Who's arguing?

Gerry Spence is a combative American lawyer, the successful defender of Karen Silkwood and Imelda Marcos, who has written a best seller on how to win an argument every time. To test its theories, Charles Nevin went and picked a fight with the author. Portrait by Richard Weedon
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How-to books: I love them. The idea that someone, somewhere, has come across a blissfully simple and previously completely unsuspected key to success and happiness holds me in its thrall, and has done since I first rushed through How To Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie's masterwork. Dale's message was simple: be nice to people, smile, and they will be nice to you. Despite this being demonstrably, even laughably, untrue, I still smile, and I still buy the books: how to be an instant social success; how to make it big in business if you will only follow these ten simple steps; how to write for money and earn large amounts; how to... you name it, I buy it, addicted to the hunt for easy knowledge and instant power.

Take this one: How To Argue And Win Every Time. What a prospect! And it's written by a top American attorney, Gerry Spence, the country boy from Wyoming who takes on the big boys and wins, be it the nuclear industry on behalf of Karen Silkwood, or the small ice-cream company against the might of McDonald's. This is the man who even managed to get Mrs Marcos off that legion of fraud and corruption charges in New York. This is the man who has never lost a criminal trial. And now he's going to tell us how to do it. No wonder his book's sold more than 400,000 copies in America.

With accustomed, touching eagerness, I make my way through Gerry, thrilling, as usual, to the points in bold print, the headings and subheadings, the key phrases in italics. What Gerry is telling me is that, to win every argument, I must first get in touch with myself, to the extent of going out into the forest and singing to Mother Earth; that I must learn to trust my emotions, tell the truth and respect The Other party to the argument; that I must avoid sarcasm; and I must give myself permission to win.

Well, perhaps I am getting old, but I am not altogether convinced by Gerry. He is dismissing some of the techniques that have stood me in good stead over the years - sneakiness, cynicism, cheap point-scoring - in favour of singing to Mother Earth. It is time to have an argument with Gerry, whom I visit in his London hotel, making sure that he has just arrived from the US and consequently has had only two hours' sleep. He is wearing a buckskin jacket with those fringe things on it.

The Introduction: Gaining the Edge. I seek to achieve this by smiling a lot, being deeply deferential, and calling Gerry "Mr Spencer" instead of "Mr Spence". This should have the effect of both lulling and worrying him at the same time: worrying because it underlines his obscurity over here; lulling because it gives the impression I have not done my research. Efficacy Rating (ER): tough to quantify. Gerry is giving nothing away.

The First Ploy: The Unsettlingly Immediate Sly Frontal Attack. This is a deeply unfriendly question asked in a friendly, hesitant way: "Let me just say at the outset that I have read the book, I have, but I'm just a little concerned about it because it comes across to me as a little bit of a fraud in a way in that your book is called How To Argue And Win Every Time and yet there are large exceptions; for example, you say that there are people so deeply prejudiced that you can't argue with them. Do you stand by your title?" Key Word: "Fraud".

ER: Gerry is still giving nothing away. His reply is slow, sonorous, a cross between Gregory Peck and that man with the slight catch in his voice who is always used in American historical documentaries: "Well, if you have someone against whom you cannot argue, and you know that, have you not won?" Rhetorical, of course, but I jump in to stop him settling. "No!" Quite shrill, challenging. "Because they have not been convinced by your argument, have they?"

Gerry is rock steady. He looks at me above the buckskin and he says, slowly and sonorously: "The successful arguer has to know there are some arguments he can't win." He moves into some stuff about the purpose of argument being to get out of life what we want for ourselves, about there being no point banging our heads against the wall, about how we must learn to understand the bigot. And then: "Yes, the title is a bit of a fraud, as you say."

Bingo! In my Stephen Potterish, Gamesmanship style of argument, this is a big point. But to Gerry, it's just part of Respecting the Other, making a concession, telling the truth. Then he moves. "You caught the fraud, but only after your paper bought an extract. So who wins the argument?" This is true, but it was a very small extract. All the same, maybe Gerry can play a few low ones, too.

The Second Ploy: The Condescender, Intended To Provoke. I move on to the bit about the need for the successful arguer first to get in touch with the self by going out into the woods, wiggling toes in the earth, howling like a wolf. I don't wish to be insulting, I say, but to an Englishman, well, the word "mumbo-jumbo" suggests itself... Gerry is ready, calm. "You cannot really insult me. I don't give you the power... I am constantly confronted with irritations and harassments and this cynicism, but I have to decide what I'm going to do with them... Should I give you the power to judge me, to upset and control me by having upset me?" ER: You know, I think I might just be getting to Gerry.

Gerry, still outwardly respecting The Other, says he admires English verbal skills; he, though, is more interested in becoming a true human being than an eloquently articulate automaton without feelings. Losing our ability to exclaim in joy or howl in anger has robbed us of our effectiveness as human beings. That may well be so, but I'm more interested in giving Gerry a little more needle. Has he ever howled like a wolf? Indeed he has, when he felt like it. He would howl now, if he felt like it. I express mock alarm: "You're not going to, are you?" Gerry fails to rise and howl, which I feel would also have been a big point. Instead, he prefers to lament the failure of human knowledge to teach us how to communicate with each other.

The Third Ploy: When You Suddenly Get The Chance For A Big Humiliating Clincher, Grab It. That last point is a wonderful opening for me. In his book, Gerry, as ever in touchy-feely mode, opines that he has learned more from his dog than from all the great books he has read. So, I say, the great novelists have failed to communicate, have they? What about, for example, Tolstoy? Gerry allows that Ivan Ilyich was interesting. "So," I say again, with what is intended to be heavy sarcasm, "Tolstoy is at least on a par with your dog, is he?" ER: This is a big hit. But Gerry is unmoved.

No, he says, Tolstoy is not on a par with his dog. Tolstoy tells us "an intellectualisation"; the dog speaks as "a being". He slips into a well prepared passage about how our children's feelings are repressed in favour of logic and intellect, concluding, eventually, "and hence they can't argue very well." "Dogs?" I say, pretending to misunderstand. If Gerry's going to blow it, now is the time.

But he affects to chortle at the "cute" English sense of humour. He says he's having fun. I quote back to him a phrase from the book about two being required for a struggle, which, I say, moving into my best slightly sneery, is "fairly obvious". Gerry says a lot of things in the book are obvious; it's not even very clever, and he's flattered that I have read it. Cute, Gerry. I pick up another trivial point in the book. Gerry warns about the dangers of cynicism. I say it helps to amuse, in an unsatisfactory world. He wonders if I'm satisfied with this as a way of life, which enables me to sneer some more, this time with accompanying derisive laughter: "Obviously, by definition, not". Gerry, with just a shade of irritation, says cynicism and cowardice are aligned. Big point to me, I'd say.

The Fourth Ploy: If They're Irritated, Hit The Same Spot. I point out that the man who argues the importance of thorough research, has misspelt Bermondsey in his book, and that it is not, as he claims, a fruit and vegetable market but an antique market. Gerry is good, damn good. "I'll let you win that one. I don't need to win that one," he says.

The Fifth Ploy: Feint Towards Lofty Argument, Then Get Personal. I try to lull Gerry with a discussion about the differences in courtroom approach between American and British lawyers. Then, out of a clear blue sky, I hit him with a Washington Post article which claims he is arrogant and, worse, that the man who has never lost a criminal trial has lost at least one: defending himself against a speeding ticket. Crunch time!

Gerry, dammit, agrees that he is arrogant, and that a man who defends himself has a fool for a client. I am, I'm afraid, on the run. Gerry is not going to give me the power to reduce him to anger or abdication. Wearying now, I ask him to argue, in a nutshell, the case for buying his book. Gerry says you should buy the book because it is a distillation of what he has learned as he has travelled through life. Gerry has learned more from his mistakes and failures than from his successes, and "it would be a shame to have learned what I have learned in a lifetime without sharing it". He is, he says, offering the book "from a purely selfish standpoint" because he wouldn't want it all to be wasted.

Listen, perhaps Gerry is right. Perhaps you shouldn't keep banging your head against a wall. I thank Gerry, and try to leave. But he has more. He wants to talk about how his book can help husband and wife, parents and children. He does. And does. Enough, Gerry. You win, you win

'How to Argue and Win Every Time', by Gerry Spence, is published by Sidgwick & Jackson at pounds 16.99