Friday, June 25, 2010

Winning the Argument Doesn’t Mean You’re Right

We all know someone who needs to get this message. Unfortunately, the people who need to hear it the most are the ones who will stare you straight in the face, uncomprehending, when you try to tell them. They’re right and they know it, and no amount of discussion with mere mortals will convince them otherwise.

I lived with someone like this for nearly two years. By the time I moved out, I was worn out. Why? He was good at arguing, and naturally assumed that his ability to easily win most arguments meant he was always right. Unfortunately, the two don’t follow.

I had a friend in high school, a brilliant young man on the school’s debate team. He once successfully argued that light is neither a wave nor a particle, but a technology from UFO aliens. He won the argument. Does that mean he was right?

I have recently run across several more people like this. Most of them are nice enough and mean no harm, but a few take arguing to Olympic sport level, leaving normal people strewn about the field like so many battle casualties. They have learned to listen for certain phrases and bits of information in conversation, latch onto them and launch into a (usually meaningless) argument. They use emotionally loaded wording that is inappropriate to the situation in order to goad people into joining the argument with them.

A recent example: I commented on a quote a friend put up on Facebook, suggesting that in certain ways, we really do create our own reality. One of these Arguers immediately responded, saying that I must mean that all those starving children in Africa chose to be in the predicament they’re in. It’s an emotionally loaded statement, designed to goad the other person into responding, and it’s totally inappropriate to the discussion at hand.

I have to admit, I responded. My own fault. I was multi-tasking, not paying close enough attention to what was being said, or I would have recognized the bait for what it was and ignored it.

One thing I have noticed about people who delight in arguing like this is that they all seem to have a black-and-white, fundamentalist mindset. Bear in mind, a fundamentalist in any field is someone who believes their own way is the right way, not just for them, but for everyone. In other words, whatever their viewpoint, they’re dead sure they’re right and everyone else is wrong. And their ability to win arguments reinforces their viewpoint. Not a good thing, if you ask me.

One of my favorite examples of this quality is Michael Shermer, infamous editor of Skeptic Magazine. I read somewhere that he used to be a fundamentalist Christian before he became an atheist (and a fundamentalist atheist, at that!). I can believe it.

Some of the most vicious Arguers I’ve ever met were fundamentalist Christians. They actually take classes to learn how to argue someone down - I’m not kidding. Anyone unlucky enough to end up in a conversation with these people doesn’t know what hit them until it’s too late.

All this arguing goes back to the classical Greek concept of rhetoric, a word we hear tossed around a lot during election years, usually with a negative connotation (“Don’t give me that rhetoric; just answer the question!”). Rhetoric is language carefully chosen for its emotional content in order to win an argument. That is its sole purpose: to win the argument. There’s nothing inherently evil about rhetoric. We use loaded language all the time in our daily lives, and politicians live off the stuff.

But sometimes people take it too far, like those who love to ambush someone with a loaded statement, win the argument hands-down and walk away chuckling to themselves about how superior they are. That’s a bullying action. The people who do this are bullies, though we often don’t recognize them as such because, as they’re quick to point out, they are only participating in ‘polite discussions.’

I get tired of having to keep constant watch for these people. I want real discussions about wide-ranging topics, conversations in which I might learn something new and expand my mindset and worldview. I don’t want an argument in which one person wins and the other loses. But in order to find the conversations I crave, I have to put myself out there. That means I’m occasionally spotted by these bullies, and they just sap my energy. I’ve often wondered if they don’t somehow vampirize the energy they generate when they upset people. They definitely delight in trampling us ordinary mortals in conversation, twisting our words to mean what they don’t and showing themselves to be oh-so-superior, at least in the skill of debate.

So what’s a mere mortal to do? I’ll continue keeping an eye out for those loaded statements, that bait, and do my best to ignore it, even when my gut response to these people involves words you can’t say on TV. Why? Because I like the conversation I have with people, the discussion of differing viewpoints - not to argue who’s right or wrong, but to appreciate how the world looks through someone else’s eyes. And maybe learn something from it. Not to be superior, not to win or lose, but simply to grow and share.