I’m sure many of you read this essay title and thought: “Black people argue too much already, what is this brother talking about?” I will concede that the title is deliberately confusing. Some Black folk certainly do participate in far too many bitter arguments which often degenerate into violent altercations.
I am not advocating for more hostility, jail time, fratricide, broken bones or broken friendships in our lives. I am suggesting that we learn how to “argue” more effectively – that is, to communicate our position/perspective using solid reasoning and effective language.
Arguments often involve name-calling, yelling, profanity and personal attacks. These encounters rarely solve problems and often create deeper emotional wounds, making reconciliation more challenging if not impossible. Growing up in my community of Harlem, I witnessed how these disagreements led to stabbings, shootings, jail sentences and death. Even less belligerent altercations resulted in ongoing rivalries and unresolved problems years afterwards.
Unfortunately, at our neighborhood bar lounges, sporting events and other social gatherings, negative confrontations like these are often respected and encouraged. Self-hatred (cultivated and promoted by white supremacy), poverty, powerlessness – and the frustrations attached to them – create a perfect storm of hostility in Black homes and neighborhoods.
However such exchanges in classrooms, courtrooms, councilrooms, newspaper editorials, and organizational meetings are inappropriate. If we Black folk aim to build more effective families, organizations, and movements, we must learn to argue… more powerully and effectively.
Doing this requires us to understand and use logic. We must create sound claims and adequately support or defend them.
The topic of rhetoric and logic would require a series of blog essays. However, we can dramatically improve our logical understanding and competence with a simple first step. We can begin by knowing how not to argue effectively. Anyone with experience in formal debate is familiar with the term “logical fallacy.” A logical fallacy is a flaw or weakness in one’s argument or logic which makes his or her argument false, inaccurate or unsound. Although these fallacies make an argument deceptive, they often seem to make sense.
Politicians, media personalities and common folk routinely construct arguments with logical fallacies. Identifying these flaws helps us to avoid using them ourselves. Being familiar with them also help us recognize when others make invalid points in discussion or writing.
Common logical fallacies include:
- Strawman: Deliberately exxagerating or mischaracterizing someone’s point, to make it easier to attack or to make our point more acceptable. Example: “After the candidate said she would focus on immigration reform and homelessness if elected, her opponent urged the audience not to support a socialist candidate with anti-American values.
- Appeal to Authority: Making the case that because a person with authority or expertise said/did something, it must be good/true or that we cannot criticize them. Example: “You’ve probably read that Reverend so-and-so took money from the church account and used it buy a house for himself. The Reverend is one of the greatest leaders in our community. He represents the most powerful organization in our city. We cannot attack this great leader for wanting to live in comfort. And anyone who does, is a traitor to our people.”
- Ad Hominem Attack: Attacking a person or his/her character in an effort to dismiss or invalidate their argument. Example: “Senator so-and-so just explained his plan for a national healthcare system. It might sound good, but how can you trust a man that stole cars and smoked marijuana as a teenager?
- Tu Quoque: (tu-quo-kwee) this literally means “You too.” In the hood we call this “tit-for-tat.” This occurs when we avoid responding to a criticism by suggesting that the person criticizing us is guilty of the very same critcism they raise. Example: “I’m appealing to emotion? That’s ALL you’ve done for this entire discussion!”
- Bandwagon: Arguing that your claim is valid because it’s popular or widely believed by others. Example: “Car X is a more reliable vehicle than car Y because most people in our family own car X.”
These are just a few logical fallacies. There are several more, which I encourage you to review for yourself. Originally these fallacies had Latin names, but they also have nicknames in English. You can view the websites below for more detailed information:
Hopefully you find these websites useful. I am convinced that Black people must learn to argue more….effectively!
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and lead. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment.
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.