Learning the art of civil argument in an uncivil time
December 4, 2016 12:07 AM
Calum Matheson teaches an argumentation class inside the Cathedral of Learning on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh.
Students listen as Calum Matheson teaches an argumentation class.
Calum Matheson teaches an argumentation class.
Students raise their hands as Calum Matheson teaches an argumentation class.
By Bill Schackner / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In an age of Internet trolls, Twitter shaming, fake news and TV talking heads who shout each other down, discourse in America seems anything but civil.
So maybe it should come as no surprise that the course description for Calum Matheson’s class in argumentation at the University of Pittsburgh carries this reminder:
“Argument and abuse are not the same thing.”
Think it’s gotten rough out there?
Try teaching the time-honored skills of fact-based persuasion to students in a divided nation weaned on the warp speed and anonymity of social media.
It’s true that a coarsening of rhetoric is the buzz this fall among many communication professors. They, like the rest of America, just witnessed a bruising presidential campaign that seemed to embody what has been building for years.
The problem is not just wild, personal attacks and boorish behavior, experts say.
During his Tuesday night class in the Cathedral of Learning, Mr. Matheson explained to his students that informed decision-making vital to a democracy can erode when its citizens are bombarded with information from all sides — some subtly slanted, some blatantly false.
If someone actually believes outlandish conspiracy theories — that government leaders are lizard people, or the moon landing was faked — then imagine how many arguments devoid of facts slip past unchallenged in an online post or in a televised political speech.
“You can live in a bubble where all the news you hear conforms to what you already believe,” Mr. Matheson said in an interview.
“Sometimes I worry that the marketplace of ideas is more a big box store than anything else,” he said. “The cheaply produced, faulty and weak arguments catch on because it’s easy to believe them.”
But Mr. Matheson, an assistant professor of Civic Life and Public Deliberation, said it helps that some students are drawn to theories of argument as an antidote to the misinformation and distortions flying around them.
“I get a lot of students who are happy to finally have the knowledge to say that they know why these arguments are wrong or what makes this argument good.”
Mr. Matheson modified his course this fall to incorporate the just-concluded presidential campaign, and students were asked to watch and discuss how Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton debated.
But overall the course tackled larger theories of building and recognizing arguments, both good and bad. Students in the class explored theories including Aristotle's paths to persuasion and tied those ideas to events such as the famed Nixon-Kennedy presidential debate of 1960.
Topics included lying with numbers and why argument matters.
On Tuesday night, his students gathered for a presentation titled “Proofiness” and Democracy, in which the professor gave a stark demonstration of how public opinion can be manipulated with skewed and distorted arguments.
He asked for a show of hands of how many support more government regulation of fossil fuels. When nine of the 10 students raised their hands, he argued the contrary position, questioning whether global warming exists and saying that if it is real, it might actually be good for the planet.
For more than half an hour, Mr. Matheson, an experienced debater and debate coach, deluged his students with credible-sounding but misleading arguments so fast they couldn’t fact-check. Besides, they were told after the class had begun to put away their laptops.
As the students challenged him, he pushed back. “What do you base your opinion on?”
They were hard-pressed to give an exact answer.
“The liberal media?’’ one student replied.
“Web sites,” said another, flashing a sheepish grin. “I don’t know. Stuff.”
Then Mr. Matheson playfully chided them. “There are 10 of you and only one of me.”
Finally he asked for another class vote and found the number favoring more regulation was cut nearly in half.
“If I can convince you,’’ he told them at the conclusion of the exercise, “I can definitely convince other people who have not been trained in argument like you have in this course.”
This fall, the talk among many communication professors was the inflammatory rhetoric of President-elect Trump, said Trevor Parry-Giles, a professor and rhetorician who is interim executive director of the National Communication Association. The group headquartered in Washington, D.C., advances communication as a discipline.
Some Democrat-leaning professors faced a particular challenge, he said. They had to avoid imposing their personal political views in the classroom, while at the same time examining the campaign’s divisive rhetoric in a scholarly way. “We owe it to our students to honestly and straightforwardly discuss how discourse has declined,” said Mr. Parry-Giles, who teaches at the University of Maryland.
But for all the preoccupation with Mr. Trump as an outlier, there have been other periods of vitriolic rhetoric in political history.
He said Zachary Taylor, a general whose rhetoric was coarse and who like Trump lacked political experience, nevertheless won the White House and took office in 1849 at a time when the country was divided over issues including expansion of slavery into new territories.
Then there was Abraham Lincoln, who may have been “Honest Abe” to some, but called something less flattering by others.
Despot, liar, braggart, buffoon, usurper, monster, ignoramus Abe, fiend, butcher — those are among the pejoratives hurled at him, say historians who cite a 1864 Harper’s Weekly article, a year before the nation’s 16th president was assassinated.
One of the students in Mr. Matheson’s class, Parker Forman, 20, a sophomore communication and political science double major from Harrisburg, said he was struck by “how easily people can be persuaded.”
Classmate Kiahna Skaggs, 19, a sophomore biological sciences major also from Harrisburg, said it happens regularly in the class, and it leaves her in awe. “One week he made us believe the world was virtual reality.”
Both acknowledged the challenge of sorting through information, good and bad, and sounded disillusioned by the level of political discourse of late, as evidenced by this year’s presidential campaign.
“It was overbearing. It was too much,” Mr. Forman said. “There were Twitter wars between the two candidates. Their arguments were in 140 characters — not 140 words — but characters.”
That disappointment is what worries some afraid that growing incivility will turn away a generation of young people from public service.
A pair of national surveys conducted by Zogby and commissioned by Allegheny College show the extent to which the problem has increased.
Among the findings, the surveys found the share of people who felt it unacceptable to interrupt someone in a public forum declined from 77 percent in 2010 to 51 percent this year. The share who felt it was wrong to belittle or insult someone declined from 89 percent to 74 percent.
“I worry we are becoming numb to the incivility around us,” said the school’s president James Mullen Jr.
At Juniata College, Celia Cook-Huffman reminds those she teaches that crossing a line from opposing one’s view to vilification of the person can progress to an extreme where, a person’s rights, and even right to live are questioned.
“You can wage conflict. Sometimes we have to. Lots of change happens in the world because of conflict,” said Ms. Cook-Huffman, an assistant provost and professor of peace and conflict studies. “What you should never lose sight of is the other person’s humanity.”
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.
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