From College To Media
Sac State vs. The Suck State of Mainstream Media
Chapter 8: Strategies for Winning a Debate

Introduction: A Journey Through Mass Media Education
Chapter 1: Why I Majored in Communication
Chapter 2: The Art of Radio
Chapter 3: Writing TV News
Chapter 4: Studying To Be a Rock Star
Chapter 5: Exploring the Age of Incoherence
Chapter 6: The Science of Media Persuasion
Chapter 7: How Stats Influence Perceptions
Chapter 8: Strategies for Winning a Debate
Chapter 9: Programming Music Instead of Computers
Chapter 10: My Career in Media

by Alex Cosper, November 22, 2015

Argumentation was a fun class the sharpened my critical thinking skills. The class helped clarify in my mind how to be assertive in a debate or discussion and tear down fragile opinions. I never wanted to be a lawyer, I just enjoyed winning arguments. Ultimately, the class gave me the tools I needed to guard against backstabbers in the radio biz.

It was one of those classes where they divided the room up into four groups, which were then subdivided into opposing teams. I wound up in a debate about TV violence and I somehow was on the team that was defended the position that TV violence isn't that bad. At the time I didn't a strong opinion either way on the issue, but years later I began to view Hollywood as a promoter of commercialized violence.

From the class I learned that I could take any side of any argument and build a case. It kept me alert, but I still had a sense there was a big difference between right and wrong. In other words, it didn't make me want to defend any position. Many people who are inexperienced in argumentation training cling to fragile positions for egotistical reasons, but I know it's smarter to admit when I'm wrong than to get exposed trying to defend a weak position.

In the legal world, burden of proof falls on the prosecution, whereas the defense doesn't have to prove anything. But a political debate is a different arena with different standards. A personal argument is even more different because usually there's no moderator, and more often than not, neither side has learned the discipline of professional argumentation. Personal arguments tend to be much more emotional and can escalate into yelling, name calling and insults.

Another class I took called "Conflict Resolution," dealt with a modern approach to personal disagreements. It taught me that many personal conflicts are the result of either miscommunication or lack of respect. If you start with the premise that people should be respected and treated as intelligent, then it eliminates a high percentage of conflicts. Aiming for a win-win outcome is also more powerful than the old paradigm in which one side wins and the other loses.

As soon as you introduce second guessing to what someone is thinking, you run the risk of tuning out everything they say and just writing them off as a fool, liar or worse. Of course, people do lie, so it's not as if you can trust everybody all the time. I still believe that you can minimize conflicts by surrounding yourself with people you trust and then giving them the benefit of the doubt they aren't conspiring against you. That attitude helped shape my leadership skills as a radio program director.

If Your Premise Isn't True

A real debate, unlike the typical garbage on TV, is supposed to be a friendly exchange of opposing views that presents evidence for expanding knowledge on an issue. It's possible that both sides are right about all the evidence they present, so it doesn't have to be set up like a showdown between bitter enemies. I always watched debates between candidates for president or governor and noticed the demeanor was usually more professional than the stereotypical type of debate in which two opponents bash each other.

As a kid I viewed debates the same way most Americans do, which is to take sides before the debate and imagine your side is winning the whole time. I also tended to judge debates more on style than substance, until I took Argumentation at Sac State.

One of the fastest ways to shoot down a weak argument is to question the premise. The premise is the foundation that an argument is built upon. If a premise can't be proven with credible sources, then you can just keep attacking the premise until it's clear that the argument is stacked like a house of cards ready to collapse.

Here's an example of a false premise: "Since Mr. X doesn't have a key to your apartment, he couldn't have been the guy who stole the money off your dresser." This premise presupposes that whoever the thief was, he or she had to have had a key. It also doesn't prove that Mr. X has no key. These claims require supporting statements, otherwise the whole premise falls apart.

Beauty vs. Beast

Polls after debates often reflect more on appearances and feelings candidates generate, rather than their stance on the issues or how well they laid out logical arguments. Politicians, unfortunately, usually are more about image than substance.

As a third grader who saw snippets of the JFK-Nixon debate over a decade after they originally aired, I thought Kennedy won just because he looked, sounded and acted more confident than Nixon. In my adult years once I actually studied their policies, I still thought Kennedy was superior. But my thinking did change about debates, partly because of the Argumentation course.

I realized that when it comes to politics, if all you're going to judge a candidate on is their looks and mannerisms without any regard to policies, then all you're doing is cancelling out the vote of someone with a little more brain power. Judging on looks, speaking ability and mannerisms is so besides the point of a debate, yet it obviously matters. If it's just about a beauty contest, why bother speak about anything?

People who think in terms of image over substance - which might describe millions of voters - are actually contributing to the nation's problems instead of solutions. Problems are solved by logic, not beauty. The idea that the president or any leader wins their position based on image rather than substance is a big reason why politicians turn out to be so disappointing after they're elected.

A Collection of Fallacies

Fallacies are faulty claims that you can identify during a debate. There are hundreds of different possible fallacies you can cite, but here are some of the more common ones.

01. Character assassination or ad hominem is when you insult the messenger instead of addressing the issue.
02. Changing the subject is an easy way out of confrontation, but also a good way to lose points in a debate.
03. Strawman is an attempt at trying to knock down an entire argument by misrepresenting the opposing view.
04. The bandwagon fallacy presumes that just because something is popular it's legitimate.
05. Ad temperantiam is the assumption that a compromise between opposing views is always correct.
06. Ad ignorantiam occurs when implying that something is true or false just because the opposite cannot be proven.
07. Begging the question is when you offer a conclusion as part of the premise.
08. Shifting the burden of proof happens when you resist proving your case and rely on the opposition's failure to disprove it.
09. Circular thinking is when the premise presumes the conclusion is true.
10. Cause and effect fallacies involve lack of evidence that one variable causes another to happen.
11. Quoting out of context occurs when a quote is used in an improper or misleading way.
12. False authority purports someone is an expert source when they really are not.
12. False dilemma implies only two alternatives are possible when there may be several more.
13. Red herring is a deflection or distraction from the main point with something irrelevant.
14. Cherry picking is using highly selective evidence that supports the conclusion.
15. Two wrongs make a right is the inaccurate position that presumes two wrongs will offset each other.
16. Slippery slope presumes a small event will lead to a chain of events with big consequences.
17. Equivocation is deliberately using words with multiple or unclear meanings.
18. Guilt by association undermines someone's credibilty based on who they know personaly.
19. Half truth is something that has an element of truth while certain important factors are suppressed.
20. Lying with statistics is a form of data distorton that uses stats in a misleading way.
19. Playing on emotion is ignoring facts and shifting the focus on emotional behavior as evidence.
20. Reductionism is giving simplistic answers to questions that demand complex answers.
21. Loaded questions have presumed answers such as those that begin with "don't you agree?"
22. Non sequitur is a conclusion that does not follow the evidence.
23. Exluded middle or polarization is the consideration of only extreme positions.
24. Stereotyping or generalization suggests someone part of a group shares all attributes of that group.
25. Scare tactics involve trying to influence by appealing to fear.

Exposing Nonsense

Part of your job in a debate is to not let the opponent get away with making false claims. If you can't prove something is false, it's better to leave it alone because then you risk being exposed as a phony on a point, which potentially can diminish your credibility. The object isn't to see who can tell the best lies, it's really the exact opposite.

I studied the JFK assassination since I was a kid. By college I had read a stack of books about it. Instead of believing in a conclusion then looking for facts to back it up, I spent plenty of time examining the evidence. By questioning the evidence without jumping to conclusions, I was able to learn much more about government, military, economics and politics than just accepting the Warren Report's conclusion, which itself was just based on theories since no witness could verify the lone assassin storyline.

Many people develop conspiracy theories out of dreaming about scenarios. I'm more interested in starting with the facts then looking for patterns. There's no question that imagination becomes part of the mix when you start engaging in conspiracy theories, but it doesn't mean you have to sum everything up to a simple explanation and then stay married to it like an egomaniac.

The interesting thing about the JFK case was how physical evidence didn't correspond with the Warren Report. It becomes obvious for people with an open mind that the commission didn't consider all the available evidence, otherwise they would have had better explanations why so many of the closest witnesses disagreed with the lone gunman theory.

Some of the many things the commission ignored included over 50 witnesses who saw and smelled smoke and heard shots come from the "grassy knoll" area. The commission concluded that these witnesses were mistaken and that all the shots came from behind the presidential limousine, as if all they were trying to do was stick with evidence that supported the premise that Oswald acted alone.

There's a long list of other oddities the commission glossed over. If Oswald were just a lone nut trying to go down in history as an assassin why did he completely deny shooting the president? Other questions that keep the case a mystery include:

01. Why did the limousine slow down during the shooting?
02. Why was the president an open target with no body guards near him?
03. Why was there no explanation for the second rifle found in the Texas School Book Depository found by Officer Roger Craig?
04. If Oswald was a lone nut, why was he allowed back in the US after he defected to the USSR and married the daughter of a Russian KGB agent?
05. Who was the umbrella man, who started opening and closing his umbrella on a sunny day as the shots rang out?
06. If the shots all came from behind, why did the president's brain matter spray backward onto the windshields of two police motorcycles?
07. Why was a supposed loner like Oswald friends with George De Mohrenschildt, who had ties with the intelligence community?
08. Why were so many witnesses who disagreed with the Warren Report mysteriously murdered?
09. Why did Jack Ruby change his story after he was convicted of killing Oswald, implying high levels of government were involved?
10. Why was JFK's order to bring home American advisors in Vietnam suddenly reversed after he was killed?

Those are just some of the questions that arise when considering a wider body of evidence instead of just the cherry-picking of claims the commission focused on. Instead of considering the closest witness, Governor Connally, who said he was not hit by the same bullet as Kennedy, the Warren Report simply decided that one bullet (often called "the magic bullet" by critics) caused seven bullet holes and that it was found in pristine condition on a stretcher at the hospital.

Keep in mind that nobody really witnessed Oswald shooting the president, although the commission was able to come up with a few people who said they saw a white male on the sixth floor holding a rifle. Those few people, however, seem to be forgotten in history since their accounts were so vague. We're also apparently supposed to forget that the rifle the commission said belonged to Oswald was old, cheap and had a crooked scope, or that Oswald's palm print on the rifle wasn't discovered until after he was killed.

It seems that it's very easy to counter many of the claims that the lone nut theory rested upon. But the bizarre climax to debunking such weak argumentation, ironically, is that mainstream media, like the Warren Commission, has ignored these puzzling questions and just sticks with the lone assassin theory, despite the enormous evidence that has surfaced over the years. Somehow the media forgets that in the late seventies Congress reopened the case and concluded Kennedy's death was probably the result of a conspiracy.

Don't You Want Me

The best strategy I've found for winning a debate or presenting an argument in the best light is to stick with the facts. If the facts don't prove your case then reconsider your position. Don't waste your time trying to defend a stack of lies, or people might think you're shady. Always focus on your premise and make sure it's valid. Instead of streamlining facts to fit your conclusion, consider the whole body of evidence. If the conclusion is supported by facts and logic then you can feel confident about making a strong argument. Otherwise, don't risk jeopardizing your credibility.

"Don't You Want Me" by Human League was a unique song in 1982 that presented two sides of an argument. It was a "he said, she said" type of song and possibly the first of its kind. I don't recall an earlier hit that featured a disagreement between two characters within a song. The male takes the position that he helped his girlfriend turn her life around and wants her to come back to him. Her position is that she can make it on her own with or without him and elects to move on.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the root of the conflict is that the male has appointed himself to be the boss of the relationship while the female has her own self-driven views. The era of males telling females what to do in a relationship ended last century, at least on a politically correct public level. So the premise that a male has the final say in a male-female relationship can be the basis of what breaks a couple apart. Neither the male's premise nor logic pointed in the direction of his desired outcome of the conflict.

The moral of the story is that painting yourself as a hero isn't always that convincing, especially if the other person has a different perspective. Keeping ego out of a debate has value, while shoving it in the mix can weaken the chances of a win-win end game.

I always thought of the song more as humorous than argumentative. Clearly, the male is the main storyteller since the hook in the chorus is his plea for her to come back to him. The female vocal exposes and nullifies the male's argument. The song is a brilliant work of art, giving society a clue how sometimes high self-opinion can be a false premise that leads to an unwanted conclusion.

Understanding argumentation is useful in the business world, much like the game of chess. A business plan reflects a premise and set of strategies designed to achieve success. Execution of the plan also plays into the competition. As a radio programmer, I had to prove my plan could beat competitors in the ratings. I also had to justify the songs I chose for airplay, based on arguments presented to me by record labels as well as listeners. Critical thinking balanced with an open mind is the equation that helped prepare me for radio programming.

Continue to Chapter 9: Programming Music Instead of Computers

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