There is a crucial distinction that needs to be made in the way we go about understanding and meaningfully engaging with arguments.
The most common style of engagement we use is reaction. That is, we’re confronted by something – a claim, a statement, an idea, position, ideology, etc. – and we seek to engage it immediately; usually by either defending our own ideas in light of the claims made, or by trying to attack the confronting concept. The problem with reaction, to use a martial arts analogy, is that reacting leaves us on the defensive, or rather, pushed back on our heels. Reactionary position is indicative of being surprised, unprepared, and generally working on the fly. Generally speaking, action beats reaction.
The problem with reacting is that the other party decides on timing and rules of engagement. They get to bring up their position at whatever point they feel is advantageous to them, and they force us to deal with their claims as they come. As Sun Tzu points out, that makes for a disastrous strategy.
Finally, reaction tends to be accompanied by an emotional imbalance. We are emotionally disturbed by claims, arguments, attacks; we go on the defensive, our cognitive functions become impaired, and we perform very poorly. This is why people can say things in the heat of the moment that they would never consider saying otherwise, and have to apologize for – or get fired over.
The flip side of reaction is response. A response is a calm, measured, and well-informed approach, It implies a kind of cessation of one side, before the other side engages. A decent analogy shows this as the difference between pundits yelling over one another, as opposed to a written response to an issued statement. The benefit of responding is that it allows time to take in all the information, fully process it, and – most importantly – examine the kinds of assumptions and ideas that are inherent to the initial claims.
Al Ghazali, a famous theologian and philosopher, brought out this difference in his Deliverance from Error, where he criticizes common theologians for foolishly reacting to claims of Hellenistic philosophy. By doing so, they essentially grant the assumptions the philosophers are making, and thus both normalize their philosophic-theology, and try to address issues by using the philosophical approach –which their education is entirely unsuited for. That is, by allowing themselves to react, rather than respond, to the philosophical ideas, they handed the timing and the rules of engagement to the opponent, while allowing themselves to be drawn into a fight on the ground chosen by the other side – again, a clear path to destruction.
By contrast, Al Ghazali argues that in order to respond to an idea, we must first become as knowledgeable about that idea as its best proponents. As an example, a theologian who wants to engage philosophers in argument, needs to first get his PhD in philosophy.
The reason for this approach, Al Ghazali argues, is that this in-depth learning does two things: First, it allows us to understand the arguments from the inside – in the way that the best adherents of that position would understand them. This prevents the response from being superficial, or from failing to fully connect, by lacking the total awareness of the argument structure. Second, the in-depth study also allows us to find the internal cracks of the opposing position – thus giving us serious leverage in constructing our response.
Al Ghazali took this position to heart, and is known to have spent years in study of a subject, before offering a response. As a result, his responses were devastating. Case in point, when he was tasked with refuting a heretical sect, he spent a long while learning all he could about their ideas, beliefs, arguments, etc. from the adherents of the sect. Though he began with the average followers, he managed to collect their texts, and gain audience with the high-ranking sect members. After the exhaustive study, he wrote a book refuting their position. His book was criticized, not by the sect, but by the common theologians. They said that the first half of the book, where Al Ghazali detailed their arguments from their perspective, was far more coherent and comprehensive than anything the sect had ever managed to do – and if the people only read the first half, they might join the sect.
In that first half, Al Ghazali demonstrated deep understanding of the ideas, beliefs, and positions of the sect, in a way that left no doubt as to his comprehension of the tenets of their faith.
The second half of the book, however, Al Ghazali worked from within their ideology. He found and exploited every logical and theological weakness, and every implication that did not add up. In his response, he would take each claim individually, disprove it, and then assume that it was true solely for the benefit of moving to the next claim supported by the first, so that he could show that – even if we assume the first claim works, its conclusions would fail anyway. The sect disappeared shortly thereafter.
Consider the following: a lot of political noise was made in the US regarding “Islamic terrorism,” and especially the grave threat it poses to America. Many people reacted with outrage over the title, claims about the peaceful nature of Islam, etc. What most failed to note, is that the statement was worded in a way that engaging with it meant buying into the premises – namely Islamic terrorism (as somehow magically different than terrorism in general), and the idea that it posed a grave threat to the US (statistically silly, given the fact that toddlers tend to kill more people annually than terrorist Muslims, not to mention various white supremacy groups).
A response would have consisted of asking for a clarification of the terms “Islamic terror,” and “grave danger,” along with distinguishing features, metrics, sources, etc. Once that information had been provided, the entire idea could have easily been dismantled – because there is nothing Islamic or Christian about terrorism, it’s just terrorism; and no metric will place the Muslim population at the top of the grave threat list.
At that point, the whole claim is made to evaporate, and those who held onto the claim must instead offer a justification for wasting time, and clear misinterpretation of data on their part – especially since the individuals in question are using government funds to push that agenda.
Reactions are easy, because they are emotionally charged. We react when someone pushes our buttons – that is, we lose our cool and just start lashing out; like a threatened animal. Responses are hard, specifically because the first step of a response is strangling our emotional, ego-driven response into submission, and only then turning to the issue with cold reason; like a human being. Obviously, depending on the issue, our emotions may or may not flare up, the degree of emotional response differs, etc. However, keeping our cool is a matter of practice, and we’re all capable of it when the situation demands it. Getting into the habit of responding, instead of reacting, gives us the best chance of actually addressing the problems we face.
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