WIN EVERY ARGUMENT: The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking, by Mehdi Hasan
SAY THE RIGHT THING: How to Talk About Identity, Diversity, and Justice, by Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow
There’s a classic essay by the critic and queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick that makes an illuminating distinction between what she calls “paranoid reading” and “reparative reading” — different ways of understanding texts that could also effectively describe different ways of interacting with the world.
Paranoia entails scanning the horizon for threats, presuming the worst so that you won’t be caught by surprise; a reparative approach entails openness and receptivity, a willingness to wait and see. One pounces; the other embraces. Both have their uses. The “reparative” spirit might sound appealingly generous, but not every situation deserves it. Bad arguments, bad actors, bad faith: Sometimes paranoia is exactly what’s called for.
I was reminded of Sedgwick’s essay when reading two new books about talking to others: “Win Every Argument,” by the MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan, and “Say the Right Thing,” by the law professors Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow. Both books are impeccably timed, speaking to a moment when many people find themselves drawn into arguments but also fearful of saying something that will hurt someone or (and) get the person saying it into trouble. They also reflect these “paranoid” and “reparative” modes, demonstrating the possibilities and limitations of each.
Hasan’s book is, by necessity, the more straightforward of the two. He has an unambiguous case to make: He will teach you not just how to argue but how to win. Whether you are debating on national television or sniping at the Thanksgiving table, there are distinct parties involved: You, your opponent and your audience. You persuade your audience by demolishing your opponent. By necessity, a good strategy is paranoid; you’re on the lookout for missteps and weak spots so that you can poke a hole in your opponent’s argument and bring it all down. These conflicts are zero-sum. There is no “win-win” here.
Hasan offers an entertaining primer on rhetorical techniques, including what Aristotle called appeals to logos (reason), pathos (emotion) and ethos (authority). Logos is the basic stuff of argument: Present the facts and draw connections between them. But it would be a pretty fantasy to think that the facts can speak for themselves: “The reality is that pathos beats logos almost every time.”
Not that you can get away with making things up willy-nilly. You have to do your homework. You have to show up prepared. On his show, Hasan is known for confronting his guests (or “opponents”) with factual evidence, pinning them down with details so that they can’t wriggle out of a question and are left to squirm. Like Rambo, he says, he loves to lay a booby trap. “Boom!” he writes, going on to describe how satisfying it is to watch the crestfallen look on his opponent’s face once the trap has been sprung. Leave a trail of bread crumbs so that your opponent is munching and oblivious until it’s too late. Hasan promises “a showstopper moment.”
When it comes to the kind of argument Hasan has in mind, drama is crucial. A well-timed pause, some steady eye contact, a dazzling show of confidence — all of this, he says, will hold your audience’s attention and earn its good will. Even an ad hominem attack can serve your purposes when done right: Pointing out your opponent’s hypocrisy or conflict of interest can effectively erode that person’s authority, rendering their most high-minded arguments suspect. Hasan’s opponents don’t necessarily feel good after debating him; they are “left stuttering and stammering,” “red-faced and speechless” — in other words, humiliated. In his book, a common coda to a successful altercation is that it “went viral.”
Needless to say, the debates that Hasan writes about seem to meet certain conditions — you have a case to make; your opponent has a case to make; you’re more or less equally matched; and whatever you say won’t impinge on the relationship between you (and even if it does, you don’t care). In “Say the Right Thing,” Yoshino and Glasgow are talking about different kinds of conversations. Relating is all, even if the person you’re talking to starts out as a stranger. Disagreement might be part of it, but even disagreement can be reparative; the key is to do it in a way that leads “your conversation partner to feel more heard and respected.”
Yoshino and Glasgow, who founded the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at the New York University School of Law, say that talking across different identities can feel especially fraught now. As gay men, they write, “we know firsthand that for vulnerable people, such interactions can be devastating when handled poorly, and transformative when handled well.”
They distinguish between “dominant” and “nondominant” sides of a conversation — which can shift, depending on who the parties are and what the conversation is about. Such interactions, they point out, have always had an element of discomfort, but only the nondominant party was the one to bear it. Now, in the words of the social psychologist Jennifer Richeson, discomfort is being “democratized.” This development is something the authors welcome. Instead of trying to evade discomfort or getting enraged by it, they counsel the newly fretful to ask themselves, “Why have I been comfortable until now?”
“Say the Right Thing” is full of practical advice, gently (but also firmly) delivered. Yoshino and Glasgow say that shaming is counterproductive, and they’re candid about the times when they themselves have felt defensive or self-pitying or otherwise came up short. Fatalism can be the enemy of compassion; you have to believe you can grow and learn in order to believe that growing and learning is a possibility for others. Disagreement can be productive — but the authors also point to situations where the participants on one side may feel as if they’re engaging in a simple policy debate, “a purely intellectual exercise,” while those on the other side feels as if their very humanity is being called into question.
Reading these two books, I was struck by how often we see people getting their wires crossed — shrinking from an argument for fear of confrontation, or else approaching a delicate conversation with an aggrieved ego and daggers drawn. Social media has been especially corrosive, turning every interaction into a public performance. One of the most difficult things about this moment is that for anyone who cares about the fate of democracy or the planet, paranoia — or vigilance — has turned out to be indispensable. But calling out and dismantling the bad stuff is only the half of it; it’s worth remembering that there is plenty that needs repairing, too.
WIN EVERY ARGUMENT: The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking | By Mehdi Hasan | 317 pp. | Henry Holt & Company | $27.99
SAY THE RIGHT THING: How to Talk About Identity, Diversity, and Justice | By Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow | 228 pp. | Atria Books | $28
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