, If not this, then what? And I think it’s an easy thing to forget that even when you’re criticizing a proposal or when you’re criticizing an idea, you’re still arguing for something. So if your partner’s saying, Let’s go to Hawaii for the holidays, or go down to Charlestown for the holidays, and you’re coming up with a thousand reasons why not for each one, you’re still arguing for something. You might be arguing for not taking vacation at all, it might be staying in your house, it might be going to the place that you usually go to, but whatever it is, there’s an argument that you’re making that is a positive advocacy as well, and so being able to switch between criticism and advocacy I think is an important skill for debaters.
Brett McKay: And I like the way you propose rebutting ’cause it does not make it… Once you see where you can rebut, whether it is stating your the facts or importance or… There’s a way for you to find room where you can find common ground, which sort of diffuses the situation a bit. So you can say, Yeah, look, hey, I agree with you, I think you got the facts right, I think that’s true. But despite that, this is how… This is why I think this is important or more important, and then now you know what you’re disagreeing about. You find some commonality which kind of diffuses and makes a connection, but then you’re able to still point out differences.
Bo Seo: Exactly, and I think some of the defensiveness in argument comes from a sense that you’re kind of helpless or you know something is wrong, but you’re a bit tongue-tied as to explain how or you think everything is wrong, and so you’re kind of stuck as to where to begin. And one of the things that I hope to achieve is I don’t want people to feel hopeless in argument or helpless in argument, and there’s always a kind of a way into responding. And as you say, and I think one of the really important things about seeing how an argument works and the menu of potential responses that you have available to you is, you don’t have to use all of them and being able to concede parts of an argument or set aside an argument, as you said, that’s a really important skill too, because it helps you make progress. The ideal progression of a disagreement I think is you start to narrow down the area of disagreement so that even if you weren’t able to reconcile all of your differences you can say, We’ve sort of found the heart of where we diverge, and it’s not that we disagree on everything, we usually don’t, but this is the heart of our disagreement.
Brett McKay: Okay, so every day we’re encountered with just a million different opportunities to start an argument or to keep an argument going, but you make the case that part of arguing well means knowing when it’s sometimes not good to argue, and you developed a rubric for that to help you determine whether or not, should I really try getting in with this person? It’s R-I-S-A, RISA, tell us about that.
Bo Seo: That’s right, it’s a kind of a checklist. And I’m kind of generally a big believer in the idea that if you’re about to do something that’s gonna consume your energy, that can potentially be your source of division and pain, you wanna be really deliberate about it, and you wanna set the grounds in such a way that it’s gonna be most conducive to a good discussion. And after a lot of reflection, I came to the conclusion that the most productive disagreements tend to have four kind of background conditions that contribute to its success. So it’s a checklist that I would encourage people to use as they get into an argument, whether they decide it’s worth it or not. So the first is, is it a real disagreement as opposed to a perceived slight or some issues that actually don’t have two sides? So if someone says, I don’t like your cousins, that’s not really a proper subject of debate because you can’t really argue, Well, actually you really like my cousins. The second is whether it’s important enough to justify the disagreement, and this is a question about the importance of the issue, not just about the importance of the other side, for example. So of course, we care about what our spouse or our partner or our friend thinks generally, but is this particular argument important enough to justify the disagreement?
The third is, is it specific enough? And I think we’ve referred to it a little bit in our conversation already, but a disagreement about just about how we respond to climate change or the merits of liberalism probably won’t take us very far because it’s too big and it gives too much room for people to slide around and go to the corners of the topic that they feel most comfortable in. So you wanna have an argument that is kind of small enough so that you’re able to make progress given the time that you have. And then the last is, you want the two sides to be aligned in their objective, so if the other side is just getting into a fight to hurt your feelings, whereas you’re getting into it to actually try and persuade them or have a good conversation, then you might judge that that’s not gonna be very productive for debate. So the RISA checklist, again, is whether the disagreement is real, whether it’s important, whether it’s specific, and whether the two sides are aligned in their objectives.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I see the specific and aligned parts giving people problems online, typically when people get in arguments online, it’s not specific, it’s just sort of general topic and everyone just kinda yells different things about how they feel about the general topic. And then the aligned part, some people are actually interested in good faith debate, and some people there are just to troll and you need to figure out what’s what, and so I think that was really useful. It could save people a lot of mental bandwidth by checking through. Speaking about this idea of good faith, as you said, debate or an argument, it is competitive, it is a conflict, but it requires cooperation. It requires the good faith of everyone involved in the debate. When everyone is acting in good faith, everything goes great. The problem is that bad actors can take advantage of that. So how do you navigate an argument when you’re engaging with someone who is acting or debating in bad faith?
Bo Seo: It’s a really difficult question, and one where I think there are no easy answers. It is true that debate relies to some extent on the good faith of its participants, and what it can do in the absence of that is in some ways mitigation. Debate can help us improve the quality of our conversations, but without other kinds of improvement and even moral development, it alone won’t do the trick. Having said that, it can I think help in at least three ways, so one is… There’s a chapter of the book that deals with the common strategies that bad faith actors tend to use, whether that be lying or interrupting all the time, or wrangling or twisting around your words. And going back to that idea of not being helpless, you wanna be able to identify those tricks and to have some counter strategies, a defense against the dark arts available to you so you’re not helpless in that situation. The second thing is I don’t think people are essentially good faith debaters or bad faith debaters, I think that these are instincts that we all have. We’re all capable of good faith debate as we are capable of bad faith debate.
And one of the strategies that I offer in the book when you’re up against a kind of a bully is to say, Well, is it a debate that we’re trying to have, or is it something else? And that ability to just pause and return the conversation to the kind of exchange we wanna be having and reminding them that walking away is always an option, that feels to be something that’s important. And the last thing that I’ll just say, Brett, because I agreed with your description of social media is, on that point about us all having the capacity to be good or bad faith debaters, we should not pretend that where we have the exchange and the means by which we have the exchange, we should not pretend those are neutral forums and they reward certain kind of practices and discourage others. And so in addition to thinking about what we do within a conversation, we also have to have a little bit of situational awareness of where we are having the discussion too.
Brett McKay: Bo, this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Bo Seo: I enjoyed it so much, Brett. My website is helloboseo, helloB-O-S-E-O.com. The book is out with Penguin Press in the United States and with a bunch of other publishers abroad. So please check it out, and I’m very eager to engage in conversations about… And one of the most rewarding things of rolling out the book has been hearing people adapt some of these ideas to their own corners of the world, and to see the ways in which it fits needs to be changed, needs to be improved and to be in that conversation is a real honor. So thanks for having me, and I hope to keep the conversation going.
Brett McKay: Alright, Bo Seo. Thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Bo Seo: Thanks, Brett. Have a good day.
Brett McKay: My guest here was Bo Seo. He’s the author of the book Good Arguments. It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You find more information about his work at his website, helloboseo.com, and that’s B-O-S-E-O.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/argument where you find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.
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