The Ethics Of Controversy

Everything is disputable. I am willing to entertain arguments in support of any proposition whatsoever.

If you want to defend theft, mayhem, adultery, or murder, state your case, bring on your reasons; for in endeavoring to prove an indefensible thing you discover for yourself how foolish is your thesis.

But it is essential to any controversy, if it is to be of any use, first, that the issue be clearly understood by both sides.

Most contentions amount merely to a difference of definition. Agree, therefore, exactly upon what it is you are discussing. If possible, set down your statements in writing.

Most argument is a wandering from the subject, a confusion of the question, an increasing divergence from the point. Stick to the matter in hand.

When your adversary brings in subjects not relevant, do not attempt to answer them. Ignore them, lest you both go astray and drift into empty vituperation.

For instance, President Wilson, in the “Lusitania” incident, called Germany’s attention to the fact that her submarines had destroyed a merchant ship upon the high seas, the whole point being that this had been done without challenge or search and without giving non-combatant citizens of a neutral country a chance for their lives. Germany’s reply discussed points that had no bearing upon this issue, such as various acts of England. Mr. Wilson, in his reply, wisely refused to discuss these irrelevant things, an example of intelligent controversy.

Keep cool. The worse your case, the louder your voice.

Be courteous. Avoid epithets. Do not use language calculated to anger or offend your opponent. Such terms weaken the strength of your position.

A controversy is a conflict of reasons, not of passions. The more heat the less sense.

Keep down your ego. Do not boast. Do not emphasize what you think, what you believe, and what you feel; but try to put forth such statements as will induce your opponent to think, believe, and feel rationally.

Wait. Give your adversary all the time he wants to vent his views. Let him talk himself out. Wait your turn, and begin only when he is through.

Agree with him as far as you can. Give due weight, and a little more, to his opinions. It was the art of Socrates, the greatest of controversialists, to let a man run the length of his rope, that is, to talk until he had himself seen the absurdity of his contention.

Most men argue simply to air their convictions. Give them room. Often when they have fully exhausted their notions they will come gently back to where you want them. They are best convinced when they convince themselves.

Avoid tricks, catches, and the like. Do not take advantage of your opponent’s slip of the tongue. Let him have the impression that you are treating him fairly.

Do not get into any discussion unless you can make it a sincere effort to discover the truth, and not to overcome, out-talk, or humiliate your opponent.

Do not discuss at all with one who has his mind made up beforehand. It is usually profitless to argue upon religion, because as a rule men’s opinions here are reached not by reason but by feeling or by custom. Nothing is more interesting and profitable, however, than to discuss religion with an open-minded person, yet such a one is a very rare bird.

If you meet a man full of egotism or prejudices, do not argue with him. Let him have his say, agree with him as you can, and for the rest—smile.

Controversy may be made a most friendly and helpful exercise, if it be undertaken by two well-tempered and courteous minds.

Vain contention, on the contrary, is of no use except to deepen enmity.

Controversy is a game for strong minds; contention is a game for the weak and undisciplined.


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