Sometimes when you go out of your way to criticize and undermine someone, you end up undermining yourself and looking bad. In order to avoid that kind of embarrassment, here are some technical tips that they teach in academia and are Islamically-based that are very helpful in any setting.
The fact of the matter is disagreement and argument is a fact of life and there is nothing inherently wrong with it when done properly. Some like to imagine this fantasy world where no one ever disagrees and we all hold hands and sing kumbaya. But that’s not reality. Given this, what are some tips on effective argument?
Now before someone accuses me of being “irresponsible” let me acknowledge that, in many cases, people should not argue because they are in no place to offer an opinion in the first place, and that is a whole other discussion for another post. But assuming you are in a position to give your 2 cents and critique someone else, you might as well do it right.
And of course, there are many spiritual tips as well, like make sure you are sincere, make sure your criticisms aren’t motivated by petty jealousy, etc., but for this post, I’m just focusing on technical aspects of critique and dialectical disagreement.
When you criticize someone’s views, make sure:
1. That you understand what the person is actually saying. If something is ambiguous or you don’t understand, there is nothing wrong with asking for clarification. Don’t just make assumptions and charge ahead blindly.
2. That you aren’t interpreting the person’s words in bad faith. In Islamic terms, this means avoiding su al dhann (as opposed to husn al dhann). Give your interlocutor the benefit of the doubt and focus on the actual content of his argument instead of making claims about the person’s intentions. The best debaters actually go a step further. They try to strengthen their interlocutor’s argument if necessary. This is because these individuals are interested in the truth, not just winning an argument for the sake of winning. But also practically, they don’t want to waste their time going back and forth on what they know to be a weak argument. If you aim to refute the strongest possible version of the other side’s position, that will be most productive for everyone involved.
3. That you don’t espouse the same kinds of views that you are critiquing others for. Hypocrisy is very easy to point out, so don’t fall into it.
4. That you don’t engage in ad hominem. For example, if all you can say to someone is “You’re not qualified!” this is a bad argument. Why should anyone blindly accept that you are any more qualified than the person you are arguing against on the specific matter at hand? If you truly are more qualified than your interlocutor, it should be easy for you to demonstrate those qualifications by providing a substantive critique that refutes him. Over the years, observing and learning from senior scholars, I have never seen a single one resort to their credentials when addressing an argument against them. They’ve reached such a level of mastery that they address the argument at hand substantively without having to hide behind a CV. Usually it is incompetent people who have to condescendingly list their credentials because they are unable to analytically deal with the issues.
5. That you avoid fatuous criticisms like, “You are not being nuanced.” This is a silly argument for a couple of reasons. First, it makes you look like a condescending jerk. Second it’s lazy because there is always some additional nuance that a person has to exclude from his argument since all arguments are ultimately finite. Obviously, if an argument really does get all its traction by ignoring key nuances, then that should be pointed out. BUT just making hand-waving remarks about lack of nuance is simply a lazy rhetorical tactic used by people who want to sound like they know what they’re talking about without having to wrestle with the meat of the views they’re dismissing. Don’t do it.
6. That you acknowledge your mistakes in the course of the discussion. All of Bani Adam make mistakes but the best are those that repent. In this context, if you misunderstood your interlocutor’s claims or misconstrued them, own up to it.