Ken Eckert Essays

We Can Work It Out
Arguing to ‘Beat’ People is Childish and Empty Calories. So Why Do We Do It?

By Ken Eckert
Thanks also to Reg Hart

February 26, 2014

Charlie Brown once said to Lucy, “I have observed that whenever you try to hit somebody there is a tendency for them to try to hit you back.” Unless there’s a remote tribe somewhere where when you hit people they give you a dozen roses, I’ve found this to be a pretty universal human attribute.

Yet while I like Americans, I suppose if there is one essential part of their philosophy which I don’t understand, it is this: everything has to be a fight. I like my Facebook friends, but their posts or article links on current events always have the tone of a charge against the enemy. I just can’t join either side in the culture war if I have to accept their program lock-step and if it’s at the expense of demonizing everyone on the other side. For those who don’t know, the American positions are as follows:

  1. We stand for progressive, enlightened values; the other side is an anti-intellectual, primitivist, sky-fairy cowering clutch of bigots and gun nuts who want to enact Christian Sharia law. They should all be fired and prosecuted and their children seized. That will teach them the meaning of tolerance. Anyone who disagrees is a fascist racist.
  2. We stand for traditional, family values; the other side is an atheistic, secular-humanist lair of hippies, university professors, communists, welfare spongers, man-hating feminysts, and homosexuals who want to feed your children drugs and pornography and send you to reeducation camps if you disagree. Anyone who disagrees is a socialist.

There is, in fact, an alternative stance: the conspiracy theorist. This person sits on the clouds of Olympus and rains down snark on everyone, secure in his knowledge that he knows the real truth: “The international order of them is behind everything, and if you don’t agree with me, well, that’s what the government wants sheeple like you to think.” But I don’t generally consider this a third position, as it is essentially parasitic on the other two. The conspiracy theorist doesn’t really have any viewpoint to offer other than exposing them. They always predict that “someday the people will have enough and rise up,” but never have any specifics on what they should do after they rise up. Scrabble? Pie-eating competition? Rick-Rolling?

Many essays have been written about the issues themselves, or even about the claimed growing animosity between different groups in America. Instead I’ll talk about a more clinical but I think equally important topic. I think the attitude that everything is a fight has also impoverished arguing. It has made many assume that all arguing is fighting, with winners and losers. I am not saying that the situation is new and people are meaner now; it is what it is. I am saying that most of what we call ‘arguing’ is poorly done, misunderstands its goals, shows a poor understanding of human nature, and is ultimately a failure.

I remember as an undergraduate a class presentation and discussion on a controversial issue. The presenter and most of the class felt strongly and dogmatically about the subject, while a small group said nothing. The larger group likely left thinking they’d settled things in their favor. They didn’t. The minority had simply chosen to stay silent, feeling that their heads would be bitten off. In fact, the losers probably became more extreme in their views while drinking together later, as they griped how the class was stacked against them.

The same happens to me when someone on Facebook posts a controversial article or picture and I post a differing opinion. I should know better by now. One of their friends will hurl vitriol at me, and I will delete and leave, having better things to do. This person squashed me into silence, but no one’s mind was changed. It was a waste of time that raised tempers for nothing. I used to enjoy a Korean forum called Dave’s ESL Café, and eventually drifted away for the same reason, which was that it was pro wrestling with words rather than conversations of ideas. The moderators first tried to boot out the trolls, but finally forbade certain topics such as religion because a large proportion of people could not act civilly. An enjoyable online community for lonely expatriates, locked down.

What these situations have in common is that people followed the normal practice of arguing, which is to approach it as a fight with the goal of beating the opponent, and the activity was a failure. I am no sociologist or logician, but I would like to both analyze these problems and propose a different way to approach arguing as an activity which does not see it as a type of fighting. This is hard to do without causing an argument, as I’ll be assumed to be pedantic or some commie flower child who thinks if we all hold hands Al Qaeda will join us, but I try to say this all the same: Not all arguing is combat any more than all green things are trees.  

The normal objection to this idea is that “these people are animals, and we can give no ground, and life is a struggle, red in tooth and claw, etc. Perhaps braniacs like you have the luxury of arguing according to Robert’s Rules in your Socratic debate club and then reading poetry and crying, but for the rest of us, manly men who are manly in their manliness argue in a manly way and are prepared to fight for what they believe in.” Well, this is… stupid. We fall in love and we raise children and we have friends. Not every human interaction is defined by conflict. I know we Germans are said to love war, but we also brew beer. And even if it were so, the present way we argue is often a crummy way to secure enough coconuts for the tribe as a whole to survive. From a Darwinian perspective, are the people who spend their time in basements typing insults in all caps or being perpetually offended generally adept at procreation, let alone group action?

It would help to define terms. The usual approach to arguing can be called a zero-sum or Aristotelian tactic, meaning that it is only possible for one person to win, and at the expense of the loser. This is what Colby professor Daniel Cohen, in his Ted video on this subject, calls dialectical arguing. In short, it is war, with the goal of destroying the other person’s resistance. At best, this is done by nullifying the opponent’s arguments so that they have no more; at middling, this is done by demoralizing or humiliating them into silence in order to convince a third party. CNN’s Crossfire doesn’t play tango music for its introduction; it plays music to invade Poland by.

At worst, zero-sum arguing is done by means which are unrelated to argumentation: talking without stopping so that the other person cannot speak; goading the other person into losing their temper; tricks or traps of logic; or threats, sarcasm, and abuse. Because the goal is a binary victory, there is a temptation to use whatever works. Clausewitz said that war is just a continuation of policies by other means, and zero-sum arguing often does descend into shouting and violence if people see them as necessary to continue. People who end a heated dispute by saying “it’s not worth fighting over” may not see that doing so would be a failed argument and not an escalation of one.

Thus do not think you will win an argument simply because you know more about debating. If you challenge someone to fence knowing they don’t know how to fence, and they shoot you and walk away like Indiana Jones, believing they’ve won, technically they haven’t, but it practically makes little difference. You can’t just punch your opponent when you’re losing at tennis, because people know that’s an outright violation of the game. But you may have excellent reasoning skills and still lose to someone who makes an irrelevant but funny rhyme about you being a Nazi, if he or she can entertain and dazzle other spectators or make you give up trying. War has few rules and so does zero-sum arguing.

To take this extreme further, sometimes zero-sum arguing is conducted by not arguing at all. Now, we might decline an argument because we don’t feel like arguing, or we don’t know much about the subject, or because it’s a festive occasion and we don’t want to ruin the reception by engaging our jerky cousin who blames Obama if it rains. But silence as an zero-sum strategy means conspicuously not responding to someone, or walking out on an argument in process, in order to score a point. This is childish if you simply burn someone with “whatever,” or you play the drama queen reaching for her smelling salts and exit protesting that your interlocutors are mean (unless they are), but the cold shoulder can be biting if effectively done. People don’t like being ignored, and it can be far more insulting to have someone tell you your ideas aren’t worth their response than to have them ridiculed.

Another calculated use of silence is where you refuse to argue because you want to demonstrate to others that your opponent’s position is unworthy of comparison to yours. When a scientist says that he won’t debate literal creationists because it demeans his own position and gives the other side oxygen, this is what he intends. This may work, but it’s a seductive strategy because everyone’s instinct is to dismiss the opponent as irrational and unworthy of consideration. It’s an easy stance to take if it just lets you avoid thinking by sneering down at your opponent. An analogous danger is the recent sentiment on social media that because my cause is right I am justified to curse and be rude—which merely results in everyone cursing and being rude.

This isn’t to say that the silence tactic is always unjustified, only that there are certain costs and risks. If your goal is scorched earth, good enough. There are situations where this might be justified, such as with genuine crackpots interested in cynically debating a celebrity to give themselves notoriety. I am not proposing a false equivalency where you must weigh everyone’s opinion with equal respect. But be aware that refusal to talk slams the door on dialogue with other people or on any possibility of conversion, peacemaking, or compromise, intensifying their isolation. What incentive could your opponent have in engaging you in good faith if it’s clear you won’t even listen? Be sure that your opponent really cannot be reasoned with and that it’s not just pride or mental laziness speaking; otherwise be prepared, in declaring war, to expect war back. Your opponent will claim, and may convince others, that you are afraid to debate him, or may gain sympathy for being an underdog to the arrogant ‘establishment.’ 

There are admittedly advantages to zero-sum arguing. The benefits are that it works well in political debates as sharp jabs and mocking wordplay can be entertaining and play well in sound bites. The people who engage in this argumentation aren’t necessarily stupid; the well-phrased stings of a Churchill may be quotable and erudite. They may win elections or pass bills or win cases. Some lawyers or politicians enjoy this rough, competitive bantering. Some friends have a very high tolerance for witty, joking abuse, and that’s fine. The ancient Germans had flytings and modern Americans have rap battles in this style. Crushing your rivals, and enjoying the lamentations of their women, feels good.

But insofar as cons, the essential aim of zero-sum arguing is to end resistance, and thus it usually offers nothing to the losing opponent. The goal is to benefit the arguer only, either for some tangible benefit (electoral victory, money, a girl), or simply for enjoying the personal pride of overcoming the opponent. For this reason zero-sum arguing seldom does anything to persuade or win over the opponent. In fact, resentment of the victor’s perceived gloating and the hurt of humiliation typically hardens positions further. Perhaps this doesn’t matter much in a one-off interchange such as a car accident; but online, well, we don’t say we’re connected for no reason, and you might run into this person or his or her circle again elsewhere.

In zero-sum arguing the loser has no personal benefit from accepting his loss; he is likely to either bide his time until he can enter the battle again another day, or abandon the arena permanently. The spiteful joy of defeating someone may be at the cost of a friendship, and it is a marvel of human pride that so many of us would rather be right than be happy. If not clearing the room of your friends, argumentative triumphalism may also create the scenario I mentioned earlier with my college class, where an opportunity to learn and to test or refine your opinions is shut down because you have bullied any possible interchange into silence. I’m not listening, can’t hear you, la-la-la, you’re a Nazi.

Thus in summary, what are the possible pros of zero-sum arguing? You get some real-life prize; you get the smugness of humiliating an opponent; you may eliminate the enemy. Weighed against this, what are the cons? You may lose friends; you are unlikely to convince your opponent, and will probably antagonize them into even harder positions; you may lose an opportunity to learn, or to be corrected if you are wrong; you forgo any opportunity for dialogue or compromise. The odds are that you may have a short meth-shot of pride, but the zero-sum argument probably has not accomplished anything positive. We are all less rational and more affected by our emotions than we think we are, and unlikely to accept a dissimilar opinion if it is impressed on us with jeering pride, regardless of the strength of the statements made.

The alternative is positive-sum or Rogerian arguing, where you approach your opponent as an ally to be won over. It can be argued that this is merely a subtler use of force, a kinder, gentler war, but there’s an important difference in that positive-sum arguing has your opponent’s benefit in mind, not only yours; otherwise (and I know some believe this), all teaching is violence. This is why the condescending offer, “If you’d only listen to reason you’d let go of your childish ideas and agree with me” doesn’t work; the opponent sees that your solicitude is condescension and not concern, and no trust is built. Of course you may also be wrong about whether you’re really ‘benefiting’ your opponent; but in theory at least, positive-sum arguing is win-win with the ideal of making both sides happy with no one losing face.

Zero-sum arguing seeks to get, at the cost of the opponent; positive-sum arguing seeks to give, by restoring the opponent. I am even unsure about using the word opponent, as positive-sum arguing sees the term as temporary; the objective is to convert the opponent into an ally. If zero-sum arguing is visually depicted as two adversaries facing each other, positive-sum arguing can be depicted as two partners side by side, with one attempting to teach or help the other; or, it might be likened to judges conferring on a case. Academic papers which advance an ‘argument’ can also best be described with this model, where the writer is addressing the reader as a sort of friend, presenting evidence intended to move him or her to voluntarily accept and agree with the position that Hamlet is nuts.

Again, when real laws and lives and reputations are at stake, it is difficult to rise above venom and to build trust with an opponent. If you press people that sometimes you argue with a friend or loved one in order to help them and not simply triumph over them, they will counter that positive-sum arguing is just a lesser and more toothless and sissified degree of arguing, as opposed to real arguing. I often see this in people who grew up beating people with fists, who feel that in learning to beat people with words they have somehow become literati. But true to form, when alcohol is added zero-sum arguing among such individuals often becomes nastier and cruder until it descends into actual physical fighting. The next day everyone wakes up bruised, wondering why it was so important to settle who was the best member of ABBA.

I am not so naive as to say that aggressive, zero-sum arguing never has a place, or like Fight Club, that it can’t be fun when people don’t take their wounds seriously. But it is not the only or best way to proceed in life, and the alternative isn’t necessarily wussy or impractical. Attila the Hun fought battles when necessary, but where possible he used negotiation to attain his ends. Similarly, arguing which respects your opponents and seeks to win them over can be difficult, and may require avoiding taking the bait of name-calling and sarcasm, but is likely to be more fulfilling and productive in the long run. It lacks the adrenaline pride rush of belittling your opponent, but it is more likely to produce buy-in, a scenario where your opponent feels respected enough to return the respect, and possibly even reconsider his or her own position.

It can be hard to resist feeding the trolls. But it’s odd that as we get older and in some ways colder, we find less pleasure in berating and cutting down strangers, not because we like people more but because we can’t be bothered. Maybe we see that emotionally such pride is junk food calories. If you have friends who like to argue ideas as friends, hold on to them for life. Otherwise, before entering a disagreement, consider why you are arguing, and if what you are doing will raise questions or just raise tempers for nothing. Does this sound sappy, or whiny, or unmanly? Maybe. But I’ve noticed cowboys and lumberjacks don’t spend much time on social media, and they’re pretty far from making war in their jobs. Perhaps that makes them Nazis.

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