Argue with me if you like, but please argue well

“Duty calls”. Image from the XKCD website.

It occurs almost every time I post a blog article: someone disagrees with me and wants to argue with me. That’s fine, I really don’t mind when this happens. Disagreement that leads to discussion can be one of the things that drives forward our understanding of an issue.

However, arguments have to be constructed and presented well in order to be meaningful. A simple “no, you’re wrong” is pretty useless. Ignoring the message of my article and saying “tournaments suck / sportification is bad / destroying that art / blah blah blah” is not only not a good argument, but usually entirely irrelevant to the topic at hand.

If you want to argue with me, I’m happy to have that discussion with you, but you have to argue well. That’s the deal.

What is a good argument?

A good argument tends to meet these criteria:

1) it stays on topic and does not diverge onto something irrelevant;

2) it commits no logical fallacies;

3) it is supported with evidence and is not just personal opinion.

Let’s examine these criteria in turn.

1) Staying on topic

If the argument is about the best way to interpret this technique, but after a few exchanges, you begin to talk about that other technique, then your argument lost its relevance. Bring it back on topic to finish the original discussion we were having.

There is nothing to gain by changing topic partway through the argument. Stay on topic, keep it relevant, and finish this discussion first. Then you can argue another issue if you want.

2) Commit no logical fallacies

There are several logical fallacies that can be committed during an argument, and each one serves only to weaken your own argument.

For example, a very common logical fallacy is the “ad hominem”, or an attack against the person rather than attacking their argument. If we disagree on how to interpret a technique, and you tell me that my interpretation is wrong “because I’m an idiot”, then it shows that all you can do to make your case is spew insults. That’s a very ineffective way to try to make your point!

Another common logical fallacy is the “straw man”, where instead of attacking my argument, you misrepresent what my argument is and then attack the misrepresentation. For example, if my argument is that “this is a good training method for general development”, but you argue against the misrepresentation that “this is a good training method for competition”, then you are not actually arguing with me – you are arguing with the “straw man” argument that you pretended (or assumed) I was saying.

If you commit logical fallacies, they undermine your argument, and then there is no point in continuing to debate with you. If you cannot argue correctly, and are just being contrary, then what’s the value in continuing the debate?

It is worth spending some time reading up on formal logic and common logical fallacies. This is useful information to have, in any case, because then you become better able to recognise effective and ineffective arguments that other people make, and you can avoid making ineffective arguments yourself. Wikipedia is as good a starting point for this study as anything else:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logic

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Formal_fallacy

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies

3) Support it with evidence

If I go to all the effort to provide a blog article with several quotations and footnotes to cite my sources, then you can do me the favour of supporting your own argument with similar quantities of evidence. You can’t be bothered writing a proper response with proper evidence? Then I can’t be bothered arguing with you.

You can debate informally in the pub. “Oh, I read somewhere that this thing happened” is probably the best evidence I can expect to hear in the pub after three or four beers. To be honest, that’s often the best evidence that I can give in the pub after three or four beers! But if you are at your computer, and you want to tell me why my well-reasoned, well-sourced article is wrong, then you need to up your game and debate at a higher level. You need to tell me exactly what is wrong and exactly why it is wrong, and provide your evidence for your assertion. After all, if you cannot provide any evidence, why should I believe you?

Conclusions

I’m more than happy to debate with you, if you make your arguments properly. In fact, if you make your arguments well, I may just agree with you and change my mind. I’m not so wedded to my points of view about HEMA that I would refuse to change my mind; on the contrary, I value the opportunity to learn from someone who knows more than I do, or who has put information into a more useful structure or framework than I have managed to achieve.

However, if you cannot argue properly, then I have no interest in having a debate with you. I think it will probably upset people to be told this, but it is important to give appropriate feedback to people, and sometimes the truth hurts.

KeithFarrell

KeithFarrell

Keith Farrell is one of the senior instructors for the Academy of Historical Arts. He teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events, and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. He has authored "Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick" and the "AHA German Longsword Study Guide", and is one of the regular contributors to the Encased in Steel online blog. He has been a member of HEMAC since 2011, and was awarded a HEMA Scholar Award for Best Instructor for research published in 2013.
KeithFarrell