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Words matter.

The way we describe things shapes the way we view them.

As a debater, this is fairly obvious. Debate is based on the idea that words matter. But have you considered what words we — as a society, not just as debaters — use to describe intellectual discourse?

In their book Metaphors We Live By, authors Johnson and Layoff point out that word choice for argumentation creates a divisive, zero-sum game mentality. For example, consider the following metaphors from war commonly used to refer to argumentation:

-Your claims are indefensible.

-He attacked every weak point in my argument.

-His criticisms were right on target.

-I demolished his argument.

-I’ve never won an argument with him.

-You disagree? Okay, shoot!

-If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.

-He shot down all of my arguments.

Johnson and Layoff continue (emphasis added):

“Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war. Though there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle, and the structure of an argument–attack, defense, counter-attack, etc.—reflects this. It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing.

Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different. It would seem strange even to call what they were doing “arguing.” In perhaps the most neutral way of describing this difference between their culture and ours would be to say that we have a discourse form structured in terms of battle and they have one structured in terms of dance…. It is not that arguments are a subspecies of war. Arguments and wars are different kinds of things–verbal discourse and armed conflict–and the actions performed are different kinds of actions. But ARGUMENT is partially structured, understood, performed, and talked about in terms of WAR

Moreover, this is the ordinary way of having an argument and talking about one. The normal way for us to talk about attacking a position is to use the words “attack a position.” Our conventional ways of talking about arguments presuppose a metaphor we are hardly ever conscious of. The metaphor is not merely in the words we use–it is in our very concept of an argument. The language of argument is not poetic, fanciful, or rhetorical; it is literal. We talk about arguments that way because we conceive of them that way–and we act according to the way we conceive of things.

The problem with this diction is that it creates a culture a competition. An environment of envy. A Malthusian struggle of survival. Evidence and cases are hidden from each other, like in an arms race, so debaters can gain “the upper hand.” Arguments are run, not because they’re believed in, but because they’re easy to “win” with. Most people have a win-lose mentality: that a lost debate round is “lost,” and therefore a failure. But the Truth breeds a win-win mentality: as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another (Prov. 27:17).

I think the authors are onto something. We should think of argumentation as a dance. Or something else. Something that emphasizes that argumentation is about people who don’t know everything trying to discover the truth together.

Because words matter.

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