12 Angry Men is one of those classic films that everyone, and especially every American, should see. One set, twelve actors, and more drama than all the Transformers movies put together (including the animated one with Orson Welles as Unicron).
The story is simple; an eighteen-year-old boy of undisclosed ethnicity is accused of murdering his father. The case against him looks devastating; there are two eyewitnesses, a lot of suspicious circumstances, and the boys only defense is a flimsy alibi about being at the movies during the killing. The film opens with the jury retiring to debate the case, and the entire movie takes place in the jury room (with one brief scene in the adjacent bathroom).
Since the entire movie is about an extended argument, it’s no surprise that you can pick up a lot of debating tips from watching it.
(Before I begin, be aware that this review assumes you’ve seen the movie and will contain **NUMBEROUS UNMARKED SPOILERS** so read at your own risk).
The first step is to actually make the argument and not simply assume the question is settled. At the beginning of the film, eleven of the twelve all vote ‘Guilty.’ Juror #8 casts a single vote for ‘Not Guilty.’ His reason, he explains, isn’t because he necessarily thinks the boy is innocent, but because he feels they need to actually talk about it before coming to a decision. The evidence of his guilt appears to be overwhelming, but nevertheless they have a duty to dig deeper before they can send a fellow man off to die.
There’s an insidious technique to avoid arguments floating around in which one side simply assumes they’ve won and sneers at the other side for trying to debate at all. Why do you think the Global Warming crowd gets so much support? It isn’t because they have an air-tight, scientifically unassailable case, it’s because they seize the moral high ground and mock anyone who dares to disagree with them. The same thing with the ‘Same-Sex Marriage’ crowd, or the Abortion lobby: they don’t invite debate; they just attack anyone who tries to question them.
The first step to any argument is to have the argument. Don’t let people tell you the question is settled; make them fight for it.
As the first step to undoing the case against the boy, Juror #8 challenges the assumption that the knife that was used to kill the boy’s father was a unique weapon that links the boy with the killing. When the others point out that neither they nor (according to his testimony) the storekeeper who sold it to the boy had ever seen a knife like that, and therefore it would be impossible for someone else to do the killing with a duplicate, #8 wordlessly stands up and slams an identical knife into the table.
All debate is based on logic, and all logic is based on premises. If you can call the premise into question, you can undermine your opponent’s whole case. A logical statement consists of a premise and a deduction: A is true, so B must follow. Therefore, you can defuse an argument by either attacking the premise or the deduction; either by showing that A is faulty, or that B doesn’t necessarily have to follow. Typically, if you can attack a premise you will be on much stronger ground than if you attack a deduction, because if you attack a deduction, you will only get a probability: if B doesn’t necessarily follow, then it’s still true that B could follow. But if A is false, then B loses its power as well. If the knife isn’t unique, it doesn’t prove anything that the killing was committed with it.
Your first step in a debate should be to discover your opponent’s premises and test them for weaknesses.#3
Related to the above story, you need to get your facts straight and consider your arguments before you enter the debate. Consider what proofs you’re likely to need and take steps to get them. Juror #8 knew the knife was bound to come up and knew that he would need hard evidence to show that it wasn’t unique, so he went out and bought one, making a note of the location and the price (both of which indicated it was a fairly popular model).
Think ahead, gather what you need, and come in with the evidence you need to make your case.
One of the first breaks in the case is when Juror # 8 realizes that two pieces of evidence contradict each other: one witness claims to have seen the killing take place through the windows of a passing train, while another claims to have heard the killing through the open window of his apartment. But if the train was passing by, it would have been impossible for him to have heard, much less identify, anything at all.
Typically if someone is arguing from a weak position they’ll throw everything and the kitchen sink into an argument, blind to the fact that some of their points contradict each other. For instance, rabid anti-Catholics will often say on one hand that Catholics ‘stole’ all their holidays from pagan cultures (by the way, how do you ‘steal’ a holiday?), and that Christmas, Halloween, and Easter are actually pagan celebrations. On the other hand, they’ll say the Church brutally suppressed and destroyed all the good and noble elements of pagan culture in order to impose itself. But if the Church is so reactionary and hate-filled towards paganism, why would she base her calendar around pagan celebrations? And if the Church is just paganism with a new face, then how can you say it oppresses paganism?
These are the kinds of contradictory arguments that tend to expose poor logic and positions based more on emotion than reason.
As part of the evidence against the boy, an old man claimed to have run to his front door just in time to see him fleeing the scene of the crime. Questioning whether an old man with a paralyzed left leg could have gotten to the door in time, Juror # 8 decides to try it himself to see, discovering that it would have taken over forty seconds for the old man to make the journey; far too much time for him to catch sight of the boy on his way out.
Sometimes the best way to figure out whether something can be done is simply to do it. For instance, a lot of people these days say that the Christian ideal of chastity is impossible, but how many of them have ever tried it? Lots of things seem impossible before we try them, or when we first start out, only for us to wake up one day and realize that the thing is done and a part of our lives.
When someone tells you that something can’t be done, ask them whether they’ve tried it.
At one point Juror #11, who hasn’t said much up to now, stands up and begins rattling off a number of questions about the reasonableness of the prosecution’s scenario. After a number of these, Juror #3 (who’s particularly invested in the guilty verdict) says “wait, you voted guilty like the rest of us, so which side are you on?” To which #11 calmly replies “I don’t believe I have to be ‘loyal’ to one side or the other. I am simply asking questions.”
All too often, we become settled on the idea of ‘sides:’ that we have to support ‘us’ against ‘them.’ But debates shouldn’t be about sides or which team wins; they ought to be about getting to the truth. Hence, it’s important to be able to look at the issue from every perspective and ask tough questions.
#11’s questions, meanwhile, are all about trying to put himself into the boy’s place and account for his movements on the night of the murder. His central point is the question of why, having murdered his father, would the boy risk going back to the scene of the crime three hours later, especially when the other evidence indicates that he would have known that someone saw him. Unsatisfied with the argument that the boy came back to retrieve the murder weapon, he changes his vote.
Often ideas that seem reasonable in the abstract become much more flimsy when you try to imagine the actual nuts-and-bolts behind them. It’s easy to say, for instance “everyone will work for the good of everyone else,” but if you try to consider how an actual person, a working man breaking his back day-after-day would react to the idea that this is for “everyone,” the result is much different.
Empathize: put yourself in other people’s position and ask yourself whether the idea presented is really credible or not.
At one point, having reached an impasse, Juror #2 suggests a problem with the stab-wound, noting that the boy was over half-a-foot shorter than his father, yet the wound was made at a downward angle. After #3 demonstrates how a shorter man could stab a taller one at a downward angle, Juror #5 (who grew up in a slum similar to the one the boy lived in) gets up and explains that switchblades are built to make underhand attacks, and that no one who had any experience with one (as the boy had) would ever make the kind of wound that killed the victim.
There are an almost infinite number of subjects in the world, all of which have their secrets and arcane bits of knowledge that most of us would never even think of. Before we make broad statements about such subjects, it often pays to find an expert to tell us whether our ideas are likely or even possible. A little research and a little humility can work wonders in debate.
Juror #6 is an interesting case; he talks a lot, but he’s utterly indifferent to the case. He initially votes guilty to hurry things along so he can get to a baseball game later than evening. Then, when a storm means the game will be cancelled, he switches to not-guilty because he’s “sick of all the talk.” At this point Juror #11 loses his patience. Walking right up the man, he berates him for “playing like this with a man’s life” and basically calls him a coward for not voting as he thinks.
#6, of course, takes offense: “Now listen! You can’t talk like that to me!”
“Yes,” says #11, “I can talk like that to you.”
The fact is, we will sometimes encounter immoral people; people who go through life with a sneer and a shrug, but who bristle with indignation if anyone dares criticize them. The way to deal with such people is to call them out; to name them for what they are. Don’t let their pride or their protests of indignant offense stop you from speaking the truth.
As the jury swings ever more towards an acquittal, Juror #10, who has made his shameless bigotry known throughout the proceedings, leaps to his feet and goes into a minutes-long monologue about how “those people” are dangerous and violent. As he talks, every other juror gets up one by one and turns their backs on him. Wrapped up in his diatribe, he doesn’t notice this at first, but as he starts to wind down he realizes what’s happening and gets quieter and quieter. Finally, only the unflappable Juror #4 is left.
“Listen to me,” #10 pleads. “Listen to me!”
“I have,” #4 snaps. “Now sit down and don’t open your mouth again.”
Occasionally, we will come upon beliefs so twisted, so horrifying that there seems to be no point in arguing them. In such cases, often the best thing we can do is to simply turn our backs on them and let them rant into the air. A particularly self-possessed and strong man (like Juror #4) may be able to stare him down, and then, with the silent support of the ignoring majority, tell him to shut up.
In the face of truly evil ideas, the best thing is often to first let their proponent know that they are unacceptable. Then, when he’s been chastised by public opinion, he may finally be open to reason.
The last and strongest piece of evidence for the guilty party is the fact that a woman living across the street actually saw the boy killing his father. This point seems insurmountable, even prompting the limp-spined Juror#12 to switch his vote back to guilty. As the begin the discussion, however, Juror #9 notices something; #4 (who wears glasses) has a habit of rubbing the peculiar impressions that his glasses have left on the side of his nose. #9 points out that, though no one commented on it, the woman who claimed to have witnessed the murder had the same marks, meaning she ordinarily wore eyeglasses. Since she was in bed trying to fall asleep when she witnessed the murder, she wouldn’t have been wearing her glasses then either. Hence, her eyesight is in question.
Simple awareness often helps us to spot gaps or reasons for doubt in our opponent’s arguments. If we observe that he has a habit of not looking us in the eye, we might conclude that he’s not as certain as he lets on. If we see that he’s reluctant to let go of a certain point even after it’s been dealt with, we might question his motives. And of course, observation is the first and best way to gather evidence in support of our own position.
Stay alert, carefully observe the world around you, and you will be prepared when you need to debate.
In the end, Juror #3 stands alone; the only guilty vote left: bitterly snapping that it’s his right to dissent, and that he’s given his arguments. #8 calmly invites him to try to convince the rest of them, causing #3 to go into a furious rant, repeating all the evidence that they’ve dismissed so far. After he’s spewed his rage on them all, the rest still sit unmoved. Spotting a picture of his estranged son which has fallen out of his wallet, he shouts in anger and begins to tear it up. Coming to his senses, he breaks down in tears and votes not guilty.
When the arguments have all been made, the evidence presented, and your opponent still won’t budge, it might be time to simply ask him why he’s so immovable on this issue. Let’s face it; most of us are not strictly logical. We’re not supposed to be strictly logical. For most people, the reason they have a particularly violent hatred or rejection of some idea or belief is not out of logic or because of the evidence, but because of some other, deeper, more personal reason. When your opponent sits unmoved, even after you’ve taken his arguments apart, showed him hard evidence, and demonstrated your position perfectly, then it’s time to take a step back and try to find out what in him is preventing him from agreeing with you. If you can find that; if you can lay your finger on that one point which tethers him to his false belief, then you will almost certainly win him over.
Vive Christus Rex!