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Guidelines for addressing controversial issues

Controversies are a staple of today’s world, whether on the news media or the minds of people dealing with changes and counter-changes, or charges and counter-charges. In most cases reporting of controversies is very poor. Partisans have a difficult time even understanding their opponents and make points that are often irrelevant. What follows are some guidelines for handling controversial issues that draw from my experience with issues such as abortion, homosexuality, intelligent design, and the creation-evolution controversy.

Informal fallacies to avoid

Arguing against a position that your opponents don’t hold. This is surprisingly common. It may make points with your side but is irrelevant to genuine argument and confuses those on the sidelines. Check out your opponents before arguing against them.

Arguing against a position held only by fringe elements of your opponents. This is also very common. There are always those on the fringe who have foolish ideas and are easily criticized, but so what? Arguing against fringe elements may make your opponents look bad but doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. And they can make you look bad in the same way, so it accomplishes nothing.

Arguing against a position that is a poor way of expressing your opponents’ position. This is very common. People usually express their opponents’ position in their own words, which can be a way of showing that you understand the matter. But what if you’re wrong? Your opponents can simply say you’re arguing against someone else.

Insulting your opponents. Insults are so common they almost need not be mentioned. After all, what’s a controversial issue without insults? You may not even be aware of some insults, either by insensitivity or casual use of negative language. But your opponents can use the same tactic on you, and may be better at it. Trading insults accomplishes nothing good.

A good response

It is good to assume good intentions of your opponents. Much heat and little light characterize much writing and speaking about controversial issues. You may not like your opponents, you may even be suspicious of your opponents, but unless you have specific evidence of ill intent by leading advocates you oppose, don’t go there.

It is good to quote your opponents on their position, rather than only using your own words. You will need to put things in your own words but first quote your opponents so everyone can see you are not making this up. You should at least try to get their position right. This may be the most difficult part because you and your opponents see things so differently. But at least show you are trying.

It is good to focus on the most common argument that your opponents use. This is where the crossfire is focused. Whether it’s a strong or weak argument, your opponents have a favorite argument that is repeated over and over. It’s your task to take it apart and show how it is false or weak or non-persuasive.

The best response

It is best to assume the best of your opponents. You will garner good-will by assuming the best in others. For one thing it makes you look good. For another it is the right thing to do. Opportunities to speak will open up because of your gentlemanly or ladylike behavior.

It is best to quote your opponents liberally, being careful of their context. Go over something they have written and show in detail where it breaks down. Use their own words against them, without ignoring their context. That is a powerful and focused argument.

It is best to focus on the most persuasive argument your opponents have. Go after the best argument your opponents can muster and, if you can knock it down, your opponents will be permanently weakened if not defeated. Let there be a battle of your best against their best. That is the best way to settle an issue.

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