Imagine a group of friends gathered around a table — eating, talking, and enjoying one another’s company. As these friends discuss life, their conversation turns to politics and they quickly discover they hold different views on particular policy issues. But instead of descending into a heated exchange or changing the subject, the friends begin to respectfully discuss and debate the merits and weaknesses of each position.
Although this scenario may seem unlikely in the emotionally charged political climate we are living in today, PLNU’s Speech and Debate Team coach, Dr. Skip Rutledge, and students and alumni of the team are using the same skills that made them national champions to encourage conversations that lead to deep thinking and potentially even solutions to society’s ills.
“It’s about being receptive to other viewpoints and not just taking it in, but testing it, and having some sort of a moral compass that helps determine the direction,” said Rutledge. Considering his track record as coach of this award-winning team, he may be onto something.
If you haven’t yet heard, PLNU has the best speech and debate team in the nation — and that’s not hyperbole or pride speaking. Over the past 20 years, our debaters have cumulatively outscored their competitors by at least a third more points than the second place team. This includes teams from schools such as University of California, Berkeley; UCLA; Azusa Pacific University; Notre Dame; and the U.S. Air Force Academy, just to name a few. Typically in the top five or top 10, PLNU has taken the number one spot five times in the past 15 years, claiming second place this spring.
But their drive goes far beyond winning trophies — these young men and women and their coaches want to re-establish a culture that recognizes logical fallacies and abuses of rhetoric.
In his current position as the executive director of the California Rifle & Pistol Association, the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association, PLNU alumnus and former debater Rick Travis (01) regularly puts the skills he learned in speech and debate into practice, arguing in front of commissions in the state of California.
“I would say 90 percent of people, not just in California, but in the country, are just in the middle, looking at other people to make decisions and tell them what they are,” Travis said. “And that makes it really hard because whether it’s a Christian looking at apologetics, or whether it’s in the day-to-day politics that affect us all, I would say that learning the patience and the ability to discern the arguments is one of the most valuable tools, both for my professional and spiritual life.”
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This ability to discern an argument can be more difficult than one may think, due to a prevalence of logical fallacies. Whether someone is being purposefully manipulative or is simply unaware of how to properly craft an argument, many of the persuasive speeches or emotive responses we encounter are illogical.
And many may be surprised with just how often they confront “arguments” that require their attention. They emerge in the form of an enterprising friend making the case for his or her product, or your teenager making an impassioned plea to attend a concert, or your favorite late night comedian making you laugh along with humorous political rhetoric. Once we are made aware of their presence, previously subtle tactics of persuasion materialize seemingly everywhere, not solely in political speeches.
These young men and women and their coaches want to re-establish a culture that recognizes logical fallacies and abuses of rhetoric.
The Tools of Influence
The skills of speech and debate — of logic and rhetoric — are tools of influence. And like most tools, they can be used for good or harm. In order to wield this influence well, one must first learn a couple of best practices.
First and foremost, good debaters will take the time to set aside their own emotions and put themselves in the position of their opponent without judgment. As famed peak performance coach Tony Robbins states, “You can’t influence someone when you’re judging them.”
In speech and debate, this skill is called Counter Attitudinal Advocacy — essentially learning to take the other position. And it begins with listening to what the other side has to say in order to understand the premise of their argument.
As Coach Rutledge states, “Rather than just being programmed by some other outside force, you’re taught instead to question things a little bit more.”
Melissa Lazaro (97), former undergraduate debater, coach, and PLNU communications professor of 15 years, uses this skill in her current position as a recruiter for Tesla. “I’m listening to the meta message,” she explained. “What is the message behind the message? Why are they sharing this particular information with me? What else could this mean? And when [recruiting candidates] give me an answer to my question, I use those skills to pry into their statement to really get to know them and understand where they’re coming from and how they think.”
Rutledge follows up by saying, “At the end of this exercise you may say, ‘I still hold firm to my original position, but I recognize that the concerns voiced by the other side are legitimate and need to be understood, and then hopefully addressed, maybe even resolved. Since I am so opposed to what I see their answer to be, maybe I need to invest myself in finding out what another answer is.’”
Frankly, even if we never change our minds, we’ll at least be better able to engage those we’re conversing with by attempting to empathize with them and understand where they’re coming from.
Second, a good debater disagrees agreeably. Of course, this can be difficult when we are emotionally invested. However, if we are going to address an argument logically, we must temporarily set aside our emotions and refrain from vilifying our opponent.
Travis appreciated the way PLNU’s Speech and Debate Team provided a “laboratory of safety for examining ideas” and encourages people to create similar environments.
“I grew up in a family that held the view, ‘We’re not going to talk politics, religion, and other things at the dinner table.’ That’s exactly what should be talked about. It should be a place where you can openly engage and say, ‘Well, let’s not get mad, but let’s ask. Is this really right?’ I’ve found, often, those are the most beneficial conversations because you gain a deeper understanding of the issues and you’re able to clarify what’s really at stake and come up with something that actually works.”
So, the next time we’re seated at the table, let’s create space to critically explore challenging questions, striving to clarify the deeper issues and wield the tools of influence with integrity. As we cultivate an ability to recognize any illogical fallacies presented, we must keep in mind that if an argument relies on a fallacy, it doesn’t necessarily mean the claim is untrue, but is perhaps just poorly stated. We can be gracious in our conversations, seeking to understand and not just be heard, and in so doing, perhaps we will find more than just answers; perhaps we will find reconciliation.
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5 COMMON LOGICAL FALLACIES TO AVOID
Whether in a social discussion about governmental policy, in an office meeting, or even just in a negotiation with your spouse or kids, avoid using these logical fallacies and learn to detect them in the arguments of others.
- ARGUMENTUM AD HOMINEM
Prevalent in Facebook trolling and young children’s fights alike, this fallacy bears no logic at all. It is simply a personal attack that has nothing to do with the truth of the target’s statements.
2. STRAW PERSON ARGUMENT
This fallacy is an oversimplification or exaggeration of the opposition’s argument for the sake of creating an easier target to knock down (i.e., a straw person). Evident on both sides of many “science versus religion” arguments, an example of this fallacy would be an anti-theist lumping all people of faith into one group.
3. THE BANDWAGON FALLACY
Relying upon the popularity or widespread belief of a position rather than justifying its validity with evidence, this fallacy is also known as an appeal to the masses. An example may occur in a meeting among agreeable individuals: “So if everyone agrees that billboards are the best way to advertise, we’ll focus the bulk of our budget there.”
4. EQUIVOCATION (ALSO KNOWN AS “DOUBLESPEAK”)
This fallacy occurs when a word or concept with more than one meaning or an ambiguous meaning is used one way in one context, and another way in another context. For a literary example, consider this conversation between Alice and the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: “You couldn’t have it if you didn’t want it,” the Queen said. “The rule is jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today.” “It must come to jam today,” Alice objected. “No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every other day: today isn’t any other day, you know.”
5. THE CORRELATION/CAUSATION FALLACY (ALSO KNOWN AS “POST HOC”)
This is the old standby you have likely faced many times in which a cause and effect relationship is superimposed on two events, i.e., “Mary didn’t get a fever. Witches don’t get fevers. Therefore, Mary is a witch.”