Category Archives: discourse

a contest of equals?


I heard an incisive comment by a commentator on one of the cable news stations the other day.

Perhaps Kellyanne Conway should be credited for what the commentator observed.

He noted that there is a new standard for political disputes. Facts and falsehoods are on equal footing if enough people believe in the latter.

Fact: Biden won the 2020 election.

Falsehood: The election was fraudulent. Trump was the real winner.

Under the new “rules,” both are granted equal validity as arguing points. A majority of people — it is probably accurate to say — accept as fact that Biden won. But a substantial number believe that Trump won. Therefore, both positions are valid; and have equal status as talking or debating points, and as political and campaign issues.

It as if  two teams were to engage in a debate. The propositions:  Donald Trump lost the 2020 election  … Trump won the election.  The debating positions of each team are considered equally valid.

So it goes, by some de facto consensus, not according to time honored rules of public discourse.

My team, the Boston Red Sox, were the real winners of the 1977 American League pennant. They deserved to win.



So, to revert to what the commentator was referring to, and to try to make it as clear as possible the absurdity: In politics a situation has now occurred where both sides over issues such as the 2020 presidential election, whether Covid vaccines are safe, etc., believe they have an equal claim to being right, that their views are on an equal footing. Biden won? Trump won? Both are valid positions to hold. Both sides should be given a hearing and taken seriously, because all that matters is that both positions have a substantial number of supporters.

What has become of the clearheaded logic we were taught in school? My grandfather used to say: Never argue about a fact.

You say the president immediately preceding Abraham Lincoln was James Buchanan. No, I say adamantly, you’re wrong. It was Franklin Pierce, and an argument ensues.

A totally pointless argument, as stupid as it would be to argue over who pitched the first perfect game ever.

Just as absurd as arguing over who won the 2020 election. But the Trumpers are not going to give up the argument.

This is a pernicious threat to public (political) discourse and to democracy.


— Roger W. Smith

   January 2020

Marquess of Queensberry rules for arguments (my personal views on the subject)


‘Marquess of Queensbury rules for arguments’


Marquess of Queensberry rules for arguments

by Roger W. Smith

My List of Virtues contained at first but twelve: But a Quaker Friend having kindly inform’d me that I was generally thought proud; that my Pride show’d itself frequently in Conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any Point, but was overbearing & rather insolent; of which he convinc’d me by mentioning several Instances; — I determined endeavouring to cure myself if I could of this Vice or Folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my List [of virtues], giving an extensive Meaning to the Word.—I cannot boast of much Success in acquiring the Reality of this Virtue; but I had a good deal with regard to the Appearance of it.—I made it a Rule to forbear all direct Contradiction to the Sentiments of others, and all positive Assertion of my own. I even forbid myself agreeable to the old Laws of our Junto, the Use of every Word or Expression in the Language that imported a fix’d Opinion; such as certainly, undoubtedly, &c. and I adopted instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so, or so it appears to me at present. —When another assert’d something that I thought an Error, I deny’d my self the Pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some Absurdity in his Proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain Cases or Circumstances his Opinion would be right, but that in the present case there appear’d or seem’d to me some Difference, &c. I soon found the Advantage of this Change in my Manners. The Conversations I engag’d in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos’d my Opinions, procur’d them a readier Reception and less Contradiction; I had less Mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail’d with others to give up their Mistakes & join with me when I happen’d to be in the right. And this Mode, which I at first put on, with some violence to natural Inclination, became at length so easy & so habitual to me, that perhaps for these Fifty Years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical Expression escape me. And to this Habit (after my Character of Integrity) I think it principally owing, that I had early so much Weight with my Fellow Citizens, when I proposed new Institutions, or Alterations in the old; and so much Influence in public Councils when I became a Member. For I was but a bad Speaker, never eloquent, subject to much Hesitation in my choice of Words, hardly correct in Language, and yet I generally carried my Points. –

— Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography, Part Two

N.B. – The Junto which Franklin refers to above was a club for mutual improvement which Franklin established in Philadelphia. The club’s purpose was to debate questions of morals, politics, and natural philosophy; and to exchange knowledge of business affairs.



This is an essay about how one should, ideally, engage in an argument which involves a disagreement about personal views. Such a dispute may arise from:

a disagreement between spouses — Often, it seems that spouses, when they are young lovers or newlyweds, experience smooth sailing. Then, once they have set up a household together and have started a family, they find that they disagree on many fundamental issues, such as issues related to child rearing, money management, household management, or in-laws. Often, they find themselves to be incompatible and constantly bickering;

sibling rivalry – It happens all the time. Under the surface, there can be petty jealousies, old resentments, grudges over current or past slights, and so on;

conflicts between parents and children – It seems that children would not be normal if they didn’t fight with their parents over all sorts of issues as they mature;

disagreements with someone you thought was your best friend – But, guess what? As you grow older, you find out that there are fundamental differences you weren’t aware of that threaten to torpedo the relationship;

issues with coworkers, a boss, or a subordinate;

issues with someone you can’t avoid (e.g., a neighbor, someone else’s friend whom you barely know) who takes issue with something you have said or done and won’t let it drop.

And so on.



I grew up in a very verbal and articulate family. Everyone had an opinion. This was true of my nuclear family and my extended family. Dinners and family gatherings were often quite pleasant because of the high level of conversation, but sometimes the conversations that took place were not pleasant because of arguments. However, it was not a zero sum game, as far as I was concerned. I was observing and learning how to become not only a good conversationalist but a good arguer myself.

By nature, I don’t particularly like disputation. I prefer conversations where you and your conversational partner share views and enlighten one another, by which process insights are achieved and surprising new things are learned; where your interlocutor might introduce a new thought or idea and you welcome it. But, over the years I have learned how to engage in discourse — a colloquy or argument—when there is disagreement or when matters need to be thrashed out and (hopefully) resolved; and, though I sometimes get very angry, I have learned how to not totally lose my mental bearings. I guess what one would say is that the experience of living in a verbal family skilled in the art of colloquy taught me how to think on my feet.

I am impressed by how well most politicians, particularly those in high office, can do in give and take with a political opponent and in situations where they are pressed to explain their views. Clearly, they can think on their feet – they seem to always have cogent answers for the toughest questions. (Which is not to say that they do not dissemble; it seems to be habitual.) But, when I speak of colloquies and arguments here (the desired behavior for each), I am thinking mainly of one on one discussions between two people in a close or intimate setting, not in public.

What are the “rules,” if any, for such exchanges?



There is an academic extracurricular activity, namely, debating, which is sort of like belonging to an athletic team, except that it’s a verbal skirmish. I was on the debate team in high school. It did not particularly appeal to me. This kind of verbal sparring is not what I have in mind in using the word colloquy (nor is it what the word means).

There are gonzo freewheeling discussions on TV and radio talk shows which are somewhat like pro wrestling matches. I do not consider them to be colloquies or argumentative discussions by any measure. There are basically no rules; it’s a free for all.

What I am thinking about is a situation where you are in strong disagreement with someone, usually someone close to you.

Let’s say it’s your spouse. You do or say something which you think is harmless or does not require comment. Your spouse feels otherwise and lets you know it. It may be the case that not only does your spouse disagree in principle. Perhaps they strongly disagree and/or object or were offended to hear that you feel that way.

Or perhaps you are a youth or young adult engaged in, or on the verge of engaging in, some behavior or activity that your parents strongly disapprove of. They tell you so, and an argument ensues. You’ve matured, you feel that they shouldn’t be telling you what to think or do, and — you know what? — when you were younger you idolized your parents and thought they could do no wrong. Now you think they are totally off base with respect to their views and perhaps their lifestyle as well. You may, at a certain age, be in a state of almost perpetual war with your parents, issues wise. Perhaps you take pleasure in this, enjoy getting their goat and being on the outs with them.

So, disagreements arise, and before you hardly know it, they can become very bitter. It seems like the ones with your intimate circle are the most painful.

Say I go to a bar. Someone tells me they are supporting a candidate I detest or that they don’t like some ethnic group (though they don’t want to be thought of as prejudiced) or perhaps expresses an asinine view the stupidity, vapidity, or callousness of which offends or annoys me. I may or may not get into it with them. But, I will go home shortly thereafter and forget about it. The other person was a jerk, was ignorant, was a racist, whatever. It doesn’t really affect me.



I have had problems lately dealing with situations in which people I know well have subjected me to criticism and expressed strong disagreement with my views and sometimes with my actions. I have tried to defend myself. This had led to heated discussions that have often ended up deadlocked, in “verbal gridlock.” I seem to find myself (to my dismay) getting into arguments all the time over matters big and small.

Sometimes the “other side” seems so intractable that I have thought to myself, just what is fair and what is not fair in an argument over views, behavior, morals, opinions you may hold of others (views that your interlocutor does not share), and so on? How should one conduct oneself when one feels cornered by an attack being made on them verbally? Is there such a thing as a standard for engaging in such verbal skirmishes?

After all, athletes have a rulebook and ground rules for a given sport.



The following is my own list, my Marquess of Queensberry rules, for arguments over personal matters and views. Many of the “rules” – i.e., principles for argument and discussion – that follow were promulgated by my parents. For example:

speak calmly and deliberately;

don’t raise you voice;

don’t interrupt; listen … wait your turn;

try not to show anger;

don’t shout or lose your temper;

don’t make it personal … avoid slurs and personal insults;

points made by the other side which are valid must be conceded (a point often honored, sadly, more often in the breach than the observance);

one must be willing and capable of admitting it when he or she has been proven to be wrong;

never argue about a fact.

“Never argue about a fact.” This last rule was stated in these exact these words to me by my mother, quoting her father. When you think about it, it’s obvious.

You say the president immediately preceding Abraham Lincoln was James Buchanan. No, I say adamantly, you’re wrong. It was Franklin Pierce, and an argument ensues.

A totally pointless argument, as stupid as it would be to argue over who pitched the first perfect game ever. It is said that bars used to keep reference books behind the counter to resolve such disputes and keep them from ending in a barroom brawl.



My own thoughts about what is “fair” and “unfair,” “reasonable” and unreasonable”; what is and is not counterproductive — in short, what is desirable – when it comes to personal arguments:

You must argue in good faith. You should not do it if what underlies the dispute is pure malevolence or the simple desire to taunt, vex, or annoy the other person.

You have to make a sincere effort to see the other person’s point of view. This rule is ignored so often it is beyond belief.

Both sides should have a chance to make their points and to respond to points made by the other side. Often, you will find this “rule” being broken, with one side browbeating the other verbally and constantly interrupting or cutting the other side off before they have had a chance to make a counterargument (or stomping off in a huff mid argument).

One must be able to get outside of oneself and put oneself in another’s shoes. Is this asking too much? I don’t think so. Because if the conditions are such that this cannot occur – speaking, let’s say, of heated arguments over painful or contentious issues – a successful conclusion of the argument will not occur. In my experience, I have found that this “rule” is often violated when the other side can only think of one thing: their own self-interest in prevailing; and abhors the thought that they might “lose” an argument. (Perish the thought!)

If you can’t establish common ground — identify areas of agreement, things you DO agree on (which can serve as a starting point) — you will not be able to make progress. I have often tried to achieve some progress or headway in an argument, some “daylight,” by trying to see if my interlocutor and I can find some areas of agreement, which would allow us to put them aside and get to the main points in dispute. To my consternation, I’ve found that some stubborn people are not willing to do this. They seem to think if they grant, acknowledge that they agree with me on a point or two, they might be weakening their own case somehow, and perhaps making themselves vulnerable to “defeat.” As a tactic in argument (and to adhere to the principle of fairness), I would advise that you point out and acknowledge areas upon which there is common ground (on which you can agree) so that the areas of legitimate disagreement can be seen clearly; acknowledge up front what you can agree on, to clear things up a bit and make some headway, before getting to the most contentious issues. Great, if you can!

You should be willing to at least acknowledge, hard as it may be, and make a sincere attempt to see that, while you may be in total disagreement, you can see why someone else might think differently (if you can honestly tell yourself this).

You should be agreeable in principle and in conversation to have a give and take, ideally a civilized one, an exchange that, though it be in earnest, is not a winner take all contest, a pro wrestling bout or mudslinging match.

You should not let yourself be intimidated into giving up deeply held views, but neither should you be pigheaded.

You should give serious consideration to the views of your opponent, presuming they are worthy of such consideration. By this I mean that, while you may think absolutely the opposite, you should acknowledge views that have intellectual legitimacy and are sincerely held and cogently expressed. An example might be a cultural or political liberal and someone at the opposite pole: a conservative. Both sides have developed and articulated informed and well thought out views over the centuries. One can learn a lot from the other side!

Not only that, but it can be a productive intellectual exercise to be able to look at things from a totally different point of view — one you had not considered before — for the sake of testing your own views and perhaps rethinking or maybe refining them. Which is not to say that you have to give up your views, but it can help to kind of sift and weigh them, to examine them from different perspectives, including ones that would not ordinarily have occurred to oneself. You may find yourself modifying your own views and, if not, such an intellectual exercise may help you nevertheless to better articulate your views in future discussions by seeing where and how they are distinguished from contrary views. By seeing how one’s views may or may not be amenable to modification or amplification, one can deepen one’s own understanding. And, viewpoints or opinions that at first might seem strange can lead to new insights and developing an ability to look at things from different angles. Open mindedness is a virtue to be sought after; it is not an indicator of intellectual weakness.

You should not get angry at someone just for holding an OPINION you disagree with, no matter how much you disagree. Personal insults are one matter. But, opinions sui generis should be tolerated, no matter how offensive, contrary, or misguided they may seem.

An argument (of the type I am expatiating on here) should not be a grudge match. Yes, arguments may get personal, often do. But if there is too much underlying animosity, let alone hatred, if someone is out to settle scores, or to let someone know how much they dislike not only their interlocutor’s views, but the person himself or herself, then the argument should not be continued.



This may seem counterintuitive, but the goal in an argument is not simply to WIN (though you would like to). Your goal is to make your points, consider and respond to those of the other side, make counterarguments, and so forth, and to see what results. The goal is to play “the game” (a colloquy or personal argument) fair and square and to make your points to the best of your ability. If your mentality is win at all costs, you won’t be likely to observe the “rules” I have promulgated above — to “hear” what the other side has to say, for example, or to acknowledge the other side’s good points.



Then, there’s the “if the shoe were on the other foot” angle.

My interlocutor will say, “How would you feel if it were you?” (who is being subjected to criticism). Personally, I have been subject to people trying to get me to see another point of view by introducing this line of thought. I will be defending myself, presenting my point of view, trying to explain myself and perhaps justify my actions, and someone tries to get me to consider how I would feel if the positions were reversed, if I were on the “other side.”

It usually — or at least often — is the case of an emotional or behavioral issue with interpersonal content, so this may not apply to abstract discussions.

But, it does apply sometimes. To make a counter point, I might say to my interlocutor, “You don’t feel I should be criticizing you or objecting to _______ [their  actions or opinions]. But, how would you feel if the situation was reversed, and it was me?”

I am surprised how often this seems not to work — the other person can’t bring themselves to entertain such a possibility.

Yet, when others have used such a tactic on me in discussion or “debate,” it has caused me to reflect and reexamine my own assumptions/presuppositions.



A final thought. It has occurred to me — from reading about and occasionally watching rancorous political debates over the past few months, and experiencing disputes arising from politics within my own family circle — that the issue of politeness is pertinent here.

The above is intended to be an essay about personal arguments, not public or political debates. Yet, arguments between individuals — friends or family, say, and other people whom one encounters in the workplace or on social occasions — often arise over political issues, and then, of course, there are contentious encounters in various settings (such as a lecture on a college campus) in which a heated exchange occurs. Politics often seems to be the catalyst.

I would like to merely state that the issue of politeness is not irrelevant on such occasions. Politeness is often seen as a sign of weakness, snobbery, elitism, and so forth. Actually, I feel that it is a boon to society — to social intercourse — and can help people to avoid unpleasant, rancorous discussions that lead nowhere. I feel that this holds true in the public arena as well as in the case of non public arguments and discussions.


— Roger W. Smith

     September 2016; updated May 2017




The dictionary definition of colloquy is (1) a conversation, dialogue; (2) a high-level serious discussion (such as might occur, say, at the United Nations).

A colloquy is serious discussion, not a lightheaded one, and it is one that is entered into by two sides eager to resolve an issue or a dispute.

Hopefully, such discussions will lead to agreement. But, often, what starts out as a colloquy turns into a dispute.

An argument can, and hopefully will, involve a colloquy of sorts, but an argument is more personal and disagreement is a given, whereas the two sides in a colloquy might start out actually being essentially in agreement while needing merely to clarify and resolve a few points.




A clear, helpful treatment of the topic of arguments — how to avoid getting into them and how to manage them — is provided in Part Three (“How to Win People to Your Way of Thinking”) of Dale Carnegie’s best seller How to Win Friends and Influence People.



See also:

“How to Argue Fairly and Without Rancor (Hello, Thanksgiving!),” by Christine Hauser, The New York Times, November 16, 2016


A brief article which makes very similar points.



Acknowledgment:  Thanks are due to G. Scott Milnor, who suggested that I write this article based on a discussion (not an argument) we were recently having.