What's the best way to win an argument? With a fist for a question? Here are three examples to help you decide

In the wake of the Newtown shootings the calls for gun control have risen to new levels. Gun control however is an argument that has gone on for decades with no solution. On one side are law-abiding gun owners read on to a constitutional right to bear arms. Many of them believe fiercely in personal liberty. Many do not trust their government and question authority as a matter of course. They are not antisocial but they do want to control their own lives.

As law-abiding citizens they use the law to protect their rights. The NRA is one of the biggest lobbies in the United States. They lead most legislative moves against more gun control. Should legal means or other radical measures to oppose gun control fail gun owners can rest assured that in the last resort they at least own firearms.

On the other side of the argument are  gun-control advocates. Faced with the fall out of a mass murder they feel it is reasonable to restrict or ban firearms. Being law-abiding citizens as well,  they also try to change legislation. They try to legally confiscate private property, criminalize behaviour that was initially legal and restrict the sale of legal products.

Both sides share a common characteristic. They both try to win their points with a fist instead of a question. They try to mobilize public opinion and politicians to force the opposing side to concede. The problem, of course, is that using the fist to win an argument creates resistance. Ironically, in fact,  pro-gun control advocates often reinforce the beliefs of many anti-gun control people. There has been no satisfactory resolution to the argument as a result. The debate still rages, dividing people of good will.

The abortion debate is another example. Decades ago abortion was illegal, but they occurred anyway. There were many negative results: the abortions themselves, the injury and death of women, and persecution of abortion providers. The feminist movement adopted abortion as a cause directly linked to the rights of women. In the US this culminated in the Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade, which established a woman's right to abortion.  In Canada the Supreme Court abolished the existing anti-abortion laws and Parliament failed to create new ones. As a result there is no abortion law in Canada at all.

These were huge developments that angered a sizeable part of the population. They mobilized as the anti-abortion movement and the pro-life/pro-choice wars began. After forty years they continue to rage and influence politics. Anti-abortionists try to force legislation at the state level to restrict abortion. Pro-abortionists use the law to restrict the actions of anti-abortionists.  Some anti-abortionists have even used violence, shooting abortion providers.

Like the gun debates, both sides have tried to use force more than anything else.  There hasn't been much movement toward compromise or accommodation on either side. There has been a lot of heat, but not much light.

Both the gun and abortion debate share another characteristic in addition to the fist approach to winning the argument.  Hardened positions have required all sides to adopt unreasonable, conflicting and at times ridiculous positions. Feminists must now choose between a woman's right to choose and abortions based on gender, which predominantly target female fetuses. Gun advocates try to argue that possession of large magazine automatic weapons are what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they drafted the 2nd Amendment. Both sides ignore real issues that could lead to common ground.  Clearly, trying to force your way to victory in an argument simply hardens resistance to the argument, whether the argument is over abortion or guns.  Force also requires partisans to adopt unreasonable positions.

A drug wars offer a third example, but one in which opposing sides use both the fist and the question.  The result is instructive. While there are many partisan voices in the drug wars there is also crossover and consultation. LEAP is a group of predominantly retired law enforcement officers - its name is an acronym for law enforcement against prohibition.  These are policemen with experience enforcing drug laws who question the wisdom of the policy.  Other citizens of all political stripes question whether government is spending  resources on the drug wars wisely.  Marijuana is increasingly used as a medicinal substance with clear benefits. This has changed the nature of the question being debated from whether drugs are bad to whether the cure is worse than the disease.

Clear results are emerging.  A majority disagrees with the government over prohibition of marijuana. Medicinal marijuana is legal in many states. Colorado and Washington State just voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana.  The nature of the debate is changing again, but now it is changing to a debate over states' rights and whether the government has the right to prohibit something most of its citizens want.

The difference in results between the first two examples and the last is striking.  After decades of argument about marijuana and other drugs it is clear that a reasonable accommodation between all parties is on the horizon.  Meanwhile, the gun control and abortion debates are no closer to resolution.  The difference rests with the fact that one side in the drug war has asked questions that demand answers. Doing so forced their opponents to re-evaluate their positions, and that led to change.  When faced with reasonable objections many  pro-drug war people changed their minds. 

The important point is that they changed their minds themselves.  They were not forced to do so. They were not forced to comply with something they did not agree with. It is an important difference.  If you want to win an argument you must stop repeating yourself and ask your opponent a question.  The best question to ask is "What do you really want?"  Once you do that the path to resolution will appear.