Ep 78: Winning Arguments

Episode Summary

Stanley Fish, best-selling author and octogenarian, clues us into the intricacies of arguments: how argument is a more natural state; destructive arguments; how to get out of one; and much more! Grateful to be able to connect with the author of  Winning Arguments and The First, Dr. Fish!

Show NotesWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Voices rise. Doors slam. Yours teen calls you a name you know you didn’t teach them. But their room’s locked, and you can’t get inside to calm them down. When they finally emerge hours later, they hardly speak, and you’re unsure of how to repair the damage done…

This is what can happen when arguments with teenagers go too far.

Teens are inherently emotional, and disputes with them quickly evolve from simple disagreements into high-stakes battlegrounds. The transition is swift and unforgiving, and many parents don’t realize they’re in a serious argument until it’s too late! As a parent, it’s vital for you to know how to navigate these situations and deescalate conflicts with your teen. If not, even a small argument can transform into a relationship-altering feud, one that irreparably jeopardizes the trust, love, and respect you and your teen have for each other.

For some veteran advice on how to strategize and understand these kinds of confrontations, I spoke with Stanley Fish, author of Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn’t work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroomalong with The First: How to Think About Hate Speech, Campus Speech, Religious Speech, Fake News, Post-Truth, and Donald Trump and seventeen other books! Fish has a long, distinguished career in academia that makes him an expert in many fields, and his tips and insights are sure to help any parent dealing with especially argumentative teens.

To start, Fish makes it clear that disagreements are an unavoidable part of life. In fact, he argues that arguments are actually more common than agreements! With this in mind, you shouldn’t be too worried about the clashes between yourself and your teen. They’re inevitable. What you should be focusing on is how to make sure these tiny squabbles don’t evolve into untamable beasts. To do this, it’s key to understand how and why arguments escalate, a topic Fish knows inside and out.

When we argue with someone, we cast ourselves in a play. We’re the hero, they’re the villain. Arguing with teenagers is no different. And, when somebody takes on this symbolic role, we’re more prone to forget the loving relationship we want with them. This is what happens when parents and teenagers explode with hurtful, wounding remarks during an argument. As a parent, it’s up to you to take the initiative and find ways to climb back down the ladder of escalation. And, according to Fish, this often means losing the argument. Conceding your point can allow you and your teen to focus more on your relationship than the problem at hand. In our interview, Fish gives several strategies for how parents can make use of this approach, along with why it’s so important!

In addition to this invaluable guidance, we discuss:

  • Why logic and evidence can be thwarted by emotion
  • The importance of eliciting “I feel” statements in an argument
  • Teaching teens the consequences of harmful speech
  • The difference between “transparency” and “immediacy”

It was a privilege to talk to somebody as wise and experienced as Fish, and I know his research on arguments, their structures, and how to approach them will help many parents find common ground with their teens. It’s important for parents to approach these situations realistically, so take a listen and become an expert yourself!

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. Hate Speech Intervention:

While it can be hard to define exactly what ‘hate speech’ is in a rhetorical sense, Dr. Stanley Fish asserts that you can define in it the home, on a basic level, as judgments or mistreatments of a person based on a characteristic or trait that is not theirs by choice: things like appearance, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, even religion. Dr. Fish suggests to halt hate speech, you can stand by one of the oldest moral principles: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If your teen is using hate speech, or language that rings of bullying, have a conversation right then and there on how they came to that conclusion. Once they have expressed why they have used so, remind them that putting a judgment on others, is giving everyone else a free pass to treat your teen in the same way. If you have not yet had a family discussion around what hate speech is, at your next family dinner, ask your own teens to define hate speech. Let the teens/kids try to define it first before offering any suggestions and amendments to their definition. Schedule it in your calendar to make sure it happens!

2. Deconstruct the Enemy to Stop Arguments:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Your book, Winning Arguments really caught my eye because a lot of the things that parents have trouble with in talking to teenagers is, arguments that everything seems to turn into an argument. So I was really interested to see what tips you had in here. And this book is philosophical. You get into really deeply how arguments work and how they work in different contexts. And it’s a lot more in depth than I was expecting, which was really cool. So can you talk a little bit about where it came from and what inspired you to write it?

Stanley: Sure. When people think about arguments that is, disagreements, disputes. I usually assume that being in the midst of an argument is a special case. Whereas the more normal case, the more ordinary case is agreement. That argument marks the point at which agreement has broken down for whatever reason. And so then you get into a confrontational or adversarial position. In my view, and it’s not only mine turns that around and says, “No that, argument is our natural state.” Being in an argument or dispute a disagreement is what life is all about. And that agreement, if and when it occurs is always fragile and temporary.

Stanley: A matter of mounting, some structure within which communication can continue for a while. And I say for a while because at some point that structure always becomes shaky, afraid at the edges and you’re back in the stage of open argument. So, I thought I would try to explain how living in a world of argument works, especially in the context of people who want to believe, as I said a moment ago, that argument is special and unique or unordinary whereas agreement is ordinary. Agreement is an amazing achievement which very really is sustained.

Andy: So how do we just get rid of argument.

Stanley: Get rid of arguments. You can’t get rid of it.

Andy: We don’t want to just agree all the time and have a nice friendly communication.

Stanley: We do. Of course you’re absolutely correct. That’s what we want. We want to agree but what we find out often in our interactions with family members, with people in our various professional walks of life, with people that you engage with in the streets. What you find out is that certain assumptions that you were making about the way the world is shaped and about what it isn’t is not appropriate to do, are not shared somehow by the person or persons you’re talking to.

Stanley: That’s a moment of unhappiness and distress. Where you realize that what you would assume to be the basis of agreement isn’t really there. And then you have to go back and start to try to fashion it again. So argument is not something from which you can escape, and it’s not something that you can bring to an end. It’s only something that you might be able to manage.

Andy: One thing you talked about early on in the book on page nine and 10 here is a specific type of argument that goes, “Because I say so.” Which you say is a version of the argument from authority. I thought this was funny because you’d have a little story in here about how this didn’t work so well with your daughter. So, is that just a terrible argument to use or is there ever a time when parents might be able to successfully pull off an argument from authority?

Stanley: An argument from authority is always risky because usually the authority that is claimed depends on an agreement by the other party to submit to it, or at least to recognize it. And when problems occur and when parents find that the assertion or the invoking the argument from authority doesn’t work, what is happening is that the whole fragile structure of interfamily respect is being exposed for what it is, a temporary almost fictional construct that can be shaken at almost any moment. And that’s what happens when parents suddenly discover that all of the argumentative moves or verbal tricks that they’ve been accustomed to rely on don’t work at a certain point.

Stanley: And it’s then when you’re tempted to do what I did in that little story that I told at the beginning of the book and that is to lock your child in his or her bedroom or some other act, which doesn’t work either. But what you’re driven to it by an inability to see how that fragile structure of agreement and the maintenance of civility in everyday life can be regained. It’s a very hard thing to do.

Andy: So once you lose authority is there no way to get it back then you think?

Stanley: I think the best illustration from that book of the experience I’m discussing is the chapter on marriage and what happens in the course of a domestic argument. What happens in the course of a domestic argument is that at a certain point, scoring points becomes what each party is trying to do. And the more you succeed in scoring points, the further away from coming back to a moment when you can be in again to speak in a friendly way, it is. So in a way, the way to win arguments in a sense that will actually do all of the parties good is to be willing to lose the argument.

Stanley: Once you’re in the middle of an argument, the last thing in your mind is a willingness to lose. You just want to beat the other person into the ground metaphorically, of course. So, you’re going to seize on anything that comes to mind. So for example, in the middle of a domestic quarrel which might be about something that happened yesterday, you’re going to dredge up something that happened 25 years ago or 20 years ago, or even five years ago.

Stanley: That is you going to be casting around for whatever verbal weapon you can lay your hand on. And then you want to hit the other party with that. Once you’re in that mood or once you’re in that mode, things are pretty bad. And it’s very hard to get back unless a halt is called to the whole thing, just stop, let’s get off the train or get off the very ground or whatever your favorite metaphor is. But that itself is hard to do. So living in a world of argument is extremely difficult especially when you want to use argument to win the argument or get out of the argument. It just won’t work.

Andy: You talk in your chapter about political arguments, about convictions held at the level of underlying commitments and how once it gets to that point, they’re no longer vulnerable to the marshaling of evidence. And you have this example of the Redskins football. Can you walk me through that and why is it that once it gets to that point, it’s actually completely impervious to evidence?

Stanley: Because at a certain point, whether or not to retain the name Redskins for the Washington National Football League team becomes less a question of let’s say, consideration for others or even a question of economic calculation on the part of the football team owners, becomes more a matter of defending your way of life. So at a certain point those who wish to remove the name Redskins from the football team believe that they are speaking for and against centuries of discrimination against native Americans.

Stanley: They believe that their cause is just and right, not only in a local sense but in a national and even in a global sense. And on the other side, those who wish to retain the name Redskins are speaking out in terms of the freedom to choose their own ways of speaking without governmental or public interference. If I want to call my team Redskins, why should anybody have the power to stop me from doing it. Or if I want to root for a team with the name Redskins, shouldn’t I be allowed to do so, isn’t this a matter of holding the American way. You see, the issues get ratcheted up quickly to finally each side feels that it’s defending truth and civilization against the attacks and underminings of the other side.

Andy: And at that point, there’s no amount of evidence that changed your mind because it’s-

Stanley: And you will always hear that evidence is coming from the other side and you will look for and have no difficulty in finding motives that underlie that evidence. And you will question the source of that evidence or you will say at a certain moment that’s actually evidence from my side. Once things become that interest as they have been in the context of that example there you are and of course today we have a similar situation or structurally similar situation in the person of Donald Trump.

Stanley: If you are a believer in Trump as the devil or as the corrupter of the nation and of civilization on the one hand or if you believe on the other hand that Trump has saved the nation from elitist and anti-American values, there’s nothing that you’re going to be able to hear from the other side as it will be regarded as evidence that you might consider because everything that you hear from the other side is something you hear from the other side and you know in your heart that the other side is evil. And there are a lot of people on both sides of what we might call the Trump divide who are exactly in this position and you probably know some of them.

Andy: It strikes me though that this happens a lot with an apparent team dynamic where these situations about little daily things turn into much bigger issues where it becomes a matter of you like, “You don’t trust me.” It’s just whatever it is something stupid but it gets ratcheted up to this level where there’s an impasse and it’s fundamentally impossible to break through because you’re both coming at it from different sides of this really ideological debate when it’s actually really just a small issue of whatever happened.

Stanley: It’s a small issue to which all the weight of the ideologies of the two parties has been detached and once that happens it’s very difficult to back to the point of saying, “Wait a minute what we would talking about whether or not to go to the movies tomorrow.” How did we get that to the cosmic coral we seem to be engaged in. And the other thing about… Not only about domestic arguments between husbands and wives or partners or arguments between parents and children but the thing about argument in general is that, quite often you’re in the middle of one before that that is your present situation.

Stanley: As I put it in the book, [crosstalk] arguments don’t begin in the same way that let’s say a professional boxing match begins with the ringing of a bell and the two parties come out of their respective corners in a fighting stance arguments don’t begin at all. At least they don’t seem to begin, you suddenly find yourself in the middle of one before you know it.

Stanley: Pieces of advice that are useful, the ones that seem to me to be useful, draw back from the argument, declare a period of ceasefire, ask the other person to explain how he or she is feeling in a way that might lead you to get back in touch with the real person in front of you as opposed to the symbolic person that has been created by you in the course of the argument those kinds of strategies. I have at least the chance of working, dampening the argument down, if not putting out the fire at least reducing the intensity of the fire.

Andy: You said something interesting in there, you said something about the person that you’ve created in your mind since the start of the argument. And that’s something that I had marked in here on page 99, you said that’s the first and most important rule of domestic quarrels, their performances of personality creation. And then also you go on to say, the personalities they create form quickly and tend to stick around for a long time.

Stanley: That’s right.

Andy: What exactly do you mean by that?

Stanley: What I mean is that, in order to engage in an argument with someone where you quickly arrive at a level of intensity, you have to cast the other person in a big drama in which he or she is the villain in order to do that piece of casting, you have to attribute certain negative features to that person. And in doing so, you build up a picture of that person which supersedes and in fact more or less obliterates whatever picture of the person that you might’ve had before the argument begins.

Andy: It strikes me that totally what has to happen during an argument you have to depersonalize the other person to a certain extent in your mind and build them up as the enemy a little bit. And so, that happens before you even realize it. As you were saying, you find yourself in an argument before you realize that it even started. So then, what do you do when you do realize it or is there a way to undo that casting that you done on the other person somehow?

Stanley: Of course, it will depend-

Andy: Or the one they’ve done on you?

Stanley: Depends to some extent and how far either of you have gone if you pulled out all stops and then said things which cannot be taken back often because they are in some sense true, but are so wounding in their truth that they threatened the fabric of the entire relationship. The great play by Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, is a textbook on how this happens and how arguments accelerate and how the stakes become and higher until you reach a dangerously approach that point where the next move will ruin the structure of the relationship for ever.

Stanley: And when that happens and it does happen that’s when you get children storming out of the house or running away from home, you get parents instituting divorce proceedings. Now, in between the argument that reaches those heights and those disastrous conclusion’s comes the possibility of therapy of mediation which of course involves third parties. So, there comes a point where you and your arguing partner have done such a good by which I mean bad job of creating the other as a demon that you have to have someone else come in, a third party neither you nor your [inaudible] who can attempt to reintroduce you to the person you knew before you made him or her.

About Stanley Fish

Dr. Stanley Fish, beyond being an author of 19 books, is one of America’s leading public intellectuals. After receiving a masters and Ph.D from Yale, Dr. Fish’s teaching career has led him to top institutions across the country including UC Berkeley, John Hopkins, University of Pennsylvania, Yale Law School, Duke University, and Columbia. He is renowned as a literary theorist and legal scholar, having contributed over 200 scholarly and public articles in addition to his books. He is a contributor to “The Opinionator” blog for The New York Times and is currently the Floersheimer Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

Dr. Fish’s most popular works among the public include his NYT bestselling book How to Write a Sentence, Winning Arguments, and his most recent, The First.

He is currently in Florida, enjoying the sun and keeping in touch with friends and family electronically!