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Control The Tense

The examples I gave of the core issues–blame, values, and choice–show a certain pattern. The blame questions deal with the past. The values questions are in the present tense. And the choice questions have to do with the future.

Blame = Past Values = Present Choice = Future

If you find an argument spinning out of control, try switching the tense. To pin the blame on the cheese thief, use the past tense. To get someone to believe that abortion is a terrible sin, use the present tense. The future, though, is the best tense for getting peace and quiet in the living room.

Girl Versus Turkey

A husband and wife debate over whether to invest more in stocks or in bonds.

He: Let’s get aggressive with growth stocks. She: The experts predict the market will tank this year. I say we stay conservative.

Why argue? Because they can’t predict the economic future. They can only take their best guess today. What would that argument look like in the present tense?

He: My dad always said blue chips are the way to go. That’s the right kind of investment. She: Well, that’s just wrong. My astrologer says blue chips are evil.

The same couple argues over whether to provide orthodontia for their ten-year-old.

She: Straight teeth will be good for his self-esteem. He: yeah, but if we put the money in a college fund, we’ll have a debt-free college graduate. She: A bucktoothed college graduate.

Is there a right choice? Maybe. But they don’t know what it is and have to make a decision nonetheless. These questions deal with probabilities, not facts or values.

Suppose your uncle Randy decides to divorce your aunt on their thirteenth anniversary so he can marry a surfing instructor he met at Club Med. You have two issues here, one more and the other practical. The moral issue is inarguable by our definition. Your uncle is either wrong or right. You could remind him that he is breaking a wonderful woman’s heart, but you would be sermonizing not arguing. You could threaten to bar him from Thanksgiving dinner, but that would be coercion, not argument–assuming he would prefer your turkey to a cruise buffet with his Club Med hottie.

The practical, debatable issue in your uncle’s case deals with the likely consequences of ditching your aunt for the trophy wife.

You: She’ll leave you within the year, and you’ll be lonely and miserable forever. Uncle: No she won’t. And a young woman will make me feel younger, which means I’ll live longer.

Which prediction is true? Neither of you has a clue. But Uncle Randy might persuade you that he has good practical reasons for remarrying. Will he ever convince you that he is morally in the right? Not a chance. Morals are inarguable in deliberative rhetoric.

Argument’s Rule Number One: Never debate the undebatable. Instead, focus on your goals. The next chapter tells you have to achieve them.

###### Argument Tool: SPOT THE INARGUABLE: It’s what is permanent, necessary, or undeniably true. If you think your opponent is wrong-if it ain’t necessarily so-then try to assess what the audience believes. You can challenge a belief, but deliberative argument prefers to use beliefs to persuasion’s advantage.

#### The Tools We expect our arguments to accomplish something. You want a debate to settle an issue, with everyone walking away in agreement–with you.