When Not to Argue

When Not to Argue 1
We’re angry children in perpetuity

When one considers how ready are the forces of young men for discharge, one does not wonder at seeing them decide so uncritically and with so little selection for this or that cause: that which attracts them is the sight of eagerness for a cause, as it were the sight of the burning match-not the cause itself. The more ingenious seducers on that account operate by holding out the prospect of an explosion to such persons, and do not urge their cause by means of reasons; these powder-barrels are not won over by means of reasons.

– Nietzsche, The Gay Science

The easy thing to do is to always argue, or to never argue. People are often either always confrontational and aggressive, or they’re too weak and passive. To know when not to argue is an art form – which is why very few people know how to do it. There are times when you need to stand your ground, and fight for what you believe in, or defend someone who’s getting picked on. It’s an admirable thing to do, after-all. It is what superheroes do, it’s what we all aspire to do. And yet, there are times when it is more intelligent to be quiet and hold back.

If you spend a few minutes in a library or a bookstore or Google, you’ll soon figure out there’s a lot of disagreement about any idea. We have disagreements about politics, religion, business, every academic subject invented, law, musical taste, and sports. And yet, each of us identifies so strongly with what they believe in. We will go to war and spend our entire lives defending our ideas and beliefs.

People don’t have ideas. Ideas have people – Carl Jung

We think we autonomously decide what we want to believe in and objectively articulate reasons to other people – while graciously accepting what they have to say in response. But we never do that. We instead argue with people based on our own presuppositions and attempt to convince our opponent to essentially change their presuppositions while we will refuse to ever do so.

It would be interesting if the world was made up of people who go around objectively synthesizing bits of information without ever having an agenda and are always in service of the highest good of truth. We would never lie, deceive or coerce others into subscribing to our own biased philosophy. We would only be interested in putting together the most accurate picture of the world.

But what a boring world that would be? Disagreements are great. They remind us that we are incomplete. They push us to better educate ourselves and stay curious. A world without disagreements is a totalitarian, unimaginative, boring place.

But, unfortunately, the flip side to that coin is that people become ideologically possessed – due to factors beyond their control. Our temperament is correlated with our political affiliation. If we’re high in openness and comfortable in disorderliness, we’re probably a liberal. And if we’re low in openness and high in orderliness, we’re probably a conservative.

I think knowing something like that should be taken seriously. Our personalities are largely biologically determined. And our political attitudes stem from our personalities. Therefore, our opinion and political views are not so much in our control. And yet, people derive so much meaning from their set of beliefs.

That’s not such a terrible thing. But what’s remarkable is when these people are intolerant of others with a different set of beliefs. When you recognize how little of yourself is really you, the first observation you should make is that other people can’t be blamed for thinking a certain way that’s different from you.

When you factor in how much someone’s environment (another factor beyond one’s control) moulds a person’s attitudes and beliefs- you should be even more mindful of the fact that someone’s beliefs are to a large extent – predetermined.

People make arguments about almost anything you can imagine. People argue about which salad dressing is superior, which president was the most successful, whether Brady or Manning was the most talented. That’s not a bad thing. Having opinions – predetermined or not – is an indispensable part of life. The meaningless miniature debates we regularly get ourselves into are a great way of having fun and learning about how other people see the world. It’s not a bad pass time.

But when it comes to more serious topics such as political or religious beliefs, the rules of the game need to be better defined to avoid a case of two people talking past one another. Most of us know what it’s like to have a debate where we are only thinking about what we’re going to say next. It’s like we’re using the other person as a sounding board for our ideas. If they stick, and our opponent has no good rebuttal – that argument is safely stored for future use. If our argument is ripped apart – we quietly dispense with it or figure out how to make it stronger.

In the process, we become better debaters, but we don’t gain new perspectives about the world. We become satisfied with incremental instead of exponential gains.

So there are these ideas, they’re out there. In original form, they’ve been around for a long time. But people have gradually altered their subtle shape with time and while they may seem new, nothing is really all that new. We are exposed to those ideas every single day, and sometimes, we’re gripped by them.

Most of the time, we pay no attention to them. That’s what I think Jung means in that quote. I think ideas get a hold of us based on things that are outside our control. And then we adopt those ideas because they comfort us in some way. They don’t disgust us physiologically and so we’re happy to be one of its avatars.

Then we run out into the world and we have a set of those ideas (many of them) that we’ve accumulated over the years, and whenever we have a conversation with someone, a button gets pushed, and some articulated version of that idea is blurted out. The same thing is happening with the other person. Then we engage in a kind of dance. We don’t only try out our good and bad arguments. We vary our style of speaking, and subtle changes in tone. If we’re badly trained, we build and destroy straw-men instantaneously and appeal to authority. If we’re a little more sophisticated, we would use facts and build syllogisms.

But it doesn’t really matter. The other person doesn’t care if you’re more sophisticated. They’re just trying to get better at this whole arguing thing and so are you. Everyone just wants to win!

It’s all a ridiculous game. There’s really no point in trying to convince someone of anything. Why would you? What’s in it for you? Best case, you don’t convince them and after exhausting yourself for hours, you realize you’ve made no progress.  And worst case, you convince them and they listen to you. And then months later, something bad happens and then they’ll blame you for convincing them.

Arguing can be very fun, especially with the right people. You can learn a lot from a debate, and you can (hopefully) teach others too. But don’t argue about things that have consequences that do not affect you. Don’t talk people out of what they want to do, and don’t talk them in to what they don’t want to do.

When your arguments affect another person’s life, you must apply much higher standards than you would to yourself. Because if you make a mistake based on a false presumption, you can course correct. There’s no guarantee that others can too.

If someone looks up to you, they’ll trust your judgement – especially if they lack in self-confidence. Your arguments need to be based on solid, sound foundations. You need to know what you’re talking about, and most of the time, we don’t. Therefore, when it comes to determining another person’s fate, it’s wise to stand on the side-lines. By letting them make their own decision, they’re forced to take responsibility for their actions. That’s a good thing for everyone involved. In that way, they can be proud if they succeed, and instead of being resentful of others if they fail – they’ll be self-critical and will learn from their mistakes. They will become wiser.


"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.