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Self-Sealing Arguments and Learning to Fight Fair
Reasonable fallacy especially powerful in arguments of
personal beliefs, ideologies or worldviews are the
a self-serving argument. Self-sealing arguments take
positions that no evidence can possibly refute. During this
may seem attractive, and a good way to win any argument,
self-sealing arguments are both useless and possible
harmful to relationships.
One of the most common forms of self-sealing
arguments assert that the other person is not sophisticated
enough or learned enough to understand the concept being
argued It is evident in the following conversation:
John: All families are dysfunctional.
Mike: My family was not dysfunctional. I had a good one
John: That just shows how dysfunctional it was. You are in
Mike: I don’t deny it. It was good.
John: You are in too much denial. You’re just too dysfunctional for
see how dysfunctional your family was.
No matter what argument Mike offers, John will use it as
“proof” of his point. Self-sealing arguments often center on
personal beliefs, attributes or attitudes. The arguer – John,
in this example — for some personal reason sets himself up
as the expert, the one who knows, and Mike is relegated to
the inferior position. Nothing Mike can say yes to
disprove John’s position. Just try. John will tell you that you are
Carolyn, her mother, and two sisters appeared on a
television talk show as an example of an estranged family.
All four of them agreed they were upset and angry
each other for many years.
Carolyn told of many instances when her sisters did not cope
she lovingly or justly. She was angry with her mother for
taking her sisters side in disputes and not supporting her.
Meanwhile Carolyn’s mother and sisters agreed things
didn’t always go well for Carolyn. She was hard to be
around, and they didn’t spend much time with her. Hers
mother kept trying to say that she did love Carolyn, did want to
relationship with her, but Carolyn rejected her advances.
Then the show manager suggested that Carolyn come and sit closer
to her mother, rather than on the edge of the set. Caroline
jumped up and shouted, “They do it just because
we are on tv They don’t really love me. she says she does
but she doesn’t.”
Looking at Carolyn was very painful. She didn’t just say no
she was loved, but it looked as if she felt unloved. She didn’t
want to stop being angry She wanted to get even with her
family for what they did, not to get over the past hurts
they all experienced.
Carolyn’s self-sealing logic kept her stuck. It doesn’t matter what
her family members said, or anyone else said, she
interpreted it as, “They don’t love me. They don’t care about
me.” Nothing they did or said could change her mind.
Whatever they said wasn’t the right thing, they didn’t do it
means it, or most repeatedly, things should have been
different or better many years ago, so nothing can be done
today to improve it.
Carolyn was stuck on getting even rather than putting
the problems behind them. She wanted her family
limbs hurt as much as she hurt. She used
her interpretations of their behavior to support her pain.
Logicians call impersonation an ad hominem argument
fallacy, or attack the person, not the argument.
As a child psychologist, Leon often testifies as an expert witness
witness in child custody cases. He’s used to being tough
examinations of lawyers who fight for the rights of their clients
and goals. Sometimes those lawyers seem to attack
him personally, his credentials, or his goals for the
case After one particularly stressful trial,
Leon’s young companion asked him why he smiled when he
was so brutally attacked by one of the lawyers.
“Simple,” Leo replied. “When they start attacking me, I
know that I won. There is nothing I said that they can disagree with
Leo had learned this when the attacks happened
personal, there was nothing else that could be attacked.
His work was unassailable. So they had to go after
he personally Attacking the person is the fallback position
of a fighter who must win at any cost and knows he is
Facing such an argument is really frustrating.
Nothing you can say will be accepted as proof that you
right Everything you say can and will be twisted
provide further proof that your opponent is right. Even wearing
about a conversation with someone who self-seals is a
true judgment No matter what you say, your words prove that they are
One of your best responses might be to say, “If you
argument is valid, it should be able to predict what will or
won’t happen If it can’t be used for predictions, then it really is
says nothing Think of a specific example so we can
talk about it.” They will usually walk away or demand you
are not smart enough to see it. Just smile at this point. you
Or if you want to get out of argument mode, just say, “I
don’t buy it. I don’t believe that all families are dysfunctional. We
don’t see eye to eye on this one.”
Self-sealing arguments sometimes occur when one
a person takes an idiosyncratic view of a thing and then
arbitrarily removes or avoids another’s position because
it is different. Again, no matter what you say, they won’t
agree and will say you are wrong.
What passes for conventional wisdom, or the worst of
stereotyped thinking, can be self-sealing arguments.
“Everyone knows that Latinas are great lovers,” or “Women can’t
be counted as leaders because they are unreliable
several days a month,” or “All men are only interested in one
thing.” When people really believe these statements are
“truth and reality, as the world really is,” does not exist
amount of evidence that will change their minds.
Howard missed an important meeting and lost face with
his boss He was furious with Elaine, his administrative support
a person He said she didn’t give him the message. She
said she had He said she was a liar. Howard had not
the message and Elaine could not produce the piece of
paper with the message on it. That’s why Elaine lied.
When Elaine tried to explain, she sent him an email
message with the information, Howard answered that email
didn’t count Everyone knew email wasn’t real
Howard and Elaine were part of a working group that was
spread over several buildings over eighteen acres. The
group agreed to use email for important programming
messages rather than physically tracking each other
down Howard was not the only one who did not like the
to change, but he was the only one who would not use the new one
system He would only use “real communication”– in writing
paper or spoken in person.
No matter what Elaine said, Howard claimed he was
right and she was to blame for his missing the
appointment His definition of notification did not include
what did she do to let him know. Throwing away email
because not true communication, he could tell she was wrong
using it, and does not have to admit that he was wrong in not using it.
With self-sealing arguments, anything that happens will be
to prove a point, so the position loses its ability to predict what
can and/or will happen. Logicians call such
arguments empty, or empty. They are a form of logic
fallacy, or logical fallacy.
Self-sealing positions are difficult to refute and argue
around They often take the zeal of a religious or
political argument and serve as sounding boards for a point
of view, rather than representing any attempt to engage in
discussion or dialogue. It is often more effective to declare
what happens, to face the process of the interaction,
rather than trying to change someone’s position or to
influence their thinking.
This becomes an example of knowing when to count
your losses and stop playing the game. The only way
“to win” is to stop playing.
Conflict is inevitable. We will always have differences with
our loved ones, friends and colleagues. It does not have
arguments that is the problem, but how we argue that is
difficult Arguing can bring people closer together and increase the respect they have for each other and for themselves. Or it can drive a wedge between people,
pushing them farther and even destroying theirs
When we focus on winning at any cost, overwhelming
another person, it is easy to slip into logical errors, problems
with defining our positions clearly, or not even using
accurate data to support our positions.
By understanding the types of logical fallacies we can
do in the heat of argument, we can refocus the
issues, clarify our positions, and come to a better solution
of the things that separate us.
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