Tuesday, December 18, 2007

In Defence Of Argument

At the outset, I must point out that this is a post about the politics of argument, and is not aimed at any individual whatsoever. There has been a lot of stuff on this blog of late - and in and around the left in general for years - about whether we should argue amongst ourselves. These are my thoughts on the issue, and, I repeat, not directed at any particular comment or commenter.

The second thing I'd say at the outset is that I actually hate arguments. If I know there is one coming up at a meeting, I will usually lose sleep for a couple of nights before and get unbearably tense on the way there. I argue not for fun, but because it is, sadly, necessary. I also freely admit that, in common with many people, I am better at dishing it out than taking it.

Yes, arguments within the left and the labour movement can be very frustrating and can get nasty. But suppression of argument is a much more ugly tradition. I have sat through numerous trade union events and watched endless uncontroversial resolutions pass unanimously. This does not make me think "Wow, isn't it fantastic that we all agree with each other and can go out and fight the bosses in unity!" No, it's more like "Bloody hell, I know we have loads of disagreements, but instead of being addressed, they are being drowned in a sea of inanity." The lack of argument within the Socialist Workers' Party is not a sign of its political health but one of its greatest weaknesses. And need I even start on the Stalinist method of suppression of debate?

How can we possibly develop the best policies for our movement without considering different points of view and arguing them out? I've held to various views during my lifetime that have failed to stand up to argument with others, leading me to revise my thinking. And I'm very glad of it - if I had avoided the argument, I'd still hold to naff views.

But doesn't arguing amongst ourselves stop us fighting the real enemy (that's the Tories and the ruling class, not the SWP!)? Taken to excess, yes. But generally, no. In fact, the opposite. We can be more effective in fighting the real enemy if we argue our politics and thoroughly discuss our tactics. I have seen more campaigns and trade union struggles fail because of lack of argument than because of too much argument.

The important issue to me is not whether we argue - that's unavoidable - but how we do it. As the appalling level of so-called 'debate' on the 'Socialist Unity' blog referred to elsewhere has shown, the left seriously needs to raise the standards of how we argue. I can't help feeling that often - though not always - crap standards of debate are rooted in crap politics. For instance, the stuff against Stroppy and Tami on the SU blog comes from the fact that their critics were struggling to defend the indefensible ie. their softness on George Galloway's dodgy politics on women's rights.

Here are a few tips I try to follow, albeit not always successfully:
  • Read and/or listen to your adversary's argument in good faith. They might be right, at least partially. And even if they are totally wrong, you will get useful practice arguing against them and will convince anyone else who is eavesdropping more effectively if you engage with what they argue.
  • Back up your argument with facts and examples, but don't turn an argument into a competition about who knows the most facts about the issue.
  • Don't take it personally. If someone criticises your politics or your view on a particular issue, they are having a go at your argument, not at you. Mind you, if they do have a go at you personally, by all means take it personally and give as good as you get.
  • Sarcasm usually doesn't work in print. There will always be someone who thinks you mean it.
  • And this should go without saying but sadly doesn't - we argue with our mouths, pens and keyboards, not with our fists.

So, "Can't we just stop arguing amongst ourselves?" No, we can't. But we can do it in a more political, comradely and constructive way.

Labels: ,