In the weeks leading up to a school exam, one of my classmates asked our teacher for some potent advice on how we should go about structuring our essays in the exam. We were going to be writing about Mao Zedong’s China – the 1949 revolution, The Great Leap Forward, the 100 flowers campaign; the ideology, the hunger, the fear. How should we possibly go about collating and framing such a sizable period of history into one coherent argument?
Our teacher gave an answer none of us were expecting.
“Use the 8 Mile technique.”
Seeing our blank faces staring back at him, he stood up excitedly, his fingers harassing a keyboard that couldn’t type fast enough. He pulled up YouTube and this video.
For anyone unfamiliar with Marshall Mathers’ (AKA Eminem’s) Academy Award-winning work in 8 Mile, the film follows an Eminem stand-in, “Rabbit” as he struggles against his impoverished background in Detroit, at the time the murder capital of America, taking part in freestyle rap battle competitions in the hope they might offer a chance of escape.
At the climax of the film, in his final confrontation in one of these competitions, Rabbit pulls a risk-it-all move: he reverses the usual rap battle formula. Rather than dissing his opponent, he turns the gaze upon himself.
“I know everything he’s about to say against me,” he says over a beat, before detailing the many shortcomings in his life for which his opponent might rip into him. He lives in a trailer with his mum, is being cheated on by his girlfriend, was recently beaten up by his opponent’s gang, and on and on he goes.
At the end he faces his opponent, who understands that he’s been stripped of all he was going to say.
“Here,” Rabbit says, chucking the mic his opponent’s way, “tell these people something they don’t know about me.”
This, according to our teacher, was precisely how we should structure our A-level essays. First, lay out all possible critiques of our argument, then pull each apart one by one, before moving on to our own points. The idea is that in doing so, you show that you’ve considered this topic from every angle, weighed up oppositional ideas, revealed why they don’t stand up to scrutiny and why your ultimate conclusion is therefore fully considered and correct.
It’s a fun technique, and the exam went well enough that I haven’t sworn it off yet. But it is just one approach to forming an argument.
Whether in the written form or through oration – or these days, increasingly online – how we formulate arguments matters, how we approach arguments matters. A well-formulated and delivered argument can re-shape the direction of the world.
Though with the advent of social media and an increased sense of polarisation and venom to debates, it’s possible we’re losing our ability to argue, to consider all other viewpoints, to assess the shortcomings of our own beliefs. Arguing well takes empathy, patience and practice. We could all do with a better understanding of how to do it properly.
The origins of argument
Our modern understanding of arguments, like many things, can be traced back to the ancients. Of the Greeks, Aristotle was the formative figure. Of the Romans, Cicero.
Aristotle said that, “What is convincing is what one can be convinced by” . In other words, slavishly adhering to a set formula is not the way to approach argument; a technique works if it works. One should adjust according to their audience and according to the facts and feelings of the day.
Though, delving into more technical territory, Aristotle also contended that every good argument must consist of three elements or modes of persuasion: ethos, pathos and logos.
Ethos involves one’s character – are the points being made here ethical? Can one trust the person making the augment? Pathos is emotion. Every effective communicator plays on emotion. There’s a reason charity advertisements tell you one person’s individual story rather than falling back on cold, uninterpretable facts; it allows us to connect emotionally. Logos is the argument itself, its rationality and incisiveness, the merits of the points being made.
Any one of these can make for an impactful argument, but it takes all three to truly cut through.
Cicero, in his six-part process of persuasion, made clear that he understood how crucial the relationship between the speaker, the speech and the audience were to any successful act of persuasion. The three must be aligned. One alone is not enough.
Arguments today are not like those of the ancient world. For starters, they are far less likely to take place face to face. Often they are either resigned to the digital realm or are relayed through he-said, she-said jibes. Unsurprisingly our inability to argue well has led to strife.
“In a country riven by discord, the extent of disagreement among people, their political representatives and their media outlets feels simultaneously intransigent, untenable and entirely inevitable,” writes former editor of the The New York Times book review, Pamela Paul. “Not only are we bad at agreeing with one another; we’re also terrible at arguing with one another” .
In Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens wrote that, “Time spent arguing is, oddly enough, almost never wasted” . Which perhaps indicates that the only good to come of his untimely passing was that he never had to witness just how wasteful a pastime arguing has become.
Hitchens was used to debating in person, reacting in real time, batting away well thought through points made against him with well thought through points of his own. Arguments benefit from taking place in-person. One is forced to confront the other’s humanity and cannot so easily duck and dive counterpoints. As the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “By having a real other respond to me, I am spared one thing only, the worst cumulative effect of my own echo chamber of words.”
It’s frequently suggested that we should try to channel our online discourse to be more like that of debate. Bo Seo, a two-time world debating champion and author of Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard, is certainly of this view. Polarisation is less a result of disagreement, he suggests, than it’s a result of bad disagreement. We don’t listen to the other side and are more interested in being right than making a coherent point.
In debate, Seo always saw countering someone’s argument as “a vote of confidence not only in ourselves but in our opponents, one that contained the judgement that the other person was deserving of our candour and that they would receive it with grace.” 
Despite the many problems afforded by the modern form of arguing, it is still a useful exercise. It is important that we challenge ideas that we disagree with and that we have our own ideas challenged in turn. The best ideas will hold up to scrutiny.
Pamela Paul posits that on top of our poor handling of arguments, “part of the problem may be that we’re not arguing enough.”
In his 2022 BBC Radio 4 series The Long History of Argument, former UK cabinet minister and The Rest is Politics co-host Rory Stewart says that he, “grew up believing that the way to reach truth was through argument” .
Arguing, he says, teaches one to think clearly, to empathise with another’s point of view, and to formulate and sharpen your own. It also equips you with powers of persuasion so that you are better placed to convince others that your point of view is right.
How to argue well
In Shakespeare’s day, rhetoric comprised one-third of basic schooling. In the modern world, we are bereft of such an education. We learn how to argue from what we see online and on TV – and it’s not good. But there still exist common techniques that can help one fine-tune their own argumentative instincts, some of which are detailed below.
Find common foundations
Ensure you and whoever you’re arguing against are working off the same definitions when it comes to the core parts of your discussion. Arguing over the merits of Covid lockdowns will take on a very different shape if you’re debating someone who thinks that Covid didn’t exist.
Oftentimes people are so desperate to put their argument across that they’re not even bothered as to its relevance. You often see this online, with two warring posters engaged in endless fits of whataboutery, furiously debating two entirely separate subjects. Context matters in arguments. You may have a great point to make. But you have to use it at the right time, in the right place.
“You can’t be persuasive if the other person doesn’t understand you,” says former World Universities Debating champion Fanele Mashwama . Minimise the amount of miscommunication taking place, but make space for it as well. There is likely to be a difference between the point you’re making and the one the other person hears. Acknowledge that, and try to clear up any obvious misunderstandings as soon as possible.
Put your point across, rather than just putting down someone else’s
“Showing how someone else is wrong isn’t the same thing as being correct yourself,” Pamela Paul writes. “In debate, tearing down the other team doesn’t necessarily prove your team is in the right, nor is it likely to persuade anyone who didn’t agree with you in the first place.”
One of Bo Seo’s old debating coaches put it even more succinctly: “No amount of no is going to get you to yes.”
It sounds obvious, but most of our arguments either begin or continue too long because one side refuses to listen to the other. Avoid strawmanning the other person (framing their argument in a way they wouldn’t agree with) – if someone says they like cats, that’s not them saying they don’t like dogs.
Steer clear of dogma
There is no point engaging in an argument in the first place if no amount of contrary, provable facts would sway your thinking on the subject.
A five minute argument or the full half hour?
Arguing is pivotal. It lets us challenge and sharpen our ideas, and exposes us to opposing views we might not have considered. Though too often in the modern world, most particularly in online spaces, much like in the famous Monty Python sketch, people who come for an argument end up in the office of abuse.
Whether we are treating our arguments like debate or structuring them like a rap battle, the important thing is that we consider all points, have an open mind, and are willing to be challenged as well as just challenge. Utilising Aristotle’s principles of ethos, pathos and logos can help us put our point across in such a way that audience and speaker alike may benefit.
The old adage is that arguments are easy to start and difficult to finish. Hopefully we can return to a place where what takes place between those starts and endings is something worthwhile.
More on Conflict
Diversity and Conflict for a Plural Workforce
Emotional Intelligence and Engaging Others
A Master Class in Negotiation with Simon Horton – Podcast
 Hitchens, C. (2001). Letters to a young contrarian. Basic Books.