In our ongoing series of How to Be a Better Arguer, I bring you Lesson #8
If you’re new to these lessons, scroll down. Start with the first one and then work your way back here. These lessons were originally posted on social media in 2020, but they were beloved — BELOVED, I TELL YOU! — and so they’re being reprinted here for your viewing pleasure…
Ok. Here we go…
Don’t be the bad guy.
This is probably the best advice I have when it comes to arguments. It works in a myriad of scenarios and is applicable to numerous parts of your life.
I’m a teacher. I’ve worked exclusively in large high schools for over 20 years and thus have seen my fair share (or more) of hallway fights.
One stands out for me when I think about “bad guys,” though.
It was the time between classes. The bell had just rung and I was standing at my desk chatting with a student. He or she (I don’t remember) was an Advanced Placement student and thus known around town more for brains than for brawn, as were the AP students who’d be coming to my room for the next class period.
Suddenly, two students burst into my classroom, entangled in one another. They hit the floor.
My desk was in the corner farthest from the door and it took me a few moments to hurdle myself over to it. By that point, the fight had slid its way from just inside my classroom doorway to just outside of it. A crowd formed, surrounding the fight and trapping me inside the room. This high school was huge so there were tons of kids to create this barrier so no other adults could easily get in. I was the only adult there, as a result.
I remember throwing a few kids aside to get them out of the way. Later my students would joke with me about hurling people like some sort of monster. I took it as a compliment. But, I was pretty powerless against the two boys I didn’t know who were on the ground trying to injure each other as much as possible.
A student of mine stepped into the crowd, grabbed the kid who was on top of the other kid and catapulted him in the opposite direction ending the bout, then, more or less, walked into my room like, “there ya go, lady, now let’s go learn some shit.”
Not all the AP kids were ALL brains and NO brawn.
But, to get to my point I actually need to tell you about the parent meeting that followed this incident.
I don’t remember everything, but I do remember sitting in a conference room with an administrator and the boy (and the father of the boy) who appeared to be the aggressor. I had never seen this kid before that day; not until he busted into my classroom, so my answer was clearly “no” when the father asked me if I had heard what the other boy had said to his son right BEFORE he stared wailing on him as the other kid curled into the fetal position, trying to protect his face (it didn’t work).
So, some boy said something mean. Alrighty. THAT boy would have been in trouble, then, particularly if it was so evil it might induce a brawl. But, the second kid became the bad guy when he knocked the snot out of Mr. Mouthy. He HAD THE UPPER HAND and just gave it away. What I witnessed that day was not a fight, but was a beating.
And, there IS a difference. If you’ve ever worked in an American high school, you might know what I mean.
If you do things the right way: ask questions, laugh in the face of the bully, use your words, stay true to yourself, take the high road, keep it classy, take pride in yourself—you win. And, you win because you showed BETTER.
If you try to argue with me about geopolitics and I retort with an ad hominem attack, I suck. I may be funny and I may feel good about sucker-punching you with words, but I’ve also shown that I’m an idiot.
Have you, like, EVER seen an 80’s movie? We root for Daniel-san, Duckie, Veronica Sawyer (sort of?), and Marty McFly. We loathe Cobra Kai, Steff (and pretty much every James Spader character ever—not just Pretty in Pink’s villain), all of The Heathers, and Biff.
Do you trust Draco Malfoy? Want to listen to advice from the kids in Carrie’s class (or her mom, jeez…)? Feel like going to see Aerosmith in ‘76 with O’Bannion? Want to have tea and crumpets and discuss closet options with Joan Crawford?
If you allow yourself to slip into attacking language, condescension, snark and sarcasm (oooh, but I do love sarcasm and admit I too often don’t take my own advice here), Red Herrings, straw man arguments, and fighting language rather than the language of discourse, you become the bully. You’re the one delivering a beating; you’re Bloody Mary, you’re Genghis Khan, you’re DOLORES UMBRIDGE.
Beating someone into argumentative submission might, on the surface, feel like winning. But, the “winners” of arguments have persuaded others to change their minds. They’re solving problems. They’re championing causes. They’re breaking down the walls that divide man. When you do this, you’re Atticus Finch! You’re Hermione Granger! Padme Amidala! Belle (oooh! A princess…)! Elle Woods! You’re (man, I want to write “Jesus,” but that feels like stepping into complicated territory…).
When you see injustice, bullying, misunderstanding, confusion, questions, disagreement, division, hurt, pain, arrogance, and differing perspectives, think about what will get someone on your side rather than push him away. Think about who can see or hear your discussion and consider whether those folks would be turned off by your words or behavior, heading to the opposite side just because of YOU, or if you might encourage people to come TO your side, even if they’re unsure if it, just because you’re someone with whom they’d like to be associated.
This is ETHOS. An appeal to ethos is an appeal to the audience because of your CHARACTER. If you can convince people that you’re worth listening to, your message might carry.
Feel free to let me know what you think. And maybe reread “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
I’m Off Duty Mom and this is my Masterclass.