Lee Siegel is a National Magazine Award-winning writer, cultural critic, and author of seven books, including the soon-to-be-released Why Argument Matters (Yale University Press). He recently spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about the book and the roots of argument in human nature and art.
From your title, one might expect a guide to winning arguments or a defense of the necessity of open debate in a liberal society, but it’s more than that. Can you tell us about your aims with this book?
We’re living at a time when basic concepts like freedom, individuality, and democracy—ideas whose meaning we’ve taken for granted since we were children—are being redefined and fought over like never before in this country. “Argument” is one of them. The word used to connote different things in different contexts. An argument with your spouse was bad. An argument in a courtroom was good. An argument with your neighbor was bad. An argument between intellectuals or between political candidates was good. Now the term “argument” almost always signifies an obstruction to civic and to social life. In the popular conception now, argument has declined from its orderly, classical proportions to noise and screaming, to clamorous episodes of clashing egos that appeal only to their audience’s emotions but never to ideals and ideas. I wanted to get to the heart of what argument really is and has always been. As Aristotle and Cicero, the two fathers of modern rhetoric, knew, argument’s power and beauty lie in the way it uses reason to stir up the emotions, in the way it frankly manipulates the audience’s feelings. The media stir up a perpetual state of crisis in which every worthy human activity is rotten and corrupt, and they are constantly warning about the decline of argument into demagoguery. But this is nonsense. The impulse to argue is woven into our biological being. Argument is synonymous with human existence itself; it is the product of the impulse to change our lot and the world around us for the better. I wanted to redeem argument from its contemporary slanderers, and then to show what argument is at its best, which is—hold on to your hat—an act of caring about the world and the people who inhabit it.
What effects have the Internet and social media had on the art of argument?
They’ve created the image of argument as this discredited activity because everyone who has anything contentious to say, no matter how questionable, can get thousands and sometimes millions of people to read or listen to it. Everybody then says, “Look how debased argument has become!” But it’s not argument that has been degraded; it’s our public venues of expression. Plenty of people are making careful arguments rather than tweeting out attention-getting outrages in 280 characters. Now, you could say that, in just the same way that crabgrass crowds out and kills grass, the Internet and social media are overwhelming and drowning out genuine argument. But in fact when you strip argument down to its fundamentals, which I have tried to do in my book, and demonstrate that argument is at the heart of human life—"I'm serious" is an argument; "Come with me to the store" is an argument—you see that the more sentient and intelligent the argument, the better the life around it becomes. The crabgrass starts to retreat.
The second part of your book is “The Argument of Art.” How is art an argument?
If a work of art, by getting closer to what is real, can reproduce human existence in all its multiplicity of truth, then art proves that life can be created out of the imagination just as surely as out of a biological cell. A successful work of art, therefore, makes the argument that humanity can transcend its material conditions. Or to put it another way, while argument seeks to make one approach to life prevail over another for the sake of a larger and freer existence, art strives to convince us of the multifaceted nature of existence for the sake of a larger and freer argument. That’s why art driven by some narrow ideology or moral purpose is such a bore. A hazy meaning is fatal to the art of argument, but a singular clarity is fatal to the argument of art.
You write that genuine argument presupposes a “we”—a shared view of reality that sets boundaries. Is that shared sense of reality in America slipping away? If so, what comes next?
We—as it were—seem no longer to share the same sets of facts in any given situation, that’s true. I don’t know if it’s as extreme as people like to say it is, however. To a great extent, in the context of national politics, the radically different views of reality are simply regional, or determined by differences of class, race, and gender—differences that get distorted and exploited and made even sharper for one political purpose or another. The more decisive factor here is, again, the venues of public exploitation. Call it mega-democracy, the point at which democratic energies turn against themselves. What all of us share, though, is a common set of emotions. Love, hate, hope, and fear: those don’t change. The British critic, T. E. Hulme, once said that romanticism was “spilled religion.” Well, we are living in an age of spilled romanticism. We don’t navigate by our feelings the way people living in the age of romanticism did. We are overwhelmed by feelings. What’s next is one of two things. Either we use the emotions we share with all humans to inhabit the feelings of the people we are arguing with, or we allow emotions to carry us away and drive us to blot out other people’s existence. Our future, in other words, is a general vulnerability to one degree of demagoguery or another, but it is unclear whether the demagoguery will be benevolent or malign. Auden once wrote that “we must love one another or die.” Aware of the saint-like demands the line makes, he later changed it to “we must love one another and die,” which, as much as I adore Auden, is hardly worth pointing out. I would change the line to “we must understand one another or die.” We can only do that if we make argument a form of, as I said, caring about the world, and of thorough understanding of one another’s complex humanness.