Self-Sealing Arguments and Learning to Fight Fair
A reasoning fallacy particularly potent in arguments of
personal beliefs, ideologies, or worldviews is the
self-sealing argument. Self-sealing arguments take
positions that no evidence can possibly refute. While this
may seem attractive, and a good way to win any argument,
self-sealing arguments are both useless and potentially
damaging to relationships.
One of the most common forms of self -sealing
arguments is claiming the other person is not sophisticated
enough or learned enough to understand the concept being
It argued. It is evident in the following conversation:
John: All families are dysfunctional.
Mike: My family was not dysfunctional. I had a good
John: That just shows how dysfunctional it was. You're in
Mike: I'm not in denial. It was okay.
John: You are too in denial. You're just too dysfunctional to
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 subordinate position. Nothing Mike can say will
disprove John's position. Just try. John will tell you you're
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 had been upset and angry at
one another for many years.
Carolyn told of many instances when her sisters did not treat
her lovingly or fairly. 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
had not always gone well for Carolyn. She was difficult to be
around, and they had not spent much time with her. Her
mother kept trying to say she did love Carolyn, did want a
relationship with her, but Carolyn rebuffed her advances.
Then the show host suggested that Carolyn come sit closer
to her mother, rather than on the edge of the set. Carolyn
jumped up and cried, "They're only doing this because
we're on TV. They do not really love me. She says she does,
but she does not. "
Watching Carolyn was very painful. She not only said no
one loved her, but looked like she felt unloved. She did not
want to stop being angry. She wanted to get even with her
family for what they had done, not get over the past hurts
they'd all experienced.
Carolyn's self-sealing logic kept her stuck. No matter what
her family members said, or anyone else said, she
interpreted it as, "They do not love me. They do not care about
me. "Nothing they did or said could change her mind.
Whatever they said was not the right thing to say, they did not
mean it, or most repeatedly, things should have been
different or better many years ago, so nothing can be done
today to make it better.
Carolyn was stuck on getting even rather than putting
the problems behind them. She wanted her family
members to hurt as much as she was hurting. She used
her interpretations of their behavior to support her pain.
Logicians call personalizing an argument an ad hominem
fallacy, or attacking the person, not the argument.
As a child psychologist, Leon often testifies as an expert
witness in child custody cases. He is accustomed to tough
examinations by attorneys who fight for their clients' rights
and objectives. Sometimes those attorneys seem to attack
him personally, his credentials, or his objectives for the
case. After one particularly grueling court appearance,
Leon's young associate asked him why he smiled when he
was being so viciously attacked by one of the attorneys.
"Simple," Leon replied. "When they start attacking me, I
know I've won. There's nothing I've said they can disagree
Leon had learned that when the attacks became
personal, there was nothing else that could be attacked.
His work was unassailable. So they had to go after
him personally. Attacking the person is the fallback position
of a combatant who has to win at any cost and knows he is
Confronting this kind of argument is really frustrating .
Nothing you can say will be accepted as evidence that you
You are right. Everything you say can and will be twisted to
provide further proof your opponent is correct. Even carrying
on a conversation with someone who is self-sealing is a
real trial. No matter what you say, your words prove they're
One of your best responses might be to say, "If your
argument holds, it should be able to predict what will or
will not happen. If it can not be used for predictions, then it really
does not say anything. Think of a specific example so we can
talk about that. "They will usually stomp away or claim you
are not smart enough to see it. Just smile at this point. You
He got 'em.
Or if you want to move out of the argument mode, just say, "I
do not buy it. I do not believe all families are dysfunctional. We
do not see eye to eye on this one. "
Self-sealing arguments sometimes occur when one
person takes an idiosyncratic view of an issue and then
arbitrarily dismisses or avoids another's position because
it's different. Again, no matter what you say, they will not
agree and will say you are wrong.
What passes for conventional wisdom, or the worst of
stereotypical thinking, can be self-sealing arguments.
"Everyone knows Latins are great lovers," or "Women can not
be counted on as leaders because they are unreliable
several days a month, "or" All men are just interested in one
thing. "When people really believe these statements to be
"Truth and reality, the way the world really is," there is no
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 admin support
person. He said she had not given him the message. She
She said she had. He said she was a liar. Howard did not have
the message and Elaine could not produce the piece of
paper with the message on it. Therefore, Elaine was lying.
When Elaine tried to explain she had sent him an e-mail
message with the information, Howard replied that e-mail
did not count. Everyone knew e-mail was not real
Howard and Elaine were part of a work group that was
dispersed in several buildings over eighteen acres. The
group had agreed to use e-mail for important scheduling
messages rather than physically tracking one another
down. Howard was not the only one who did not like the
change, but he was the only one who would not use the new
system. He'd only use "real communication" – written on
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 she had done to notify him. By dismissing e-mail
as not real communication, he could say she was wrong for
using it, and not have to admit he was wrong for not using it.
With self-sealing arguments, anything that happens will
prove a point, so the position loses its ability to predict what
can and / or will happen. Logicians call these kind of
arguments vacuous, or empty. They are a form of logical
fallacy, or logical error.
Self-sealing positions are difficult to refute and to argue
around. They often take on the fervor 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's often more effective to declare
what is happening, to confront 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 is not having
arguments that's the problem, but how we argue that's
difficult. Arguing can bring people closer together and increase the respect they have for one another and themselves. Or it can put a wedge between people,
pushing them farther apart and even destroying their
When we're focused on winning at any cost, overpowering
another person, it's easy to slip into logical errors, problems
with defining our positions clearly, or even not using
accurate data to back our positions.
By understanding the types of logical errors we can
make in the heat of an argument, we can refocus on the
issues, clarify our positions, and come to a better resolution
of the issues that divide us.