Don't Get Emotionally Attached to Your Own Opinion

by Tina Blue
December 19, 2000

          One of the courses I teach at the University of Kansas is basic freshman-sophomore composition. I consider this course to be the cornerstone of a liberal arts education, because it isn't just a course in writing, but also a course in thinking clearly, analytically, and, above all, rationally.

          We flatter ourselves that we are a rational species. Actually, we are a species that can learn to be rational sometimes. But being rational is like any other complex human skill--it requires training and diligent practice, and it takes more effort than we are usually willing to put into it. Besides, the rewards of rational thought are not always obvious until you've already learned how to do it, so there's very little incentive for beginning that sort of intellectual training. That's why courses that involve such training are usually required rather than optional: who would willingly stifle his emotional responses to ideas or events in order to analyze them more clearly? Emotional responses, especially strong ones, are so much more exciting and satisfying than "dry" intellectual analysis.

          One of the first things I tell my freshmen is that they should not get emotionally involved in their essays. Sure, they should care enough about their subject to want to write about it, for if they have no enthusiasm, then their readers are bound to be unenthusiastic, too. But writing an analytical opinion essay is not like trying to win a debate. A debate is a contest between adversaries, and only one can win. An essay is more like a foray into a partly mapped landscape in the company of others who are seeking the same endpoint that you are seeking--the truth, or at least a

          The very word "essay" carries this meaning within it. "Essay" comes from the same root as "assay," and both words refer to a "test," an attempt to determine the true nature of the subject (or object) under examination. No assay is needed when the substance is already thoroughly known; no essay is needed if the subject is completely understood.

          The fact is, any subject controversial enough to produce two or more opposing viewpoints among intelligent and interested people is bound to be sufficiently complex to be beyond the full comprehension of anyone. I have little patience with people who argue with me when they clearly have not "done their homework"--i.e., when they have not bothered to become informed on the topic they presume to hold opinions on. But when someone who has made a study of a significant issue ends up with a conclusion different from--or even adamantly opposed to--mine, I do not dismiss that conclusion out of hand. I know it is far more likely that we each have figured out some part of the truth than that either one of us is completely right or completely wrong.

          The sort of essay we write in English 101 is typically referred to as "argumentative." I don't use that word in my own class, however, because when people hear "argument," they almost always think in terms of winning one by verbally browbeating those who would take the opposing side. To describe the sort of essay I would like my students to write, I use the admittedly awkward label "analytical/persuasive," because despite the awkwardness, it at least captures the spirit of cooperative inquiry that I would like to impress upon my students.

          "Persuasion" certainly sounds gentler and more reasonable than "argument"--more like a discussion, less like a fight. But "analytical" gets top billing, because the primary goal should be to understand the issue at hand, not just to persuade the reader to accept the writer's point of view as correct. In fact, if the reader knows something that would obviate the writer's position, the writer should hope to be corrected.

          The term for "argument" viewed thus is "dialectic." Here's the idea in its simplest form. You posit a "thesis," which is a conclusion you have arrived at after careful consideration of all the relevant points that you can discern. I consider carefully all the "arguments" (read "reasons" and "evidence") that you supply to show me how you have arrived at your conclusion. After giving your analysis careful consideration, I can see why you came to that conclusion, and may even believe that no further argument is necessary.

          But if I know of relevant details or points that you have not included, but that raise questions about the validity of your argument, I bring those issues to your attention, and then you modify your own conclusion to take those points into consideration. Having modified your own position to include the most convincing aspects of mine, you will then have arrived at a "synthesis" of the two opinions. Meanwhile, I also, being a reasonable person, will have modified my original position so that it will no longer ignore or exclude those clearly valid points in your analysis that I was previously unaware of or that I had previously excluded.

          The synthesis that you arrive at may or may not be the same as the one that I arrive at. If it is, we congratulate one another on our extraordinary insight and go out for pizza. But it doesn't usually work that way. Usually, we are still pretty far apart, so we have to go through the entire process again--and again, and again, depending on how complex the issue is and how far apart we were to begin with.

          So now I start with a new thesis. Where do I get it? Why, it's the synthesis I arrived at by modifying my original thesis to incorporate the new information or understanding that the other person's argument has provided. Remember, the way you get a thesis in the first place is by carefully analyzing all the relevant data you are aware of. If the other person's argument provides valid information or a reasonable perspective that you missed in your original analysis, then that analysis was incomplete, and by incorporating the new data into your view of the subject, you are merely extending the analysis so that it includes all the information you are now aware of. The synthesis thus arrived at is now the thesis for the next stage of analysis/persuasion.

          So now, new thesis in hand, I present to my interlocutor all the best arguments (reasons, evidence) I have to support my new conclusion, and he either agrees or else shows me, in an argument of his own, where my reasoning is flawed or where I have overlooked essential information. I take his carefully reasoned arguments into account, just as he has taken mine into account, and we each arrive at a modified position that incorporates the truths from the other person's arguments.

          Basic formula: thesis--antithesis--synthesis.  (And then the synthesis becomes the new thesis for another dialectical process, but at a higher level of validity.)

          This process assumes that none of us has a monopoly on the truth. Rather, we each possess a partial truth, but not necessarily the same partial truth as another person. Thus, if I can modify my partial truth to incorporate your partial truth, then the resulting truth, though still imperfect, will be more complete than what either of us possessed to begin with.

          Of course, this sort of argument can take place only if both parties are arguing in good faith. That means our shared goal must be to find truth, not to win the argument. If we care too much about proving ourselves right, that is bound to get in the way of reasoned argument. Thus, a good analytical/persuasive paper will tend to make qualified rather than absolute assertions, and to offer plenty of evidence and reasoning in support of its assertions.

          But a dispassionate attitude toward the argument does not mean that an essay of this sort must read like homework--all distant, dull, and objective. Rhetoric is the persuasive use of language. There is no reason not to strive for rhetorical effectiveness, as long as you are not trying to dazzle your reader into ignoring the flaws in your analysis or the valid points on the opposing side of the argument.

          Often the comments to some of my more controversial essays have been arguments against my thesis. All of those comments have also been reasoned and reasonable. We
generalize--all higher level thought requires generalization. But all generalizations are bound to leave open the possibility of contradiction.

          Thus, when I complain in "What's the Matter with Kids Today?" that modern children are all too often not socialized or civilized, I don't really mean that they are all awful, or even that most of them are, but rather that there are certain general trends in their behavior that distinguish them from children of earlier generations, and that many of those trends are unfortunate. I say "trends," because even strong trends do not cover everyone. One reader commented on that essay, pointing out places in my analysis that are contradicted by things he knows to be true. And he's right, too. A higher level of truth, a synthesis, would incorporate both his truths and mine--because what I say is certainly also true, though not entirely.

          Similarly, when the same reader contradicted my thesis in "Small Children Don't Belong at R-Rated Movies," what he said was quite true--and so is what I say. A higher level truth would incorporate both partial truths, yet even then it would still be only a partial truth.

          In our society we tend to go for the jugular, to care way too much about winning, about beating down the other guy. I think it would be nice if we could be on the same side. Even when we are on opposite sides of an issue, we should have the same goal of discovering the highest level of truth that our little human minds will allow us to reach. That isn't possible, by the way, if we demonize the other side. Let's assume, rather, that like ourselves our opponents are "arguing" in good faith, from the best of their knowledge after a careful study of the issue, just as we are.


NOTE:  To read the "second" part of this article, written in response to a comment a reader made on this part, click
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