Explain Your Opponent’s Perspective

Here’s one of the simplest ways to test someone’s knowledge of an issue: ask them to explain the other side of the argument.

Ask the person who’s pro-choice to explain the pro-life perspective.

Ask the person who’s in favor of spending more money on marketing project X to explain the thinking process behind those who oppose the budgetary move.

Ask McCain supporters why in the world someone would support Obama and see if they give an answer beyond, “He’s a good speaker.”

Ask those who deride the bailout plan in Congress to explain the argument for the bailout plan.

Bottom Line: I have yet to find a more efficient and reliable way to probe the depths of a person’s knowledge and seriousness about an issue than asking them to explain the other side’s perspective.

20 comments on “Explain Your Opponent’s Perspective
  • This was said to be one of Bill Clinton’s great strengths – that he could make the other side’s argument better than they themselves could. I’ve also heard this is true of Obama (a friend of mine was one of his law school students).

  • Thank you for this tip. I often argue emotionally and I want to be logical instead. This serves as a good tool towards that goal.

  • As Anthony Weston wrote in his Rulebook for Arguments, “If you can’t imagine how anyone could hold the view you are attacking, you just don’t understand it yet.

  • As I was writing a comment along the lines of ‘I completely agree,’ I realized that I cannot think of a reasonable counter-argument to your opinion on this issue. Uh oh.

  • Sometimes it’s because I have no opinion, or if I do I don’t think it’s terribly well informed, or if the issue is too contentious I’m not interested in alienating huge swaths of my readers who disagree (unless I care strongly about it — like Prop 8).

  • Ben:

    Practising this on a day-to-day basis is the mark of separating the well-educated from the literate.

    And through history, many have recognised the merit of this line of thinking, not least Cicero, who said:

    “The man who can hold forth on every matter under debate in two contradictory ways of pleading, or can argue for and against every proposition that can be laid down – such a man is the true, the complete, and the only orator.”

  • Brilliant idea.

    Why someone might think they shouldn’t have to explain the opposing side: if they think the opposite side is arguing down a different alley altogether/ if the other side is fraudulent. Sometimes the other side’s argument is just a bunch of cobbled-together excuses that make no actual sense. For instance- pro-racism, anyone?

  • Alice:

    “For instance- pro-racism, anyone?”

    I think your question could extend to cover pro-homophobia, anti human rights and so on. In theory it is possible to make arguments in favour of all these positions (if we are prepared to cast aside our normative filters). I think that is the crux of this post.

    In practice, I think people’s public positions are often quite different from their real positions on issues. Such people can however be identified by the frequent use of the expression “I am not racist but…” or some of my liberal friends who believe that while gay people can marry, they should not be allowed to have children (note the use of “allowed” in there; who “allows” straight people to have children?).

    Esp in case of isms, while our wiring is to be -ists of many kinds, we have conditioned ourselves to believe we are not or we MUST not be it. Different standards also apply. Many non-white people are openly racist yet escape oppobrium in the way a white person cannot.

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