By Vikas Datta
Title: Winning Arguments — What Works and Doesnt Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom; Author: Stanley Fish; Publisher: Harper; Pages: 224
It is the phenomenon that may explain a lot of “inexplicable” happenings in human affairs, including why many disbelieve climate change is occurring, how seeming success in winning domestic spats actually make things worse, or even how Donald Trump managed to gain the Republican nomination and eventually the US Presidency.
The surprising basis for all these and more such issues, or for that matter, most of what we do in our lives, how we see and relate to our world and other people, are not always our convictions, or motivations like altruism or self-interest but “argument”, contends American literary scholar and law professor Stanley Fish in this book.
And in it, he seeks to show how argument, which here does not connote its common meaning of a dispute, usually verbal and usually heated, but reasoning in support of some idea or action, is actually a means to win over popular opinion — and very successful one, as many cases show, including Trump’s triumph.
“Argument is unavoidable, argument is interminable, argument is all we have,” he says, noting we live in a world of argument, where “arguments about the world come first, the world comes second”.
Fish, whose other books include “Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change” (1999) and “How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One” (2011), says he tries to do two things here — explain how arguments work in different contexts (the categories mentioned in the sub-title) while also engaged “in another project, not quite parallel, but not unrelated either” of “making an argument about argument and its relationship to the human condition”.
Argument is unavoidable, he holds and goes on to prove that, since a state of agreement that makes it unnecessary is something we can never achieve because of our perceptions and beliefs are so varied that any statements or assertion we make liable to be challenged by someone with who does not agree with us.
Expanding this line in the first chapter, Fish uses a Monty Python sketch to also teach us the three major lessons about arguments, which, he goes to contend, are the only way to establish “facts” — which do not remain unquestioned much long and go on to spark a new cycle of arguments.
In this vein, he also goes on to cite the efforts of those, like English author George Orwell and German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, who would end this state of affairs by stripping language of its subjectivity, political bias and capacity for rhetoric, and how these went nowhere.
Fish goes on to show how arguments can be used to create doubt, citing the cases of Satan, as in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, the group of scientists who successfully — for some time — questioned links between tobacco and cancer, the film “Twelve Angry Men” (remade in Hindi as “Ek Ruka Huya Faisla”) and its real lessons besides what we make out from the story, or sway audiences, where he mentions the speech of Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, the story and film “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and the example of Trump.
Trump’s success (in clinching the Republican nomination), says Fish, was comparable to the Roman leader for “his artlessness, like Mark Antony’s, is only apparent” and was comparable to the difficult exercise of justifying the indefensible classical world’s rhetoricians used to teach.
Fish then goes on to deal with four prominent arenas of arguments — political (where he also deals with how the US Supreme Court reversed itself on gay marriage), domestic, legal, and academic.
But despite its name, Fish’s book is not a “how to” book (save for possibly the chapter on domestic arguments where he, from personal experience, gives some useful tips — not on winning but defusing such arguments for peace) but a serious work on what an argument is — and is not. It does sometimes makes for difficult going, but is ultimately rewarding and useful.