Engaging in Real Debate: Words Matter

WC was a zealous debater in high school. It wasn’t just formal debate tournaments; WC cherished the Tanana Valley State Fair and the opportunity to go and argue with the old geezers at the John Birch Society booth. WC argued with teachers. WC argued with classmates. WC’s professional career was built around persuasive argument: effectively communicating ideas, whether in oral argument to a court or jury, written pleadings or drafting contracts. As the late Dom LaRusso taught, communication is taking ideas in your head and putting them in someone else’s head. Everything else is just noise.

There’s an awful lot of noise right now. There may be more interchange of words than ever before, but there is less, much less, true communication. WC tried to explain the importance of real communication in a comment exchange on Facebook recently.1 WC’s point was that words we choose to use really do matter:

Allan is inadvertently confirming Greg’s point, attempting insult, using inflammatory words. “Libtard,” “Obummer,” “sheeple;” they are words calculated to offend. The message Allan sends using such words is “I dislike you” because he is going out of his way to offend and insult. The second layer of meaning is that Allan brings a sophomoric analysis to issues, since he uses sophomoric – and I mean high school sophomore here – insults. Allan won’t change anyone’s mind. His comments are a kind of noise.

And that’s the ultimate message from Allan, isn’t it? “Ignore me, I’m not saying anything important.”

WC taught Business Law at a state university for five years. WC borrowed a Gary Larson cartoon to demonstrate the importance of words:

© 1982 Gary Larson, "The Far Side," United Press Syndicate

© 1982 Gary Larson, “The Far Side,” United Press Syndicate

WC’s students were resistant to the idea of learning the specialized vocabulary involved in business law. This cartoon, shown in the first day of class, communicated the importance of getting words right. To use Dom LaRusso’s phrase, it took an idea in my head – the importance of using the right words and understanding each other – and put it in my students’ heads in an effective, amusing and non-threatening, non-defensive way.

Gratuitous insults like Allan used in the Facebook exchange – “Libtard,” “Obummer” and “sheeple” – impair communication. They carry so much emotional freight that it’s very hard for a listener not to dismiss or reject the rest of the message out of hand. Worse, the message communicated is very different than the speaker intended. You won’t engage a listener, let alone change their thinking, by insulting them.2 The speaker may get an emotional charge out of insulting his or her listener, but that’s intellectual masturbation, not communication.

The combination of uncritical thinking, ignorance of logical fallacy and ineffective communication has become a substantial factor in the crisis of societal division facing the United States. Specifically, it makes it much harder to resolve the division because it makes it much harder to effectively communicate and share ideas.

About 25 years ago, WC’s alma mater closed its Department of Speech. WC argued that the decision was incredibly short-sighted, that the curriculum in Speech should be a graduation requirement. WC told his alma mater he was cutting of his alumni contributions in protest, and warned of dire consequences.





  1. It was unsuccessful, possibly because, in part, as Marshall McLuhan noted a long time ago, the medium is the message. Facebook is a wretched means of communicating, despite its popularity. 
  2. WC cherishes his ignorance of sociology, and will not speak at length to the issue of tribalism. But a sociologist might argue that Allan is communicating his tribal membership, and that it is a useful, valid message. WC would respond that any message that could be communicated instead by a bumpersticker probably isn’t worth saying. 
  3. Quod erat demonstrandum, “the thing is shown.” 

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