This morning my wife (a nurse) wanted to take my blood pressure. She strapped the machine on my arm and said “Don’t talk!” When I asked why, she gave me that look. Then she gave the famous answer. “Because I said so. You don’t need to know why.” There is not much you can say in response to that. Per her request, I was at a loss for words.
Arguing is an art. There are people who are naturally good at it and those who have learned clever gambits to trap their opponent. There is the ancient art of rhetoric, once taught as part of a classical education. A literary device called a syllogism is often employed as part of a logical argument. Your argument has building blocks, of known truth, to suppose what you want to prove. A syllogism can be a faulty claim: “Some horses are brown. Some shoes are brown. Therefore some horses are shoes.” You can see where I am going with this. Arguing something does not necessarily make it so.
Then there is a means of persuasion called demagoguery. Think Hitler. A demagogue appeals to the fears of ordinary people. If you get folks feeling riled up and threatened, you can bypass rational thought. Some debates of the last few years have taken this cynical tone. Notably, climate change has been sold as an emotional appeal that the world will end in exactly twelve years. Every twelve years they have to bump this claim forward and hope no one notices. Still, demagogeury is an increasingly successful way to push an agenda.
You can also gain your way, by browbeating people. If this ploy is successful, you won’t be forced to furnish any real proofs. This form of circular argument is also called a tautology, where you assume that saying a thing you assume over and over makes it so. People use this method to sell specious claims. A few years back, Catherine McKenna, erstwhile Minister of the Environment was taped in a bar saying: “We’ve learned in the House of Commons, if you repeat it, if you say it louder, if that is your talking point, people will totally believe it...” My heart is warmed by such lack of cynicism in our elected leaders.
There is also the infamous strawman argument. Tack a false position to your opponent, and he will be forced to defend himself. It’s a clever ploy because planting wrong information is a way to control the narrative. The more he objects the more he will be drawn in. Just look your opponent in the eye, and innocently ask “My friend, have you beaten your wife lately?” Then smile and watch the fun.
I hate to include this one in the lexicon of persuasion, but gaslighting has become a “thing”. At some point you will have to square off against a bald-faced liar. They will drive you crazy by arguing that white is black and black is white regardless of the facts. Their tactic is simply to wear you down. You can’t appeal to the truth if no one agrees what the truth actually is.
In the end it is no wonder people like to get away from arguments and rely on what they see with their own eyeballs. Saint Paul appeals to this in the first chapter of Romans, to the silent witness we find in nature. Psalm 19 proclaims: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.” That’s a fancy way of saying that seeing is believing.
If you pay attention, the world is full of amazing things. Sit and observe a parrot for example. It is a humbling experience that will leave you in a state of wonder. The parrot I liked to watch lived in a pet store in the Village by the Grange, in downtown Toronto.
If you think that birds are disadvantaged because they lack hands and fingers, think again. With a parrot, their tongue acts as a third hand. It has unbelievable dexterity to manipulate an object in space. The parrot in question had a large dish of sunflower seeds in front of it, which it would eat at its leisure. The parrot was not in a hurry. It could take it’s time and that is what it did. If you were asked how a bird might eat sunflower seeds, you might imagine a beak clumsily crushing the shells like a free-for-all but this is not what actually happens.
The bird would deferentially select a single sunflower seed with its tongue. The tongue was peculiarly shaped like a T. It was an strange tool, one that could move things around amazingly well. The parrot would sit calmly, and move the seed around so that the it would be perfectly end to end between the the sharp points of its beak. The parrot would exert the slightest pressure and the shell would begin to come open. Once this was happening, the bird tongue would flip out at exactly the right moment and pull the seed into its mouth. Then the seed hull would be dropped off to the side. It was a science and an art, and a circus balancing act. Yet the bird would patiently enact this strange drama over and over, without a slip. Every seed was patiently extracted. The husks faithfully falling on the side, no stray parts ingested by the bird.
How this could be, I never figured out but I could watch the bird for hours. I am not sure whether the saying “seeing is believing” or “praise where praise is due” is more appropriate, but let’s just say that either might apply. If you think that science has everything perfectly figured out, think again. Watching a parrot might make a believer out of anybody.
There is a saying popularly attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi. “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” So it is that at a certain point I understood, that parrot was doing just that - sitting there preaching the Gospel, but not with words. Words were unnecessary. But with every seed he cracked he proclaimed the gory of God, loud and clear over the perfect silence.