Most of us would agree that a free exchange of ideas is beneficial to society. And most of us probably agree that the quality of this conversation is poorer than it could be. We just have to turn on the television or, worse, the internet, to find insults and shouting the norm. Often the answer is to be more civil to each other. But there is more to it than that. There are ways to argue with people with whom we disagree – some better than others.
First of all, we need to find something or someone worth arguing with. After all, there are plenty of terrible ideas out there not even worth our time. For the sake of example, I will choose Ezra Pound’s book ABC of Reading. This book was written in 1934 but was still very much in vogue when I attended college. Pound himself still has a devoted cadre of followers, and the underlying assumptions of the book continue to resonate in the way English teachers choose material, not to mention definitions of literature itself. It is also a book that contains ideas I once admired, but now find fault with.
The first way to attack an idea is to weaken its author. In this case, Pound himself may have been a literary genius, but shortly after writing this book became an admirer and supporter of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime. So, calling him a “fascist” is the easiest point of attack. Any internet comment section is full of anonymous posters who attack the person rather than the idea. We can do better than that.
We could scoff at the way Pound structures his argument, with an incoherent and haphazard flow of ideas, using different subheadings and spacing, as if purposefully daring the reader to give up following him. We can attack his snarky tone and we could attack the elite audience he writes for, both apparent in statements like, “Anyone who is too lazy to master the comparatively small glossary necessary to understand Chaucer deserves to be shut out from the reading of good books for ever.” We could point out hypocrisies and inconsistencies – early in the book he claims to despise critical essays, but the second half of the book is one long critical essay. He attacks analogy, but uses many analogies himself. Television and radio pundits all use these common methods of casting doubt, and they are all effective, if not very edifying.
We could graduate from that to argue with various statements used to build the ideas. For example, Pound states that “You don’t need schools and colleges” to keep “great” writers alive. Though there may be some truth to this, it is a very debatable statement that we could either disagree with outright, or at least question what he means by “great.” We could then go further and attack his assumptions, such as his strange notion that all readers are also writers. Challenging these sorts of rhetorical and logical flaws is definitely a better way to argue than some of the other methods listed above. But as a means towards greater wisdom it is probably not very useful.
Moving from the minor flaws to the major ones is another step forward. Pound’s principal flaw is in the second half of the book, when he begins to make value judgments of other writers. This sort of partisan personal preference can easily be questioned. For example, he attacks Shakespeare, but lionizes a poet who most of us have never heard of and who most other critics mock, Walter Landor. This may be due to his own taste for lyric troubadours, something that also leads him to demean American giant Walt Whitman. Pound clearly loves the density of language, but fails to see that the bright parts may shine brighter because of the surrounding material. So, we might say that Pound cannot see the whole of linguistic expression. Value judgments are easy picking for a debater, and if we’re lucky these can sometimes lead to an appraisal or formulation of our own values. On the other hand, they can sometimes make us seem just as petty and arbitrary as the author.
To make ourselves appear more reasonable, we can always give grudging respect on one hand and criticize on the other. So, we can admit that Pound is careful to point out flaws in his examples, but nevertheless makes statements which seem exaggerated or dated. He is best when pointing out the good, or when talking about the whys and hows of study. He is worst when criticizing others and when putting together a history lesson on poetry.
Of course, in making any of these points we are doing the same thing to Pound as he has done to others in ABC of Reading. That is fair enough. However, there is an even better way to argue than all of the above. We could disagree with his fundamental argument, his entire premise, and then formulate our own. So, in this case, the premise underlying Pound’s book is that aesthetics are useful in choosing what to read, and by extension how to write. We could say instead that aesthetics may be useful for critics and collectors, but for the reader or the writer they are almost useless or even detrimental. We could then back up our claim with examples and logic.
Getting to this fundamental level of the ideas is the most valuable way to argue, not only for challenging our adversary, but for our own life. We should engage texts and people with critical powers and debate, to find the good and bad ideas that they grant us, and so from the result, become wiser and happier human beings.