In honour of the conclusion to the latest twists and turns in the soap opera we used to call American politics, it’s worth brushing up on your own powers of argument and persuasion. In the coming weeks, this lecture series will demonstrate the methods for winning or at least ending arguments using science.
In this series we will avoid jargon like ‘straw man’ or ‘ad hominem logical fallacy’ except where we don’t, because such language doesn’t get you laid.
We’ll start things off lightly with some simple techniques appropriate for any occasion, be it pub, children’s party or board meeting.
Understand Your Opponent’s Jargon
Debating jargon like ‘cognitive dissonance’ et al should be avoided at all costs because you have some self-respect. Likewise anything that looks, smells or tastes like Latin, such as ‘et al’. But you need to understand jargon so that you can properly call your opponent a pompous douchebag when they use it.
There are many formal and informal logical fallacies, but here are some of the more common ones:
Ad hominem: if he or she calls you a twat, that’s ad hominem – it’s not about the merits or otherwise of your argument(s), but all about you personally. Example: ‘Obama was born in Kenya.’
Straw man: an argument that is misrepresented by your opponent as superficially similar to the one you actually made, but which crucially is indefensible. Example: “it’s necessary to balance civil rights and the state’s powers of intrusion.” “So what you’re saying is that you want the terrorists to win.”
False dichotomy: an apparent choice between two options, that actually isn’t. A common example would be freedom of the individual vs security of the people, but we’ve already used that one. Example: you have a choice between a burger or a pie. But the menu says that you can have a pie filled with burgers. Or lasagne.
Confirmation bias: we actually all do this so it’s good to be aware of it. Your brain retains things that reinforce your bias and edits out contradictory evidence. Example: I think that people who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’ are wankers – every time I meet a wanker who calls him-or-herself spiritual, that impression is reinforced. There are many otherwise lovely people who also describe themselves in such terms, but I can’t recall ever having met a single one, even if I have lived with one or two of them over the years.
That’s enough of all that. Let’s get on with winning.
Use Jargon To Your Advantage
At some point one of you will become even more pretentious than I am. If your opponent reaches this point first, say something like ‘I’ll see your straw man and raise you an ad hominem: you’re a dickhead.’
This is an exception to the ‘no jargon’ rule because technically you’re being funny, which good-natured liars claim makes you attractive.
Use Your Words
At some point in the argument you will experience a sinking feeling, a gut realisation that your opponent is more clued-up on the subject at hand, be it who was a better space captain: Kirk or Picard, or why you should do the washing up more often.
You will find that the tide is turning against you. But at this point it is important to keep your head and use your words. It doesn’t matter that he or she can reel off statistics that prove that actually the Eurozone isn’t the UK’s biggest political and economic concern; or that he or she has taken the bins out every week for the past seven months and it’s your turn.
All you have to do is say the following:
“Ah, well now you’re talking semantics.”
Because no one actually quite knows what that word means or even if it’s a bad thing to do. Crucially, they won’t want you to know that they don’t know that a word you’re pretending to know is not in fact a word that either of you knows. Win.
Use Your Words Part 2
But say that your opponent has deployed the ‘semantics’ argument. You’re not sure how to react. Here’s what you say:
“No I’m not.”
Ball. Back. In. Your. Face. Loser.
Introduce A New Element
Men who’ve been married for a long time will know that this comes instinctively to wives.
You think you’re fighting about whose responsibility it was to buy more fabric softener, and out of nowhere she sucker-punches you with ‘well I still can’t believe that you said what you did to my aunt Sheila, you know how sensitive she is. And while we’re on the subject, would it kill you to put the toilet seat down once in a while?’ And boom, instant fluster.
Your opponent thinks you’re arguing about the merits of expanding the permanent security council of the UN, suddenly BAM! ‘Yeah, well camembert is just shit brie’.
Whoa, I just totally changed your perspective and stuff.
Use Your Fists
Pretty self-explanatory, and afterwards they’ll have quite forgotten whatever rapier-like point they were about to use to pierce through your entire argument and leave you looking like a small-minded bigot. Win.
The caveat here is that if your opponent is bigger than you, or looks like a biter, you’ll probably get beaten to a pulp. On the plus side, this will mean that your opponent has lost his or her temper and therefore you’ve won by default. Win.
The rest of this series will go into a lot more detail about a variety of options, including the invention of fictional experts and studies and the advantage of getting your opponent very, very drunk.
Next time: the proper use of the filibuster.