On Sharp Argumentation

In chess, the term ‘sharp’ is used to denote a move, position, game, or style of play that involves highly tactical positions in which there is the potential for great reward and little or no room for error. The term may also refer to a player who regularly plays in such a manner. A sharp position frequently contains a significant amount of asymmetry, meaning that the position has differing goals for each player. Players may use sharp moves in order to take an opponent out of his or her comfort zone and see if this can produce a mistake that one can use to win the game. But this can also backfire; a mistake on one’s own part can lose the game in such positions. The essence of sharp play is to play aggressively, making threats and responding to threats with counter-threats rather than with passive or retreating moves. Common advice to novice players is to practice playing sharp lines, but doing this in tournaments or against stronger players is likely to produce defeats, as one is likely to make a mistake. It is more effective to be a sharp player than to try to find sharp moves here and there.

An analogy may be drawn with a particular style of argumentation. Sharp argumentation aims to step outside the Overton window in order to take an arguer out of their comfort zone and make them defend ideas that they assumed were universally accepted. The goals are different for each participant in sharp argumentation, in that the mainstream commentator is trying to defend the range of allowable opinion while the sharp arguer is trying to challenge and move it in their direction. This tactic has the high risk of making one look foolish if one cannot defend such a position with great skill, and it has the high reward of making an opponent look foolish if they cannot attack the position well. The goal of a debater should not be to seek out particular sharp positions just to troll and trifle with one’s opponents, but to become sharper in a more general sense.

Accepting Absurdity

With the nature of sharp argumentation established, let us now consider a situation in which one might use this tactic. Consider a libertarian who supports the right to keep and bear arms and is going to debate with a progressive who supports greater gun control measures. The progressive says, “The right to keep and bear arms is not absolute. For example, no one thinks private citizens should have nuclear weapons. There are reasonable restrictions that we can all agree upon.” The goal of the progressive here is to define a certain position as out of bounds while stealthily taking ground.

How might the libertarian respond? One could agree that there should be some restrictions, but believe that the state is not the best way to accomplish this. While this is not anathema to libertarian theory, in the sense that the rules of membership in a stateless community may require that one not be in possession of certain weapons if one wishes to remain in that community, it is a dull response because it both accepts the opponent’s framing of the issue and makes a concession where none need be made. Another possible response is to accuse the progressive of throwing out a red herring because the discussion is about guns that are commonly used by individuals, not weapons of mass destruction. This is not as dull of a response because it calls out the tactic that the opponent is using, but it is not sharp because it does not answer the claim in a robust manner.

Now let us consider a sharp response. The libertarian says, “Speak for yourself. I support private ownership of nuclear weapons,” and offers a detailed explanation of why nuclear weapons are better in private hands than under state control. This line is sharp because it rejects the opponent’s framing of the debate, robustly accepts an idea that the opponent regards as absurd, and strongly challenges all mainstream views about nuclear weapon ownership. The progressive may become so flustered as to regard the libertarian as beyond reason, responding with insults, dismissals, and other such non-arguments. Getting an opponent to react in this way does not necessarily mean that one’s reasoning is correct, but it does make one the winner of the argument as long as one remains calm and reasonable while the opponent loses composure. Short of this, the progressive may attempt to pick apart various aspects of the case for private nuclear weapons. In this case, the libertarian must be able to defend against such attempts because a false move can easily lose the battle for public opinion, while a solid defense against every objection will make the progressive look poorly versed in the subject matter.

Discomfort Zone

Some lines of sharp argumentation require an arguer to leave one’s own comfort zone in order to battle the opponent on unfamiliar ground. Consider a Republican who is debating a Democrat concerning the 2016 election. The Democrat says, “The 2016 election result, and thus the presidency of Donald Trump, is illegitimate because of Russian interference during the general election.” Here, the Democrat is making a strong claim backed by what is an unproven accusation at the time of this writing.

How might the Republican respond? One could say that there needs to be a full investigation into connections between the Donald Trump campaign and the Russian government to find out the extent of any collusion between the two, but stop short of agreeing with the Democrat. While a Republican may have legitimate concerns over foreign meddling in the democratic process, this is a dull response because it accepts the Democrat’s framing of the situation and concedes that the Democrat may be correct. Another possible response is to point out that there is no evidence of tampering with the election process itself, other than the usual questions about turnouts exceeding 100 percent in a few heavily Democratic districts. This response is not dull because it reframes the issue in terms of hacking of email servers belonging to Democrats, as well as in terms of election tampering done by Democrats. But it is not sharp because it fails to challenge the Democrat’s claim that Russia was involved and that this would delegitimize Trump.

In this case, going sharp requires one to depart from Republican orthodoxy and take a libertarian-leaning position that is too extreme for most Republicans to entertain. The Republican says, “There is no evidence that the Russians altered the outcome of the election to hand Trump the Presidency, but if they did, they were justified in doing it,” followed by a case for why they would be justified. This line of argumentation departs quite far from Republican orthodoxy about national security and foreign policy, but is very capable of throwing the Democrat for a loop. As before, the leftist may forfeit the argument by losing composure, hurling insults and dismissals. Otherwise, the Republican would need to defend the positions that Hillary Clinton was more likely to cause a war with Russia, that the Russian people have a right to influence the US election because they are affected by its result, and that the US has no room to talk given its track record of overthrowing governments when its leaders dislike election results. The latter two are certainly not conventional Republican arguments, but they are defensible. Again, failure to defend such bold positions effectively would make the Republican look crazy, but a skilled defense may leave the Democrat speechless.

Enough Versus Too Much

Just as there are problems with being too dull, one can also argue too sharply. Consider a conservative who is debating a social justice warrior on almost any topic that one cares to imagine. At some point, the social justice warrior is likely to resort to calling the conservative and/or the case the conservative is making racist, misogynist, or another such epithet. The SJW is doing this in an effort to cow the conservative into backing down from the case being made.

How might the conservative respond? All too frequently, the conservative will say, “I am not a misogynist/racist/etc.,” or “No, it isn’t,” followed by an apology or rationalization. This is dull because it plays into the SJW’s narrative. When a SJW resorts to name-calling, they are no longer engaged in rational discussion, and attempting to bring the discussion back to rationality once one of the participants has renounced reasoned debate is like administering medicine to the dead. An apology is even worse, as this concedes the point to the opponent and emboldens other SJWs to shut down debate by similar means. A better response is to inform the SJW that name-calling is not an argument and leave it at that, though this lacks the necessary boldness to be a sharp response. It also fails to challenge the frame set by the SJW.

A sharp response by the conservative would look something like this: “Fine, it is misogynist/racist/etc. It also happens to agree with the available facts. Now, make a valid counter-argument.” This response is sharp because it refuses to back down while challenging both the SJW’s framing of the issue and definitions of terms. Many SJWs have no argument beyond calling a person or idea bigoted, so this response is likely to make a SJW lose any sense of composure and fail to say anything else of substance. In the rare instance that one must continue, one must be able to make the case, as failing to do so can get one labeled a misogynist/racist/etc., which can have many adverse consequences.

A response that would be too sharp would be to reply to an accusation of racism or sexism by displaying clearly hateful bigotry toward the SJW. A response along the lines of “Shut up, (insert misogynist/racist/etc. slur here)” may be satisfying in the moment, but this is a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. An impartial observer will view the SJW as the victor for getting the conservative to respond in such a vulgar fashion. Meanwhile, the media career of someone who does this will take a major hit, which is exactly what the SJW wants.

Conclusion

Used properly, sharp arguments can explore new avenues of thought while making inferior debaters look foolish. However, improper usage can be disastrous not only for one’s argument, but for one’s reputation. As always, research and practice are necessary in order to perform properly in an intellectual setting. Sharp argumentation is not for everyone, but it is a useful tactic to know even for someone who is not naturally inclined to argue in such a manner.