Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Framing Your Arguments

Framing Your Arguments

The election is over.  At least, it is mostly over, minus some run-over elections that go into overtime.

Now that we are back to working together (~) on the issues that face our country, I am thinking more and more about the (in)ability we have to find middle ground.  Part of the interesting part of my job is starting discussions with agencies and officials and personalities who do not agree with my agency.  Opening the dialogue, getting us talking.  First step, find the common goals, then common ground, then work towards using common methods to achieve the goals in front of us.  Getting to the ‘us’ part of the discussion is very rewarding.

But sometimes finding that common ground is hard, and I am fascinated by the places where we fail to find common purpose. In debate, we usually look at framing our arguments in terms that give us the best chance of ‘winning’.  We use the opening gambit to constrain the limits of our opponents, to prepare pivot points, to gain position for the whole argument.

Finding common ground, however, means that we have to take into account the point of view of the recipient.  This point was driven home to me this past week when I was attending a lecture on communicating climate change.  As an analogy, the speaker used the example of gun control.

I am not interested in arguing gun control.  I enjoy shooting guns, and I grew up hunting – dove, deer, quail, ducks, marsh hens (and while I was in Brasil, a few other kinds of birds).  But as much as I love shooting, I understand the other side of the argument, and so I take no joy in the debate.

The gun argument, I have learned, is a little more subtle than I had realized. There are a priori assumptions that go into the positions that I had never recognized.  The premise presented by the speaker was that people view the world on two axes: egalitarian/hierarchical, and communitarian/individualistic. From the basis of this bifurcation, the worldview for each quadrant is very different. This worldview changes everything, including the framing of the argument.

The example used the following: the basis of the gun argument, from an individualistic hierarchical point of view, is:

1.      It is my responsibility to provide protection for myself, my family, and my things.

2.      The consitutionally-protected right to carry a gun helps me to provide that protection.

The argument from an egal-communitarian, however, is that society is better served if no one is allowed guns, and that protection for the community is based on the reliance of professional police to keep order.

No wonder there is no middle ground.  Because the pro-gun proponent recipient hears this:

1.      You think that you are responsible for protecting yourself, your family and your stuff.  You are not.

2.      Your responsibility is to dial 9-1-1 and await the coming of the police, whose job it is to protect you.

3.      You should put your faith in the government, and relinquish your guns, because the real danger is from you and your ilk.

Well, shoot. There is no middle ground here.  In order for the person who is anti-guns, winning the argument requires that the gun advocate change not only his stance, but his worldview (as well as his place in it).  There is no framing of an argument that will prepare a pivot point in the argument.  There is no way to box out or gain priority, when the thing you are attacking is the very sense of self that the opponent brings to the argument.  Giving any ground in the debate requires the debater to give away something that defines his very self.

Is it any wonder that the issue inspires such passion?  Is it any wonder that we can’t find a way to agree on even the basis of our arguments?

 It has also made me wonder about the background of other arguments that I hear, and whether the debate is so embedded in psyche that it requires a psychological break in order to accept the opposing side. 

The evolution versus creation debate comes to mind.  The message received by the creationist is:

-        The God you serve lied to you.

How do you argue that position? How do you set yourself up to even discuss the logical implications from that basis? 

I suspect that more of our deeply held political stances (immigration reform, healthcare, education) are contentious precisely because of an unexpected tie to our psyches.  

So how do we find common ground?  How do we start a conversation, rather than a debate?  Understanding the underlying assumptions is a good first step, but it is not enough.  I can understand the reliance on a competent police force, but I have lived in places where the police are not competent (and worse).  My bias is towards the guy (or girls – my sister is a far better shot than I am) protecting a family.  I am less likely to agree to common ground when the outcome means taking away my guns.

Can we start somewhere?  Or do we just watch legislators at an impasse, and just shake our heads?

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