Three Ways to Escalate an Argument

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Recent extraordinary events in the UK parliament have emphasised the importance of language – not just what is said but how it is said. People have recommended being careful about what they say, calming down and ‘dialling back’ the force with which they make their points.

So it is worth thinking about what kinds of language make an argument more or less forceful, or more or less aggressive. Here are three ways that language can be used to ratchet up an argument – avoiding these will dial the argument back.

First, if you want to escalate an argument, apply labels. Use nouns or adjectives that make a judgement about people, not what they have done. There is a difference between ‘Mr Johnson’s actions will jeopardise the economy’, and ‘Mr Johnson is a dangerous prime minister’ (what Jeremy Corbin actually said), and ‘Mr Johnson is a danger to the country’ (which would have been stronger). Every primary school teacher in the country knows this: they might tell a misbehaving child that their actions are unacceptable but should not describe them as a bad person. Also use nouns to label what people have said; describe their language as ‘bluster’ or ‘humbug’ or their feelings as ‘fear’ or ‘indignation’.

Second, use metaphors. Instead of saying ‘The opposition could have voted to hold an election but has not done so’, say ‘The opposition turned tail and fled from an election’ (what Boris Johnson actually said). Metaphors not only make a judgement stronger, they are insidious because it is easy to overlook the hidden message they convey. Using metaphors of physical conflict, such as ‘the EU will blink first’ or ‘standing toe to toe’, construes discussions between the UK and other members of the EU as a battle. This in turn  prepares the ground for metaphors such as ‘surrender’ and judgements of people as ‘traitors’ or ‘cowards’ (see above). Metaphors can make a version of events sound normal and can prevent the recognition of alternative views.

Third, state your beliefs as fact. Either do this by avoiding phrases like ‘I think…’ or scale up the factuality by using ‘the truth is…’ or ‘the fact is…’. This is the difference between ‘The prime minister has used what in my opinion is pejorative language’ and ‘The prime minister has used pejorative language’ (what Paul Sherriff actually said) and ‘The fact is that the language used by the prime minister has been pejorative’ (which would have been stronger). Do this particularly in relation to what Labov called ‘B-events’, that is, things you cannot possibly have direct knowledge of, such as another person’s motives or thought-processes.

Being an effective debater often means using the rhetorical strategies above: labelling the opposition, ascribing motives to them, and using metaphor to build a picture of events. Often a clever speaker will use more than one. Boris Johnson’s reference to a ‘cloud of indignation’ both uses a metaphor (feelings are muddled or imprecise), and labels people’s feelings in factual terms. In doing so he manages to belittle his opponents and their concerns in a subtle way. In a debating chamber there are often no real-world consequences: the debate is a staged conflict that like a football match has winners and losers but (hopefully) no actual casualties. Parliament is different and the strategies used should be different.

So if MPs wish to moderate their language, they should remember: judge actions and plans, but do not label people; understand and avoid metaphor; and mark your beliefs and convictions as such.

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