Five Features of Better Arguments

A former Clinton administration official studied how to facilitate more constructive arguments among Americans. These are his conclusions.

Damir Sagolj / Reuters

Earlier this month, amid a particularly trying stretch on social media, I joked that I would soon be launching Ad Hominem, “a new journal of non-ideas founded in response to apparent massive popular demand. Issue One: You’re Trash.” While there never was a golden age of argument, the impersonal hyper-connectedness of the internet and the near omnipresence of our access to it have transformed the civic experience for those who remember something different.

“We have gotten habituated to penalty-free trashing of each other,” says Eric Liu, a former speech writer and policy adviser in the Bill Clinton administration.

Widespread frustration is understandable.

Still, Liu believes that “we don’t need fewer arguments today; we need less stupid ones,” a theory he first advanced in The Atlantic just prior to the 2016 presidential election, and that he continues to believe after launching and leading an effort to host more constructive civic exchanges all around the United States.

On Monday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute, he sketched out what he now regards as best practices, drawn from insights gained through his work for the Better Arguments Project. The framework it has developed to guide local events is worth pondering.

Among its main tenets:

  1. Take Winning Off the Table: Rather than seeking victory, the goal should be truth-seeking, with a reinstitution of civility in service of achieving it. Participants are charged with arguing in order to better understand.
  2. Prioritize Relationships and Listen Passionately: As one audience member put it, the most constructive and rewarding arguments they’ve ever had involved people with whom maintaining a good relationship afterward was a high priority—an impetus for speaking and listening carefully.
  3. Pay Attention to Context: “One aspect of this concerns history,” Liu said. “Every fight we have today, about immigration, about taxes, about the minimum wage, is a recapitulation of one of those core American arguments—about liberty versus equality, about central government versus local control, or individual responsibility versus collective responsibility—and the history of civic debates in this country has something to teach us about how we can make our way through this conversations today. A second element is about emotion. If someone comes at you in an angry way, you have to adjust how you’re going to come back at them. And you have a choice about whether you’re going to mirror and double down or if you’re going to be the one to say, I’m gonna be the grown-up here and I’m going to deescalate—being emotionally intelligent about the patterns that we fall into.”
  4. Embrace Vulnerability: “Every one of us can relate to the feeling, ‘I didn’t start this, I’m not going to extend the olive branch.’ Extend the olive branch,” Liu said.
  5. Be Open: “You cannot possibly change another person’s mind,” Liu said, “if you’re not willing to have your own mind changed. You may be able to rack up debater’s points. But you won’t change their mind if they sense you aren’t willing to have your mind changed. It’s a matter of mindset but also ‘heart-set.’”

That isn’t the last word on how to argue. But anyone who embraces those five pieces of advice is almost guaranteed to have more constructive arguments.