Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Westley Defense (Part 1): Nice Guys with Mad Sword Skills Get Listened To [Jay Watts]

Originally posted at my personal blog Vassal of Grace

My family recently watched The Princess Bride as my daughter's welcome home movie after a week a way at Camp Kudzu, a camp for kids with Type 1 diabetes. Her choice thrilled my wife and I, as I suspect it would most parents our age. My kids repeated the lines over and over before, during, and after, and repeatedly hearing the lines I was struck with an aspect of the movie I hadn't previously appreciated. Westley, Buttercup's true love and the hero of the film, is the very model of how we should engage people with whom we have serious disagreements.

Greg Koukl wrote the book on how to have a productive conversation. Literally, it is called Tactics and if you don't own it, you should. Greg gives a tactical approach to arguments through a series of questions while highlighting common mistakes in how we frame our positions. With the wealth of information in this book, one line impacted me more than any other. Early in the second chapter Greg gives a rule of his: "If anyone in the discussion gets angry, you lose." (Underlining added)

He goes on to write:

"When you get angry, you look belligerent. You raise your voice, you scowl. You may even begin to break into the conversation before the person is finished. Not only is this bad manners, but it begins to look like your ideas are not as good as you thought they were... You begin to replace persuasion with power...

What if you are able to keep your cool, but the person you're trying to persuade isn't? You lose in that case, too. People who are angry get defensive, and defensive people are not in a very good position to think about whether or not your ideas are good ones."

Let me reiterate what Greg says in the book; a knowledge base is essential to arguing well. That said, the longer I do this work the more convinced I become of the importance of respectful dialogue. As I present, I emphasize that what most led to my change in views on both God and abortion was good arguments from good arguers. Both components were vital and neither took precedence over the other.

That rubs some people the wrong way. A philosophy major at one university I was visiting told me, “That is all well and good, but I like to mix it up. I enjoy the heat of battle.”

I gently responded, “If your goal is to enjoy the heat of the exchange and bludgeon others with arguments in order to score rhetorical points then your approach is fine. If you hope to convince someone that they are wrong it is almost guaranteed to fail. By allowing the emotion and challenge of the argument to move front and center, you make the discussion about you and not the ideas in play. Now the person isn't even hearing your ideas because they don't like you, and there is no way that they are going to listen.”

A representative of a school I will soon be visiting called me to ask about my style. He apologized for the necessity of the conversation but as he explained, “the last pro-life speaker we allowed into our school was mean, didn't interact with the students but merely dismissed them as obviously wrong, and did a lot of damage to the pro-life views of our students.”

It looks like I am going to get the chance to work with that school to help them get past the last guy, but listen to what he said. The man's attitude toward the students and the discussion did damage. The speaker didn't offer bad arguments as near as I can tell, he just argued poorly.

I don't like bad arguers. Michael Ruse participated in a debate with a Christian apologist that shall remain unnamed. An atheist friend of mine attended the event with me. Ruse was warm and engaging. He did not shy away from his disagreements with Christianity or the apologist he shared the stage with, but he cloaked his disagreement with cordiality and respect. I watched him interact with the lay audience. Even when some well intentioned soul talked to Ruse like he was stupid or engaged him a little too enthusiastically, he politely excused himself and moved on without incident. All I know about that man as a person is what I saw that day. He may be a scoundrel every other day of his life, but I remember him as a charming guy and I enjoy reading his works more as a result.

The Christian apologist, on the other hand, was rude during Q & A, made repeated references to his credentials, and bizarrely threatened to “come after” one of the panelists. We all have bad days, but this behavior was so off putting that, whatever the strengths of his arguments may have been, my atheist friend completely dismissed him. Thank God for the charming and articulate panelists that genuinely impressed my friend. I extend that man grace in recognition that I have no idea what was going on with him, but I must admit that I have had little interest in his work since then in spite of his obvious intelligence. I say that knowing full well that there are people out there who feel the same about me after I mishandled conflicts in the past.

There is little to add to the brilliance of Greg Koukl's Tactics, but in light of how crucial I believe this aspect is to our successful engagement, I am going to do a series of posts on arguing well. I want to take Greg's rule from Chapter 2 and tease it out with illustrations in what I will call the Westley Defense.

I'm writing this for me as much as anyone else. In Romans 12:17-18 Paul tells us, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” In my life I have been quarrelsome, aggressive, and hateful. Being respectful and courteous is a discipline I adopted because it both makes me more the man I ought to be and because it aids in accomplishing the goal of winning people rather than arguments. It does not come natural to me. I work on it.

In The Princess Bride, Westley is confronted with sword fights, hand to hand combat with a giant, a battle of wits to the death with a rude Sicilian, and the efforts of an evil prince to separate him from his true love. Though not lacking in strength or will, almost every engagement is peppered with wit and warmth. Even in his more terse and threatening exchanges with Prince Humperdink, his aggression is constrained by the necessity of the situation. It offers a good picture to evaluate our own exchanges in the impossibly charming light of Westley the stable boy turned Dread Pirate Roberts.

Part 2 will be focused on coming out of the starting gates well or in Westley talk, “Look I don't mean to be rude, but this isn't as easy as it looks, so I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't distract me.”


  1. Great post! I love Princess Bride and I love pro-life apologetics, so I eagerly look forward to your series.

  2. Excellent post.This life training post gives the more information.


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