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Just Shut Up and Listen to Your Enemy

Whatever Happened to Rogerian Argument?

by KAZ DZIAMKA

It is, of course, regrettable that logic and reason hold little sway in politics and religion. Politics is typically concerned with expediency, not with moral principles or rational conduct. Religionists often cater shamelessly to our infinite capacity for delusion and wishful thinking, never to our ability to reason.

But rational argument could have unexpected benefits, particularly for politicians and religionists, assuming that in their irrationality they are prepared not to be outright dogmatic and unrelenting. I am not talking about correct deductive and inductive reasoning. I am talking about Rogerian argument, a conflict-solving method popularized by the American psychologist Carl R. Rogers (hence "Rogerian") in his essay "Communication: Its Blocking and Its Facilitation."

Rogers (1902-1987) reached his professional prime in the 1950s as the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified, resulting in the infamous McCarthy witch-hunts and the Cuban crisis. Like today, it was a time of the polarization of political and moral views, a development much troubling to Rogers. In the United States, this polarization manifested itself in the popular simplistic conviction that the world was divided into good and bad guys: good, god-fearing Christians and bad, godless Communists and others. The good guys should not even try to communicate with the bad guys; the good guys should defeat the bad guys. "You are either with us or with the terrorists." Amen.

Not so, says Rogers. If we hang on to our perceived division of us versus them, then "there will be just two ideas, two feelings, two judgments, missing each other in psychological space." The results are lack of communication and irreconcilable differences: "I am 100 percent right and you are 100 percent wrong." Instead, Rogers argues, we should try to "see the expressed idea and attitude from the other person’s point of view, to sense how it feels to him, to achieve his frame of reference in regard to the thing he is talking about."

The tough problem is to try somehow to listen to the other side before we make up our mind and act on our beliefs because we are actually often unwilling to listen for fear that we might be affected by other points of view. And we don’t want that: We’ve grown comfortable believing that ours is the only valid point of view. "The great majority of us," points out Rogers, "could not listen; we would find ourselves compelled to evaluate, because listening would seem too dangerous. So the first requirement is courage, and we do not always have it."

In Current Issues and Enduring Questions (the book I use for teaching argumentative writing at the Central New Mexico Community College), the authors, Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau, summarize the main points of Rogerian argument and contrast it with the traditional, combative mode, which we all tend to overuse and abuseæAristotelian argument. The Rogerian formula for arguing and conflict-solving shows sympathetic understanding of the opposing argument, recognizes what is valid in it, and demonstrates that those who take the other side are nonetheless persons of goodwill.

This kind of argumentation is in marked contrast to Aristotelian argumentation, which is "adversarial, [seeks] to refute other views, and sees the listener as wrong, someone who now must be overwhelmed by evidence."

Rogerian argument is "nonconfrontational, collegial, and friendly. It respects other views and allows for plural truths, and seeks to achieve some degree of assent, rather than convince utterly." Although a compromise solution is not always possible, Rogerian argument allows two opposing sides to find common ground and thus to defuse a conflict.

It is easy to imagine the incredible potential Rogerian argument offers for solving political, social, and other problems. A dramatic opportunity to use the Rogerian method in a political crisis arose in March 2003, during the interview of Saddam Hussein by CBS’s Dan Rather, just before President Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq. At one point, Rather asked Saddam what the Iraqi government could possibly do to prevent an imminent destruction of his country and government.

Rather looked very serious when he asked this question. The situation became palpably tense: I held my breath as I listened to Saddam, whose fate as well as the fate of thousands of Iraqi citizens and U.S. troops was just about to be sealed.

Saddam answered, very sensibly, that he was prepared to engage Bush in a televised debate moderated by a neutral third party. "I would let President Bush present his case," said Saddam, "and then I would present mine." The two sides would have a chance to listen to each other, and so would the citizens of the United States and Iraq, as well as the rest of the world.

Perhaps, I thought, common sense is not so uncommon. Perhaps Bush may have heard about Rogerian argument.

But of course, it was not to be. The White House immediately dismissed Saddam’s offer as another ploy to avert the waræas if trying to avert war is evil. And the rest is history, still unfolding with horrible consequences every day.

Did Yale and Harvard professors teach George Bush Rogerian argument? I doubt it very much. But I can still hope that one day, all American students, particularly those who aspire to become politicians, will be expected to learn the art of Rogerian argument and to use it in creating a better world in which we have learned to listen to our enemies.

KAZ DZIAMKA is editor of the American Rationalist and teaches English and Native American Studies at the Central New Mexico Community College. Email: kazd@nmia.com