Forget Amnesty International reports: the new A word is “Argument”. When my colleague and friend, Abi Dauber Sterne and I were setting up our new educational project, For the Sake of Argument, friends grimaced. They asked us if we really wanted to use that word: argument. They tried to convince us to talk about “challenging discussions” or “constructive disagreement” because it seems that everyone has had a bad experience with “arguments”. Disputes and disagreements have become so toxic and polarizing that the very word to describe them has become taboo.
I suspect that this is because we tend to have the wrong kinds of arguments in the wrong situations. As we developed the concept for our project, we began to realize there are essentially three kinds of arguments. Each kind of argument has its own rules, its own aims, and its own set of expectations. Problems arise when we enter into an argument expecting one thing, and ending up with another.
If I want to persuade someone of my opinion, I may enter into a debate-form of argument. I’m already going into the conversation with the assumption that they are wrong, I am right, and my satisfaction in the end will be gauged according to the extent that I have succeeded in changing their mind. There are also performative debates, where my aim might be to persuade those listening to the debate rather than directly influencing my interlocutor.
The debate is one form of argument. It has its place, it has its experts, and it works from its own key assumptions. It must not be confused with…
This somewhat transactional-sounding word describes a broad field of deep and often spiritual work. It might also include “conflict resolution” or “mediation”. There are many different techniques and tones involved in this broad area of “negotiation”, but we might say that whatever the process involves, the primary aim of a negotiation-form of argument is to solve a problem or to resolve a conflict. If at the end of a negotiation I realize we have not come any closer to consensus, I’m going to be disappointed if not devastated.
There is a third form of argument that might often include techniques employed in debates or negotiations, but its aim is different. This would be the healthy argument whose aim is education.
The educational argument does not aim to solve anything, though it might involve tools of conflict transformation. The educational argument does not intend to persuade the other to change their mind, though it may well involve the back-and-forth of debate. When arguing for the sake of argument our primary aim is to learn.
Sometimes in arguing with someone, I can learn what others believe, and in so doing I learn about a world that is more complex than I imagined and more diverse than I expected. I can even find out what I myself really believe. At the end of what we call a “healthy argument”, we will have grown – grown in understanding, grown in the breadth of perspectives we can hold, and grown in our resilience to be in disagreement.
What if we argued in order to learn?
I believe that argument gets ‘bad press’ because we get confused between the different types. Educators and participants alike often enter into heated discussions about Israel with the unconscious attitude of a negotiator or a debater. And they emerge disappointed or devastated. Someone was not persuaded! We were not able to find a solution! We did not reach a harmonious place of consensus. Arguments are then avoided in the future.
But what if we argued in order to learn? In particular when dealing with learning about Israel, it is unrealistic – and I would suggest undesirable – to expect groups to reach consensus. Our work should focus on engaging with Israel through healthy educational arguments. The learners (of whatever age) would ideally emerge from a healthy argument riled up, frustrated, passionate, yet most importantly – invigorated.
It is this search for invigorated engagement with learning through healthy arguments that led us to write Stories for the Sake of Argument. The book is made up of 24 short stories specially designed to provoke an educational argument about Israel. Through this book, we’re hoping to provide focused complex dilemma for all ages to grapple with – with their friends, their families, and educational institutions and camps.
It’s coming out in May, so if you’d like more information about healthy arguments, please connect with us at www.forthesakeofargument.org.
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