So the Great Barrier Reef has not been listed as endangered by UNESCO. And same-sex marriage is high on the national agenda. Care to argue the case? Careful, there’s a minefield ahead.
There is one thing that is poorly understood about arguing in the public arena. It is the reason that a strong case will often lose its momentum and that an obvious logical conclusion will be missed.
It is one of the reasons our political leaders fail utterly to have a reasoned conversation with the population and with each other. And it’s why denialists on just about any issue can sidestep rational debate.
It’s called the “point at issue” and describes what the argument is actually about. If you move away from this simple idea, the argument will be lost in a fog of related but unnecessary issues. (Post continues after gallery.)
Finding the point
Before we can argue, we must actually agree on something: what we are arguing about. If we can’t do this, and then stick to it, there will be no progress.
Let’s consider the Great Barrier Reef as an example. Some media commentary would have us believe that the fact the reef was not listed means any concerns about its well-being are entirely misplaced.
This misses the point completely. As many articles have pointed out, that the reef has not been listed does not mean any environmental concerns are unjustified.
The point at issue is whether the reef meets the UNESCO criteria for listing as endangered. It is another point entirely to say the reef is not at risk. Conflating the two muddies the waters.
As another example, imagine someone comments that locking up refugees is psychologically damaging to them. Another person says that the policy is much better under the current government than it was under the last.
The argument has shifted from whether the processes is damaging to who manages the process best. It is not the same thing. If that is not noticed, the argument usually degenerates and we are no closer to finding the truth of the original claim.
For a third example, the federal treasurer, Joe Hockey, recently had to defend spending his accommodation entitlements when he is in Canberra on a house owned by his wife.