Elizabeth Mapstone

psychologist and story-writer

We keep being told: Always define your terms.

So what is an Argument?

'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument"', Alice objected.
'When I use a word', said Humpty Dumpty in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'
(Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass)

Argument is a word that carries an enormous baggage of emotion. You may feel that I am behaving a bit like Humpty Dumpty, insisting that a word means what I say it means. People vary enormously in how they interpret the word, and often they behave like Humpty Dumpty too.

Here is my definition of argument:

An argument is a verbal disagreement between two people, each of whom wishes to convince the other of the validity of her/his point of view.

This definition is supposed to covered all disagreements, not just rows or quarrels, but discussions and debates as well. And it does not say that each person is trying to win. However, not everyone agrees with this broad definition!

Debate or Battle?

Men Define Argument

Most men think of argument as a debate in which people exchange views and affect each others' opinions.

"An argument to me is an exchange of ideas, debating back and forth." (Steve)

"Discussion and debate are good ways to get people to understand." (Ben)

"Argument means trying to persuade the other person to see your point of view, and the other guy does the same." (Jon)

"Argument is a process of bargaining. You need to understand the other's aims, and you have to be prepared to give up your own point of view in the face of a good argument." (Mark)

Some men have a more aggressive approach though:

"Argument is about winning and losing. I'm always out to win." (Hank)

"An argument is a battle you have to win. To be made angry is a sign of weakness. Basically you have to sell yourself, tear down the other's argument. Don't give him any credit for his point of view. Otherwise you're lost." (Homer)

"I find I become more aggressive when the opposition is both strong and intransigent. I don't like being beaten. I [...] would feel cruel satisfaction at smashing someone's argument if it had annoyed me.[...]If you get into arguments, you must be a fighter." (Henry)

Whether or not they see it as a verbal battle, many men say they enjoy argument:

"I find argument stimulating. Gets the adrenalin going and helps you think." (Bill)

"I enjoy playing the devil's advocate, even if I agree." (Les)

"I enjoy the cut and thrust of a good argument." (Stewart)

The general attitude of most men appears to be that given rapport and a willingness to listen to the other, argument is an inevitable, even enjoyable part of everyday relationships, certainly not something they would fear or avoid.

Friendship, Fear and Anger

Women Talk About Quarrels

Women have a strongly ambivalent attitude to argument. On the one hand, they want to be able to express their opinion without causing problems:

"If I accept the other person has a genuine point of view, then she or he should be prepared to hear mine without feeling under attack." (Renee)

Many women talk of shared values or of relationships in which it is safe to argue.

"It makes a lot of difference in a friendship if you have got the same underlying value system. It's safe to argue then." (Beryl)

"When values are really different, there's no point in arguing. Friendships are difficult if you dare not disagree, I'm not sure I think they re worth the effort." (Irene)

"You need common ground. When you have similar value systems, differences can be negotiated. Where you don't, disagreements can tear the very fabric of a relationship. If I can't express my opinion, I wouldn't have the friendship." (Valerie)

On the other hand, many women say they prefer to avoid argument: there is an implication, even if not always explicit, that argument is hostility. This is at least in part because they try to restrain themselves until they get angry.

"I don't often argue, not until forced into it by a real challenge to my opinions, when I get worked up. If it's something that means a lot, like religion, I would have to walk away. There are certain points where it is 'no go'." (Jane)

"I really dislike confrontation, so I try to avoid it by backing down. I have never felt it was right for me to argue with others as they may know better. Unless it's about really important things like injustice. I feel it is not wrong to argue about justice." (Rena)

"I only ever argue when I have really thought about things deeply, and it is something really important. I can get really angry when I try to say something I have really thought about, and the other person just won't listen. Why don't my views count too?" (Kathy)

Why do many women feel they should restrain themselves from speaking out? Why do some women feel it is "not right" for them to argue, but that "really important things" make arguing "not wrong"?

Why do most men see argument as debate and most women tend to interpret the word as conflict, even quarrel?

Many women agree with Rebecca that: "Relationships are more important than any issue."

"I don't argue."

Everyone who was interviewed knew, of course, that I was investigating attitudes to argument, and that I was interested in all kinds of disagreement, not just rows and quarrels.

Since everyone involved had seen my definition and had agreed to talk about their recall of argument, it was particularly interesting to find some women arguing that they never argue.

Kathleen said very quietly, I don't like arguing, it upsets people. I don't argue." Reminded this was an investigation into people's recall of argument, she went on:

"I'll ask for other people's opinion and give mine - that can lead to lots of interchange of opinion. Not real argument."

So Kathleen suggests that exchanging opinions and trying to convince the other person is not argument, even though that is part of the given definition.

Patricia also redefines argument, and provides a witty variant on the "official" definition: "An argument is a heated disagreement between two people who don't want to agree." She agreed that she was disagreeing with me, but suggested that this was not an argument but "a gentle process of talking about differences".

Marion, a teacher I met at a party and who expressed great interest in the research, told me: "I never argue." To the amusement of everyone listening, she then proceeded to undermine her position by arguing with me that my definition of argument was quite wrong, because "an argument is a quarrel". I explained why I wanted to define the topic in the broadest possible way. She said I could not do this. I suggested that since it was my research, I should be able to define my own topic and asked how she thought I could do it better. She insisted I was quite wrong because argument could not be thought of that way. I pointed out that we were having an argument, but it didn't feel like a quarrel. "No," she said. "I never argue." And she was genuinely bewildered when other people standing round started to laugh.

Why are some women so concerned about the idea of arguing that they will argue that they never argue?

Humpty Dumpty and the Search For Truth

The word argument carries a burden of negative meaning, but I choose to stick with the word for several reasons

  • argument is the most general of all terms available, since its meanings include discussion, debate, negotiation, presentation of evidence, disagreement, dispute, quarrel.
  • Western culture has developed several ideologies of argument which intervene whenever people disagree about ... well, anything.
  • Argument is a central element in how women and men communicate, or mis-communicate. These ideologies of argument are a key factor in ensuring that women and men have different attitudes and different styles of argument.

Argument as a Rational Means of Reaching the Truth

In this view, when two people disagree, there is a right and a wrong conclusion. Truth is seen as free from logical contradiction.

In the words of philosopher Anthony Flew:

"If contradiction is tolerated, then, in a very literal sense, anything goes. This situation must itself be totally intolerable to anyone who has any concern at all to know what is in fact true."

Argument as Adversarial Confrontation

The gladiatorial approach to argument is an important part of our ideology, operating not only in the court room, but in politics, parliament, on the hustings, in newspapers, on television and radio.

But we do not expect people's minds to be changed. One of the intriguing aspects of argument as a field of study is that it is a widespread phenomenon, and yet is widely believed not to be a good way of persuading people to change their minds. Humorist Miles Kington included in a Christmas Quiz the question:

"Why do we have arguments at all, knowing from experience that nobody's mind ever gets changed in an argument?"

In this view, arguments are rhetorical battles between irreconcilable opponents. There is no way of deducing the correct view if two people disagree, and the outcome depends on what the majority thinks. Critics have called this way of deciding issues "a matter of mob psychology". Or the argument may be resolved through application of power.

Argument as Rhetoric

The positive aspect of rhetoric lies in our ability to argue, to contradict, to redefine and create new distinctions.

It enables us to defend a position by presenting evidence in a rational and logical manner, and by pointing out the flaws in the logical position of our opponent.

However, rhetoric is more often seen by the lay person as an unfair device to get the listener "on your side", especially used by those whose job is persuasion, like politicians, salespeople and barristers. Here arguments are seen as taking place between partisans of "camps", and rhetoric as a persuasive and separatist device rather than as an aid in seeking the truth.