My paternal grandfather was a lawyer. He was also a very bright, well-read and cultured chap. And there was nothing my grandfather liked more – other than listening to the opera on the radio on Sunday afternoons – the entire goddamn opera, if you will – than a good argument.
And, he couldn’t stand losing an argument. Well, that was the lawyer and logician in him. Arguments to him were intellectual calisthenics. Didn’t matter what the subject was, he would persist with his points and with steely logic attempt to defeat his adversary.
When I got into my late teens I came to appreciate the process. That was around about the time I actually – momentarily — considered a legal career myself. The idea of me joining the ranks of the barrister/solicitor contingent appealed to my grandfather greatly and he tried to encourage me. In vain, alas. I obviously never went in the direction of .the bar – the bar of jurisprudence, that is.
Regardless of the direction of my professional aspirations, my grandfather did teach me how to argue a point and he would remorselessly shoot down any violations of the process. If I was to stand up against his points I had better come well-armed because he afforded no compassion for pikers in the realm. I needed facts and, if losing, I must never resort to ad hominem insults. If A equaled B, and B equaled C, then I’d better be able to prove that A also equaled C, or give up the fight. It was an area of mentorship, despite my lack of legal ambition, that did serve me well as a journalist, especially in mounting arguments in aditorial columns.
By the time I was in university I’d gotten pretty good at the process. I recall one argument that took place when my grandfather was visiting my parents for Sunday dinner. I don’t remember the topic of dispute but for the first time in my life I believed I’d beaten the old guy at his own game. I was firm in my resolve and with the smugness of youth I rejoiced in the fact I truly believed I’d vanquished him. While I hadn’t exactly left him sputtering, I did give him pause. The pause seemed like victory to me.
After he’d left for the evening I felt good. I had, I thought, earned my stripes. I had defeated the old master and that, I was sure, gave me some sort of master status. It would never be the same now that he had come up against a foe such as I was at the age of 20 or something equally ridiculous and callow.
I was wrong. The phone rang at 10 o’clock that night. It was my grandfather. He told me that he knew I was wrong but hadn’t been able to find the documentation to validate it. Back at his home he’d found it and shot my illogic to shit. He was prepared to admit, however, that he should have been better briefed before going into ‘court’ that evening.
Regardless of all of that, I have always taken pleasure in reasoned argument and debate and have only tempered that feeling later in life when I came to realize that not only do some people dislike argument for argument’s sake, but they find it somehow confrontational and disruptive of polite discourse. And some people are also given to personalizing arguments with such retorts as: “Oh yeah, sez you, shithead!” Such interchanges truly destroy the intellectuality of the exercise.
I also eventually came to realize that some arguments cannot ever be won and that there is no point in trying to win them, despite the fact that politicians and advocacy groups attempt to do this all the time.
Unwinnable arguments are those that call to the fore human feelings, intrinsic beliefs, bigotries, and plain boneheadedness, regardless of how firmly the arguer believes in his stupid damn ideas.
Yes, argument is a study in logic. When you pour on some human sentiment, then you spoil the broth irreparably and the issue will go nowhere.
Consequently, I have a mental list of subjects not really worthy or winnable of argument. They include:
– The death penalty for certain crimes: I’m still primarily opposed, but I make exceptions I realize. I shed no tears for Ted Bundy, nor did I think the State of Florida was in any way remiss for frying the bastard.
– Abortion: I learned long ago to never venture into this realm. It’s much too personal and, as a male, I don’t feel I have any right unless I personally know what it’s like to be facing an unwanted pregnancy.
– Homosexuality: I am not gay, but I have always – not just recently after it became trendy – believed that we find love where we do and who am I to judge or argue the point.
– Drug Legalization: As an addictions counselor and one who has seen the addicted sitting across a desk from me many times, or going through the agonies of withdrawal (not a soothing sight) I have strong opinions about this. Others have differing opinions. It’s one I have had to learn to live with and it involves genuine attempts to get clean rather than currently in vogue ‘harm reduction’. Experience tells me I’m not out to lunch on this matter. Others in the same field might choose to differ. As for jailing users and the so-called ‘war on drugs’, that’s really worked peachily, hasn’t it?
– Teenage sexuality: At one level, I think a healthy expression of sexuality is part of the human condition and who am I to stand in the way of a behavior that is intrinsic and was certainly very much a part of me when I was young. On the other hand, if I were the father of a teenage daughter (which I am not) I would be: “Not with my daughter you don’t, you little bastard!” But the always have indulged and always will, God love ‘em.
– Religion: To indulge in such an argument is always fatuous, presumptuous and also insufferably arrogant. Whatever the tenets of the beliefs of another is never anybody’s business, and to try to dissuade somebody from the articles of his or her faith is stupid. You may take exception to Tom Cruise’s Scientology, but it remains his business. Go ahead and poke all the holes you want in what he holds dear, but you are wasting your breath. The number of wars throughout history that have been based on violating the religious beliefs of others are innumerable, and they still go on, as we all know. This is probably the most dangerous realm of argument of all.
As I suggested, it is not really worth anybody’s while to debate about the foregoing. At the same time, we shouldn’t avoid honest debate. It can be enjoyable and I have also found that if an argument mounted to counter my thoughts on any matter is well enough founded, I can even be persuaded to assume an alternate point-of-view.