When Arguments Happen: Answering, Defending, and Debating Compassionately

Arguments with family, friends, and strangers are inevitable in life. What matters is how they are dealt with.

“Politeness… is a demanding discipline; to convince others without recourse to the tricks of the demagogue or bully requires a high level of intelligence, especially when the audience is learned and intelligent. Courtesy elevates thought to the highest level, especially when the subject is contentious.”

·        Stones Fall, Iain Pears.

In ancient India, Greece and Tibet, the art of argumentation was an extremely important (and prestigious) activity. To win a formal debate was to demonstrate the truth of one’s school of thought or spiritual faith. The Buddha was a potent and charismatic debater who threatened the intellectual complacency of many Brahmins. Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Epicurus depended on argumentation for their philosophical innovations. The famous consequence of losing a debate in India was to lose one’s students, who would all convert to the winning school of thought. In Buddhist Tibet, monastic universities still put heavy emphasis on training students for debate, which is an essential part of the monastery curriculum.

We are, of course, not likely to be on the same level as Aristotle. Nor are we likely to be philosophical leaders with followings of hundreds of students. But the art of dialogue remains pertinent to the Buddhist disciple. How can she meet the questions of others with a compassionate response? How can she answer the modern challenges of debating and arguing with a gentle attitude? 

Truthful speech and loving speech seem to be at the heart of Right Speech in the Eightfold Path. Truthful speech indicates that while one’s own perspective is never infallible, one commits to tell the truth as best as she knows it. There are also several things that must be refrained from:

·        Fallacies: I must not resort to fallacies such as ad hominems (criticizing the person rather than her arguments). I must not use appeals to force and popularity to mask weaknesses in my reasoning.

·        Psychological deception: I should not hide behind rhetoric, obfuscations and semantic distortions to give the impression of sophistication.

·        Manifest deception: Finally, I must not provide false information based on hearsay or lies, and I must not promote fabricated or biased sources as evidence to support my contentions.

Truthful speech therefore possesses the dimension of bearing honest witness while also having “negative” injunctions. It can be expressed in the following formulations: “I speak the truth” (not only do I refrain from lying, I refuse to mislead others with language tricks or philosophical fallacies), and “I have right proof” (I do not resort to fabrications or questionable sources). 

Loving speech is not about flattery (because one should be practicing truthful speech). Nor is it disrespect dressed up in pretty language (this would be condescension). Loving speech means that one refrains from harsh language that is intended to hurt or degrade an individual. It is a source of strength and patience rather than weakness. In the context of dialogue, I begin loving speech by thanking the person who asks me a question, even if it is worded harshly or in a way that is unpalatable to my ears. We rightly complain that popular media can create confusion about Buddhism, so for someone to ask me about Buddhist teachings is a precious opportunity to present a more accurate perspective. He or she is presumably placing some worth in my response and has actually taken the effort to request my input in the first place. Therefore, I treat a person’s question like a gift, and hence practice receptive skill.

The next step in productive argumentation is to see one’s own answers as gifts to the other, which is expressive skill. It is important to stress that to see one’s words as gifts does not mean they are good to begin with. Rather, they must be made to be good. Expressive skill is the benevolent twin of receptive skill. Bhikkhu Thanissaro states: “In positive terms, right speech means speaking in ways that are trustworthy, harmonious, comforting, and worth taking to heart. When you make a practice of these positive forms of right speech, your words become a gift to others” (Access to Insight, 1999). 

Right Speech is not easy. It can be especially difficult to practice in debates concerning intensely personal issues like religion. It is not always pleasant when one’s philosophical beliefs are challenged. But this is only the beginning of cultivating a compassionate attitude to all interactions and relationships. 

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