When you are trying to teach or argue for something—whether in a debate, speech, lecture, or blog article—you should present the points as uncontroversial, perhaps even intuitive (so long as you aren’t being misleading); after all, you want the audience to believe what you are saying… right? This principle definitely holds true for some situations, but it can be misapplied or taken too far in other situations, as people ignore or overlook the value of establishing contrast or clash.
Although it is true that in activities like debate you often should try to establish an argument by making it seem uncontroversial/intuitive (when possible), in non-competitive or non-adversarial activities such as speech, teaching, blogging, etc. it can sometimes be beneficial (depending on your goals) to emphasize how your points contrast with other plausible beliefs. In this article I’ll clarify what I’m recommending, formally list out some of the ways I see it as beneficial, and illustrate with some examples.
Further clarification and illustration
Again, what I’m suggesting is that sometimes when you are making a point, you shouldn’t tiptoe around the implications or make the implications sound all rosy and vague; rather, you may want to actually target a contrasting principle, etc. For example, I could have just opened this article by saying “you shouldn’t always downplay clash,” but I chose to explicitly set it up against advice which, if delivered by itself in the right way, might come across as intuitive: present a point you are trying to make as obvious/uncontroversial, so as to make it more believable.
Beyond delivery/phrasing of your points, however, I would also sometimes recommend choosing points which are somewhat controversial or at least are not already widely believed, because these tend to be areas of need (think of the stock issue of inherency). For example, my experience has been that among homeschool leagues there is a very strong disdain towards Neville Chamberlain and his policies of appeasement towards Hitler. Although such mythos tends to make it very difficult to persuade most judges in debates, it represents a great opportunity and/or foil to teach about political and material constraints by offering the contrasting view—that such disdain for Chamberlain ignores the political reality (e.g., “Nor was the Nazi regime, in a time before its concentration camps and wartime atrocities, seen in such a monstrous light”; many people in the West did not want a second World War, and some felt that the outcome of WWI was unfair towards Germany) and military reality (e.g., “Even after Hitler secured power in Germany in 1933, few… favoured spending millions to rebuild our threadbare defences”) of the time. (This is not meant to rigorously defend Chamberlain’s actions, although I would encourage people to learn more about that aspect of history.)
To some people, highlighting contrast might seem obvious, and I wouldn’t disagree that to some extent I have seen people do this, but I have also seen plenty of cases where people failed to do so, whether in academic articles, books, Model United Nations (MUN) resolutions, etc. In particular, I remember reading a book some time ago (Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War…) which, although helpful in some ways, was at other times not very insightful especially when it focused heavily on truisms that had me thinking/annotating “Why/when would someone ever think this isn’t true? Why even bother mentioning this?” This issue leads well into the next section.
Why you should consider doing this
There are at least three major reasons I advocate emphasizing contrast in some situations: doing so can 1) make your audience more interested; 2) explain or tease out the implications of your points for your audience; and 3) help you personally think through the importance or accuracy of what you are saying.
I think it’s easy to underestimate or forget the value of the first reason: although I recognize that not everyone reads things for the same reasons, I can personally say that I tend to be far more interested in reading something that challenges ideas I previously had than something which just dryly or vaguely asserts something I generally already believed. One source that I’ve seen do this well is Freakonomics, whether they are talking about “How the Supermarket Helped America Win the Cold War” or “why suicide bombers should buy life insurance” (an argument which they later claimed was at least partially a trick to get foolish would-be suicide bombers to make themselves stand out by following their unusual “advice”). Additionally, many of the research/arguments by the famous psychologists Kahneman and Tversky (e.g., Thinking Fast and Slow) stand out as interesting because they challenged the pervasive claims that people act rationally.
Sometimes as a reader I ultimately end up disagreeing with the point being made, but even on some of those occasions I like being able to conceptually tether or juxtapose what is being said with broader ideas I am familiar with and then weigh things in my mind, which relates to the second point. For example, if someone is making an argument that either asserts or rejects rational actor explanations, I want the author to clearly say so. Another sub-reason here is that it can improve your persuasion’s “durability,” in the sense that when someone does later encounter contrary advice, they won’t just (perhaps unwittingly) “switch” beliefs.
Lastly, for an author, it is helpful to think about the implications of what you are arguing, both the “easy” and the “hard/challenging” implications; this especially applies regarding contrasts. For example, if you are making platitudinous statements (e.g., “follow your heart,” “regional tensions will increase as a result of the recent attack,”), you ought to consider their implications (or lack thereof): “follow your heart” might imply not following the voice of reason, and “tensions will increase” typically is obvious if you consider the alternative is “tensions will not increase as a result of an attack.” (Sometimes you do need to note such points even if they are obvious, but they generally shouldn’t be the main thrust of your overall analysis; they should just be briefly-noted building blocks.) However, if you find that a belief is widely held but highly questionable, you may want to emphasize that issue through contrast between at least facially-reasonable options.
I could devote an entire section to caveats, but I’ll just reiterate that this often is not ideal in adversarial debates and also add that you shouldn’t overdo this (e.g., don’t make something which truly is intuitive and uncontroversial sound counterintuitive). The bottom line is that in your writing and speaking you should avoid constant tiptoeing around implications. I for one am a bit tired of reading through long academic articles (for college) and struggling to evaluate them in comparison with my other experience/readings/beliefs because the authors are not very direct in their phrasing or explanation; in other situations, I simply find reading those articles to be boring as a result of them being somewhat uninformative, uncontroversial, vague, etc. Ultimately, I perceive that just some minor changes in people’s explanations and/or topic selections can improve their analysis as well as increase their audience’s interest and understanding/evaluation.