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The art of arguing lost in the social media era: Deakin philosophy expert

The art of arguing is being lost in the social media era where debates often erupt into short outbursts rather than considered discussion, according to a Deakin University philosophy expert.


Dr Patrick Stokes, senior lecturer with Deakin’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences, said arguing was a part of life that couldn’t be avoided, so it was worth taking the time to learn how to do it properly.

“We can’t avoid argument if we want to act rationally,” Dr Stokes said.

“If we want to know what to do, what to believe, and who deserves what, and we don’t want brute force or naked self-interest to answer those questions, argument is the only way to get there.

“However constructing a good argument isn’t something we just instinctively know how to do; it’s a skill that has to be learned, and it takes time and practice. And if we don’t call out bad arguments and acknowledge the good ones, we never get better at that skill.”

Dr Stokes said that while social media was notorious for short rants and raves, it was possible to have constructive online debates.

“Social media is all about getting cut-through, and nuanced or careful argument doesn’t get as much cut-through as dropping rhetorical bombs,” he said.

“But you can have serious and constructive arguments online, if you’re prepared to put in the time and be persistent – and know when to disengage.”

So whether it be online, at the pub or around the dinner table, Dr Stokes provides the following insights into how to construct a good argument:

  • There is more to arguing a point that simply stating your opinion: You can believe whatever you want but unless you’re prepared to put in the hard yards of arguing for your view, and changing it when it can’t be defended, nobody’s obliged to take your view seriously.

  • There are three good questions to ask if you want to evaluate an argument: Are the premises of the argument actually true? Is the argument itself sound – that is, does the conclusion follow from the premises? And what hidden assumptions might the argument contain? That will get you a very long way in trying to tell a good argument from a bad one.

  • Follow these steps to master the art of arguing: The main thing in learning to argue well is listening well, both to yourself and to others: what is the other person actually saying? What are the main objections to your view? What does your view imply or entail? Knowing what your view is (and isn’t), and taking seriously the arguments against it, is crucial to holding a sustainable and defensible opinion.

  • Sometimes it is best to walk away: There comes a point where you have to ask: is there anything to be gained by continuing to argue? It may not be a very philosophical approach, but sometimes it’s best just to change the subject.

Matthew Guy