Time for Toulmin: Argument and the Common Good, Part II

Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., watches as a participant attending a town hall meeting in Lebanon, Pa. is restrained by another participant on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009. Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Specter faced hostile questions, taunts and jeers as he gamely tried to explain his positions. (AP Photo/The Patriot-News, Christine Baker)

Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., watches as a participant attending a town hall meeting in Lebanon, Pa. is restrained by another participant on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009. Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Specter faced hostile questions, taunts and jeers as he gamely tried to explain his positions. (AP Photo/The Patriot-News, Christine Baker)

The national debate on health care reform touches on just about everything except heath care. For instance, some people have made it a referendum on the appropriate size and reach of government. Others see in it a way to curb the appetites of greedy corporations. Still others have turned the debate into a vehicle to further a pro-choice agenda, causing some to balk understandably at the notion of government-financed abortions.  If you can think of a pet ideology, then it has probably been trotted out within the last few weeks. In many ways this national brouhaha continues the themes and fights of last year’s presidential campaigns. Characteristic of presidential-style campaigns, each faction wants to make its point as simply as possible, and each provides supporters with the easily digested, bite-sized talking points: no to big government, no to socialized medicine, no to corporate fat cats, no to poverty, etc.

Just like in a major national campaign, backroom wags work to reduce the other side’s points to the most effective level of abhorrence. As this scenario develops, we eventually get people yelling at one another across town hall forums. The shouting matches, like the recent one hosted by Arlen Specter, are about such things as who loves the country more and who respects the constitution and who feels his or her voice is being squelched the most. All good points, these issues are not making anyone healthier—least of all, Specter who aged before our eyes.

The showdown in Pennsylvania is not really argument though. Oh sure, there was a fight, but not the kind of fight that binds us in “civic amity,” as John Courtney Murray put it. This fight, and the others like it, make more heat than light, and, as a result, the country has gotten pretty heated up over lots of things—but not health care.

Call me naïve, but the reaction to the poll on infant mortality surprised me. I did not know it was such the bête noir of those from a certain perspective. However, the ensuing civil argument has caused me to reflect in a different way on part two of my post on argument and the common good. I have three brief points to make.

First, Americans love harmony; dissent often gets cast as being un-American or unjust. We want to end the discord as quickly as possible. President Obama knows this better than anyone.  As long as this national debate continues his approval ratings will drop.Therefore, like Jesus to Judas, Obama urges congress, “Do what you must do, and do it quickly.” (I know it’s not a perfect comparison. Obama is not the savior of the world, and Congress probably wont have a hand crucifying Obama; or will it?) Conventional wisdosm says the quicker we can get this thing to a vote, the less Americans have to watch normally mild-mannered retirees screaming down Senators. It might be good for CNN’s ratings, but it’s not good for the mood of the country. We have a week stomach for disagreement. Even the Obama stalwarts are starting to change their minds, and this is what they elected him to do. The ideas have not changed. Our tolerance for debate just is not what we believe it to be.

Secondly, perhaps Americans could grow more comfortable with argument and debate if the proper purpose and mode of debate were understood. Argument among factions can be a heuristic device rather than an implement to bludgeon others into submission. In other words, when engaged in argument with the idea of discovering the right paths, argument takes on a new sense of purpose. It’s not just about marshalling compromise or settling old scores. It’s about finding a way forward, perhaps a way that was not obvious to either party at the beginning. Argument will uncover the truth. If children in school were taught to fight, by which I mean argue, with the understanding that argument can help in the quest for truth then the nation might be more comfortable with discord, dissent, and conflict.

Of course cynics sit on the sidelines asking, “How will you get everyone to agree that is the purpose of argument.” Fair enough. But cynicism comes from a deep distrust of humanity—a humanity created in the image of God. Moreover, cynicism comes from an even deeper distrust in God—the only one who can wipe away human sinfulness.

Thirdly, establishing trust in the power and purpose of argument will also teach us that screaming at senators, while well within our rights, will not achieve the same thing as people locked together in the kind of argument that produces civic amity. I would suggest a starting place for learning about helpful argument would be the work of Stephen Toulmin. The Toulmin Method for analyzing and building casual (as opposed to formal) arguments helps argument go deeper. Toulmin asks us to analyze the evidence supporting our implicit and explicit assumptions. Often the implicit assumptions girding up our claims are based upon weak evidence; sometimes these implicit assumptions remain forever unspoken and occasionally are unknown to the arguer himself. Sometimes we argue as if we know someone else’s implicit assumptions.
In a subsequent post, I hope to explain and apply the Toulmin Method to parts of the health care debate.


4 Responses to Time for Toulmin: Argument and the Common Good, Part II

  1. Agustin Maes says:

    My comment is completely unrelated to your most recent post, but I’m trying to figure out who it was at Whosoever Desires that posted a link to a piece by Tim O’Brien in The Atlantic. Any idea? (Or do I misremember being led to the article by way of WD?)

  2. AF says:

    Excellent points, and the idea of finding a way forward is quite lovely.

    Toulin asking us to analyze the evidence behind our assumptions is good here, to get people to not only analyze the evidence but to find the evidence at all. Part of the problem with the health care debate is that people just don’t know what evidence is there – they don’t know what’s in the bill. (That, of course, is mostly because there are several bills, all complicated.) And a lot of misinformation has filled in that vacuum, which is a whole ‘nother debate. Anyway, Toulin!

    Also, NYT has graphics:
    comparing the bills
    how they could be reconciled.

  3. AF says:

    Er, Toulmin. And it’s even in the clever little post title! Sigh.

  4. karen davis says:

    Maybe the town hall protestors should read Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience on enacting opposition against our legislative branch of government.
    While Thoreau specifically addresses slavery and the Mexican/American War (1846-48), our democratic system remains basically the same. While we no longer have slaves per se, our nation’s poor and immigrants (yes, I’m aware that we do not force immigrants to cross our borders against their will) still suffer human rights injustices. And, of course, we remain deeply entrenched in the war business.
    Thoreau states:
    “ But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.
    “…. Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? — in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience.”
    To Thoreau “make known” is refusal to pay taxes if those taxes are imposed against his (now her too) conscience and to refuse to fight in an unjust war, especially where we are the aggressors. Screaming nonsense at a town hall meeting is not risky, refusing to pay taxes or to go to war can land one in jail and threaten property. And isn’t legislating universal health care a matter of conscience to which we should be holding the government accountable?
    And for those who believe in the higher authority:
    “However, the government does not concern me much, and I shall bestow the fewest possible thoughts on it. It is not many moments that I live under a government, even in this world. If a man is thought-free, fancy-free, imagination-free, that which is not never for a long time appearing to be to him, unwise rulers or reformers cannot fatally interrupt him… Seen from a lower point of view, the Constitution, with all its faults, is very good; the law and the courts are very respectable; even this State and this American government are, in many respects, very admirable and rare things, to be thankful for, such as a great many have described them; but seen from a point of view a little higher, they are what I have described them; seen from a higher still, and the highest, who shall say what they are, or that they are worth looking at or thinking of at all?
    I know that most men think differently from myself; but those whose lives are by profession devoted to the study of these or kindred subjects, content me as little as any. Statesmen and legislators, standing so completely within the institution, never distinctly and nakedly behold it. They speak of moving society, but have no resting-place without it. They may be men of a certain experience and discrimination, and have no doubt invented ingenious and even useful systems, for which we sincerely thank them; but all their wit and usefulness lie within certain not very wide limits. They are wont to forget that the world is not governed by policy and expediency.”
    Thoreau concludes:
    “The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to — for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well — is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”

    I’d like to believe that Americans want a government with a conscience that promotes a just society where human rights (including health care) for all its citizens (and maybe for some who are not citizens, but want to live in a more just and enlightened society) is a priority, so we can focus more on environmental activism (activism in the productive sense) and policy to inhibit the actions of those who see violence as a means to a political end.
    Carrying on at town hall meetings and yelling “fascism” and “socialism” (don’t people know the difference between these opposing ideologies?), at its best is just annoying and distracting and at its worst is embarrassing and counterproductive for our national and ultimately international interests. If these people sincerely believe that denying health care to all Americans is somehow just, then maybe they should put their own costly health care and comfortable lives on the line and refuse to pay their taxes.

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