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In Defense of Defensive Confidence
Defensive confidence not only hones our argumentative skills—it also strengthens our society and helps us live more fulfilling lives
Again, it is absurd to hold that a man ought to be ashamed of being unable to defend himself with his limbs, but not of being unable to defend himself with speech and reason, when the use of rational speech is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs.
Rhetorical education—the teaching of communicative skill aimed to inform or persuade—is imperative in a free, democratic and civil society. Rhetorical skills make successful “salespeople” in the marketplace of ideas, and they are absolutely necessary in a supposed deliberative democracy in which political and civic decisions are the result of fair and reasonable debate. Argument in its original sense—the justification of ideas through reason, accuracy, fairness and impartiality—is how deliberation is to be exercised. However, with American society getting more and more tribal, the mere opportunity to communicate across differences is getting harder and harder to find.
It’s not that people are afraid of arguments; rather, they are afraid of losing arguments. Many people would rather avoid or shut down those with whom they disagree than risk being exposed as wrong in any way. Examples of this avoidance behavior abound, especially—and ironically—on college campuses, where students are supposed to be learning argumentative skills. So, we may need to reconceptualize the point of rhetorical education by not just teaching people how to argue, but also encouraging them to be open to argumentation in the first place. The key to the latter endeavor lies in the concept of defensive confidence.
What Is Defensive Confidence?
According to psychologists Dolores Albarracín and Amy L. Mitchell, defensive confidence “entails people’s perceptions that they can defend their attitudes against contradictory information coming from the environment” and lies “at the heart of one’s resolution of the conflict between new information that challenges and new information that supports one’s attitudes.” People with high defensive confidence are less bothered by what Albarracín and Mitchell call “counterattitudinal” ideas—ideas that run counter to what they believe. Thus, they are more willing to engage in argumentation.
In contrast, people without defensive confidence are more apprehensive when it comes to confronting ideas contrary to their own. The thought of having their minds changed or even just complicated feels daunting. According to a series of studies done by Albarracín and Mitchell, this lack of defensive confidence can “impede stereotype reduction and generally increase defensive strategies that may be maladaptive and isolating.”
It’s clear, then: Those with defensive confidence are more open to engaging opposing viewpoints and the possibility of having their minds changed. The reason for this is simple: The more one engages with ideas contrary to one’s own, the more likely it is that one’s mind will be changed. If one avoids such confrontation, their ideas will not be affected. As the chart below shows, a variety of characteristics—both positive and negative—help to build one’s sense of defensive confidence, and that confidence makes people more open to information that could cause an attitude change.
Since having a well of defensive confidence is foundational to intellectual debate, colleges should help students acquire and maintain defensive confidence—and they can do that by giving them the rhetorical skills to hold forth effectively.
Argument as War
Especially these days, it’s easy to think of entering a debate as entering into a battle. But the “argument as war” metaphor has been vilified by many as the source of our inability to argue effectively. The metaphor’s martial orientation, as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson observe in “Metaphors We Live By,” encourages conquest: We attack positions, defend our own, gain or lose ground and so on.
To be sure, the combination of rhetoric and defensive confidence is akin to the combination of armory and armor. At times, Aristotle described rhetorical skill the way Sun Tzu described war strategy. In “Rhetoric,” Aristotle wrote,
Further, we must be able to employ persuasion, just as strict reasoning can be employed, on opposite sides of a question, not in order that we may in practice employ it in both ways (for we must not make people believe what is wrong), but in order that we may see clearly what the facts are, and that, if another man argues unfairly, we on our part may be able to confute him.
Aristotle’s guidance—that one is better equipped for debate if she knows both sides of an issue—does not suggest equivocation; he insisted that although we should try to represent opposing conclusions as fairly and impartially as possible, “the underlying facts do not lend themselves equally well to the contrary views.” This is to say that one view will always be easier to prove than another.
In a way, Aristotle’s advice is a variation on the adage “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” in that knowledge of one’s argumentative opponent can provide a better understanding of his argument, which in turn makes one better prepared to defend one’s own ideas. This is echoed in Sun Tzu’s “Art of War,” a respected handbook of war strategy: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself, but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will suffer a defeat.” To know the opposing argument is to know your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. This builds defensive confidence.
Defensive confidence can provide a sense of perceived self-efficacy that may feel protective. The ability to make a claim, provide supporting evidence, consider counterarguments and predict to the best of one’s ability the claims and supporting evidence of one’s interlocutors can provide a sense of security. In this sense, rhetoric as a bulletproof vest is an apt metaphor.
The Cooperation of Competition
The armor associated with defensive confidence may imply a high level of emotional intelligence, specifically emotional self-management and relationship management. Albarracín and Mitchell’s research demonstrating that those with a high level of defensive confidence are more likely to change their minds simply because they are more willing to open themselves to that possibility suggests that those with defensive confidence are less “defeated” by being defeated. That is, the same sense of security that leads them into an argument is the same security that allows them to maintain positive self-regard when they stand corrected. What’s more, even in a loss, one’s ethos can remain intact if their reason and rationality remains intact throughout the argument. A verbal acknowledgement of defeat may exude more dignity and earn more respect than resorting to logical, psychological or material fallacies or just refusing to concede despite one’s dearth of reasonable points and rebuttals.
Therefore, defensive confidence can be seen as both a weapon and a defense against the weapons of others. But if readers still think this is too combative, let’s look at the inherent cooperation of competition.
Defensive confidence is really a form of cognitive empathy. A person with high defensive confidence has to know the other side’s arguments to the best of their ability to better ensure argumentative victory, and this may foster understanding and cooperation inadvertently. Even if one does not agree with the claims of an opponent, one can at least understand why those claims were embraced. Being able to argue on both sides of an issue is not just good reconnaissance; it may also create respect for one’s argumentative opponent.
The inherent cooperation in argumentation is also apparent in the necessity of common ground. In war, both armies have to have common ground in a very literal sense; they both have to be in the same physical place. The metaphorical common ground for argumentation is discourse: agreement on the format of debate and, if only tacitly, agreement on certain values, beliefs and understanding of what is and is not worthy of deliberation. This means that operational definitions are imperative. For example, if two people argue over the efficacy of affirmation action but have differing definitions of the term, they will only talk past each other. Setting ground rules to better ensure a productive argument necessitates cooperation and mutuality.
Fortunately, unlike physical war, one person’s victory can still benefit the one defeated. The late rhetorician Wayne Booth thought that “winning” should not be the primary goal of an argument. Instead, we would do well to see argument as a cooperative search for common ground and, ultimately, truth. Argument should be competition only in the etymological sense of the word from Latin: to run toward something (petere) together (com). Similarly, both parties are “running toward” the truth of a matter “together.” In “The Rhetoric of Rhetoric,” Booth described the ideal argument with this statement: “I am not just seeking a truce; I want to pursue the truth behind the differences. ... I have reason to hope that my opponent here will respond to my invitation for both of us to engage in genuine listening.” Booth’s point emphases active listening so much that he called this approach to argumentation “listening rhetoric”—a term that implies an attempt at mutual respect. The competitive is the cooperative.
But first, we must pave the way for that cooperation: Any rhetorical education worth its salt must instill defensive confidence. Along with habits of mind like open-mindedness, adaptability and critical thinking, defensive confidence can better ensure our students lead fulfilling and successful lives. Ideas do not sell themselves in the proverbial marketplace. The point is quite simple: In a free democracy, those who can freely deliberate will likely be the most satisfied and contributive. Of course, a pluralistic society like ours will have differences of opinion. But defensive confidence—the ability and willingness to engage with others across those differences—is key to the success of that society.