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  • Writer's pictureMatt McGarrity

Why are you shouting? We agree! Verbal boxing and the rhetorical concept of stasis

Perhaps one the most frustrating experiences is being drawn into a debate that isn’t actually a debate. This can happen for a number of reasons. Maybe you’re talking to someone who's just abrasive. It could also be that you and your conversational partner are simply talking past one another. The rhetorical concept of stasis can help us track when and how our arguments hit one another and when they miss.

Stasis theory is often attributed to Hermagoras of Temnos, who provided one of the first detailed accounts of the concepts that survived for us to read. Certainly Cicero and Quintilian wrote about it. Ancient rhetoricians, who often argued in court, found the concept particularly useful in sorting through legal controversies. Stasis moves through four key issues: fact, definition, quality, and place. Each question indicates where a disagreement might break out. For example, in a theft case, we might end up with these stasis questions.

· Did the defendant take the item?

· Did this qualify as theft?

· Were there extenuating circumstances?

· Is this case being tried before the right type of court?

If the defense is focused on showing that the defendant was in a different state at the time of theft, then they’re fighting at the level of conjecture. If the defense wins this point, they don't have to argue anything else. The prosecution has to win on this point and the others in order to secure victory in the case. The defense might concede fact (Yes, he stole the loaf of bread) because the proof is there and because their case is focused on quality (he stole because he was starving). In a court, we place the burden of proof on the prosecution. They would need to argue all three main points (the final procedural one isn’t as important for our modern court system). The defense can argue all of them, or pick one or two to make their clash. The main thing is that the opposing sides have arguments that interact on the same issue. “He stole the bread!” “No, he didn’t.” We typically call this a clash point. Good debate fosters clear clash points.

Outside of court, clash points can get much fuzzier since there is no procedure for forcing ideas and arguments to interact. Two people might disagree, but their arguments never really interact. “Life begins at conception!” is an assertion of fact, while “Abortion is a woman’s right!” is an assertion of value. These two arguments don’t directly clash with one another, though their supporters do frequently. The abortion debate is too complex to address here, but I do think another example applies.

I follow boxing pretty closely. I regularly listen to boxing journalist Chris Mannix's podcast. The past few weeks, I noticed how interactions with guests ended up sounding like arguments, despite the fact all parties actually agreed. It's an issue missed clash and tone.

Two weeks ago, Mannix was talking with commentator and former boxer, Sergio Mora. They were talking about how ridiculous The World Boxing Association (WBA) has gotten. The WBA has come under fire for having too many “championship belts.” Even if you don’t follow boxing, you can probably picture “the heavyweight champion of the world” holding up a bedazzled belt. Belts matter since they signal top fighters in a division. Sanctioning bodies like the WBA issue belts for different weight classes. Most sanctioning bodies (there are now four) have one champion per weight class. That makes sense. The WBA has 2-3 champions in each weight class.*

In their discussion, Mora argues that the WBA has way too many belts and Mannix agrees. Mora then says that most fighters aren’t going to be the ones to change this since they make more money off of having belts.** Mora adds that big name fighters (e.g., Manny Pacquiao, Canelo Alvarez) could influence bodies like the WBA if they simply refused to acknowledge shoddy belts/titles. This is a pretty straightforward argument from cause (A influences B). If big name fighters publicly refuse these belts, then sanctioning bodies will be reluctant to offer them. From a stasis perspective, there are two big arguments that jump out, if you wanted to disagree with Mora.

  1. Big name fighters probably won’t refuse the belts.

  2. Big name fighters refusing these belts probably won’t impact the WBA all that much.

You advance 1 or 2, or 1 and 2 and you got yourself and point of clash. Mannix didn’t argue either one. Mannix argued loudly (and I think that’s relevant) that it’s foolish for Pacquiao to continue to acknowledge the WBA belt and pay sanctioning fees. Mannix’s tone, speed, and language choices all make it “sound” as if he’s disagreeing with Mora, but he’s really not.

Mora made claims about future fact (this could influence the WBA). Mannix argued a point of quality (Manny Pacquiao is making a bad/confusing decision). Now, it could have been a clash point if Mannix argued, "like Pacquiao, most big name fighters won’t refuse shoddy belts." That’s an argument by generalization. Generalizing from a single case isn't strong, but it could be done. The fact that Mannix argues the point so vociferously only adds to the sense that there is some disagreement. Mora even ends the segment by saying, “stop yelling at me.”***

You can hear the segment here (from around 30:00 to 36:00).

It’s Mannix’s show. He can do what he wants. He and Mora have worked out an on-air dynamic that must be successful since they keep appearing together. As a boxing fan, I like hearing anyone mock the WBA; 43 title holders is ridiculous. As a speech and debate guy, I know this sounds like a debate, but isn’t one. There are raised voices, quick exchanges, interruptions, and passion. But it’s missing a key ingredient: opposing views. This missing element shows up much more when you use stasis to look for the clash.****

* The WBA has 43 title holders in the 17 men’s divisions and 20 title holders in the 15 current women’s divisions.

** The idea being that you can earn more for a fight if there is a belt at stake…even if it’s one that isn’t highly regarded.

*** If you’re interested, I think the same type of thing happened one week later Chris Mannix spoke with boxing journalists, Dan Rafael and Keith Idec, about middle weight boxer, Gennady Golovkin. Rafael and Idec explain why they think GGG soured on boxing. Mannix counters that causal fans want to see a third fight between Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez. It sounds like they’re disagreeing, but they’re talking about different claims.

**** I talked about clash and boxing more in this video for TVW.

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