Sunday, July 14, 2013

Of Verbal Boxing Matches and Fist Fights: Rules of Agonistic Engagement

I spend a lot of time thinking about arguing.

Handling rhetorical tensions is at the heart of my dissertation research, which means it's also at the heart of my PhD exam reading, and all of that interest stems from the real-life rhetorical tensions I see playing out in my classrooms and in my own participation in philosophical and political debates.

In a previous post on the topic, I wrote this:
In antagonistic rhetoric, the goal is to win the debate--at any cost. Often, one person in this debate is better prepared because s/he knew that there was going to be a debate (usually because he/she started it) and the opponent didn't. For the purposes of this discussion, you could think of antagonistic rhetoric as a mugger waiting at the end of a dark alley. The mugger doesn't care if the opponent is harmed, isn't concerned about making the fight fair, and plans to "win" at any cost.

Finally, in agonistic rhetoric, both opponents recognize that there is going to be a fight, but that fight doesn't have to be hateful. You can liken agonism to a boxing match. The opponents are both aware of the event in advance, they are both trained in the art, and there are some rules and parameters to keep the fight fair. Also, the opponents aren't trying to utterly destroy one another. While a win is still important, so is sportsmanship.

I think that part of the reason I care so much about agonistic rhetoric and creating a more accepted space for it in the public perception is that I have had some really great experiences arguing with people I love. 

My husband and I have a relationship that developed in its early stages through intense debate on all kinds of subjects. From politics to movies, from religion to music, we argued. We'd sometimes end up taking on Devil's advocate positions just to make the debate as lively as possible, and through it learned a whole lot about each other and about how to see the world. We've both changed our minds through debate with one another, often to positions that neither of us held when we started. As is wrapped up in the definition of agonism, we changed one another through that debate. 

This is also a key component to many of my closest friendships. If I can't argue with you, it's going to be hard for me to be your friend. It doesn't mean I won't try, but it does take out a key component of interaction that I consider important and meaningful. Arguing with someone does not mean I dislike them. On the contrary, arguing with someone means that I respect their position enough to give it the opportunity to change me. Arguing can be a very intimate means of communication as it means that both participants are changed by the interaction; like two balls of clay colliding, we'll both change shape. 

big ole ball of bmix+grog paperclay [crackpot1]

The key to agonism, though, is that both participants have to be willing to be molded and have to enter into the debate with a level of sincerity that ensures fair participation. 

Just like a boxing match has rules and boundaries that a fist fight in a dark alley does not, an agonistic debate requires guidelines (spoken or non) that ensure the match remains within the bounds. 

So today I've been thinking about what those rules should be. I spent some time reading lists on how to argue well, usually framed as advice from relationship experts on how to work through difficult times with a spouse or family member. (You can see some lists I consulted here, here, here, and here).  

From my own experiences and the research I've done on the topic (both scholarly and non), it seems that there are a fairly common set of goals of an agonistic debate and that those goals can be articulated through a set of guidelines.

Goals: Participants will . . . 

  • reach a point where both understand the other's point of view, even if there hasn't been an agreement reached. 
  • gain a clearer understanding of each other as people as well as the topic being debated. 
  • be challenged to look at things in ways previously unconsidered. 
  • leave the debate without anger or pain. 

Methods: Participants will . . . 

  • Listen to the other participant's points and not merely wait for his/her turn to talk. 
  • Extend beyond personal anecdote or personal experience to recognize that there are other ways of experiencing similar circumstances. 
  • Acknowledge truth and common ground wherever it appears (even when it is inconvenient to the participant's overall position). 
  • Respect the other participant's personal responses and emotional boundaries, work to avoid crossing them, and acknowledge the transgression sincerely when they are crossed. 
  • Avoid name-calling and personal attacks on character. 
  • Refrain from changing the topic when the debate isn't going as well as the participant would like. Finish the debate on hand. 
Can a debate get passionate, heated, and overflow with emotion? Of course it can! If it can't, you're probably not debating anything worth arguing over. Often we are arguing over things that are key to our very essence. We are entering a conflict for the right of our position to be seen, and for some people in some circumstances, that amounts to the right to exist. 

It is precisely because debates can get so impassioned that we need to be willing and able to enter into the fray. 

So while we may have a responsibility to climb into the boxing ring to make sure our positions are represented, no one has a responsibility to keep getting in the ring with an opponent who won't follow the rules. 

What do you think? What allows you to have a productive argument? What destroys that productivity? At what point do you decide that you can no longer engage? 

Photo: bptakoma


  1. The engagement will go well as long as both parties refrain from disrespecting the other side with hateful language, negative tones of voice and loud volume levels.

    Not everyone has the same threshold of what crosses the line. Some may break off all engagement permanently over just a loud voice or just a general tone of disrespect for the other party's opinion.

    Some people get their feelings hurt easier than others. Some people feel an attack on their beliefs is a personal attack on them - but sometimes they would be right.

    I have learned to avoid debates of emotional / controversial / sensitive topics (politics & religion for sure) with all co-workers, most friends and most family.

  2. "I have learned to avoid debates of emotional / controversial / sensitive topics (politics & religion for sure) with all co-workers, most friends and most family."
    In some cases, I have, too, but I really do think that those relationships become more distant and less meaningful to me because of it. Being able to enter into a debate about things I care about is an important part of social connection to me. I don't intentionally distance myself from people who I can't engage in debate, but I also just don't feel like they really know me, especially when the list of "off-limits" topics continues to grow.