How To Argue Like A Gentleman – Lessons from Benjamin Franklin

September 27, 2016


In lite of the first Presidential Debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I’m reminded of a quote from Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, regarding the dangers of Argument:


“[It] is apt to become a very bad habit, making people often extremely disagreeable in company by the contradiction that is necessary to bring it into practice; […] Persons of good sense, I have since observed, seldom fall into it”

When hearing the term “Gentleman” you think of chivalry and respect, honor and pride. You may even picture a man impeccably dressed, with a pleasant welcoming look about him, neither threatening nor comical. This idea of a Gentleman is a highly curated one, that has sustained generations of revision refinement, though no better example of a true gentleman has lasted as long of that of Benjamin Franklin. And it’s not luck that he has maintained such positive personal image through history.


Walter Isaacson describes his character in his biography Benjamin Franklin: An American Life as such:


‘[…] he was, in his life and in his writings, consciously trying to create a new American archetype. In the process he carefully crafted his own persona, portrayed it in public, and polished it for posterity.’


Despite his apprehension for argument, Benjamin Franklin was not opposed to civilized discourse and debate if handled properly, with the utmost respect for all parties involved.
In the fall of 1727 he formed the Leather Apron Club, commonly referred to as Junto, for young workingmen to debate philosophical topics, brainstorm colonial lifehacks, and discuss issues of the day.
Isaacson details the group’s practices perfectly:


‘Discussions were to be conducted “without fondness for dispute or desire of victory.” Franklin taught his friends to push their ideas through suggestions and questions, and to use (or at least feign) naive curiosity to avoid contradicting people in a manner that could give offense.


Franklin outlined several avoidable actions for gentlemanly debate, all of which can be applied to all conflict from petty arguments to presidential debate:


  1. Filibustering (over-talking for the sake of delaying your opponent)

  2. Seeming Uninterested

  3. Making Everything About Yourself

  4. Digging Up Dirt On Your Opponent

  5. Telling Long, Pointless Stories

  6. Contradicting or Disputing Someone Directly

  7. Ridiculing or Railing Against Things (except in small witty doses)

  8. Spreading Scandal and Gossip


Sound familiar at all?

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