Generally, I don’t like things that are good for me. I’m really envious of people who like exercise. I hate it. I like sports and games that involve physical activity, but I have real trouble motivating myself to do the exercise video that I do every morning. I’m only able to do it through a combination of bribing myself with television and discipline. Needless to say, I often fail.
One of the few things that’s good for me that I actually like is arguing. Arguing is good for you. Engaging in rational argument is one of the most important steps in rational thinking. We all have unconscious biases which may be completely invisible to us, but obvious to a third party. Submitting our ideas to criticism and rationally defending them is one of the only ways to expose biased thinking. It also has a chance of exposing us to new information or new perspectives that we hadn’t considered before.
I count myself lucky that I enjoy argument. Most people do not. Despite its virtues, engaging in argument, especially about things we consider important, can be daunting. Putting your ideas (especially controversial ideas) out into the world means exposing a vulnerability. Giving people access to your thoughts and feelings, especially when others are likely to disagree, is like giving someone a handbook on how to attack you. It’s scary.
It’s also scary because it puts you on the spot. Arguing about an idea means that you have to be able to articulate, in rational terms, why a certain idea is good, true, useful, etc. This, of course, is one of the reasons why argument is good for us. It’s a lot easier to justify something to ourselves than to articulate the justification to other people. Even if we get no pushback, just the process of saying it out loud often makes us look at our ideas from a new perspective. If we do get pushback, we’re forced to consider other people’s ideas, and answer their questions. It forces us to go outside of our own head and confront our ideas from another person’s perspective. If I can’t articulate a rational justification for an idea, I take that as an indication that my idea is flawed, or at least that I have some thinking to do about it.
Because I enjoy arguing, I do it a lot. I especially enjoy arguing about topics where my thinking is most outside the mainstream, as those are the topics where (a) it’s easiest to find people who disagree, and (b) I have the highest chances of being incorrect. The result is that I often find myself arguing about what honest communication really means, atheism, polyamory, and concepts like that.
Recently, I was accused of “just trying to win the argument.” It was not the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. However, I feel it’s a very unfair criticism. For one, it’s an ad hominem attack, and has nothing to do with any of the points being argued. This is all to common in discussions online. People tend to resort to this sort of thing early and often on the internet, as if the only reason that you could possibly disagree is because you have some sort of character flaw which prevents you from seeing the undeniability of the point being argued. Another issue is that I’ve never seen anyone actually make a rational argument attempting to prove that my motives are questionable. It’s always just been tossed out as a way of ending the argument while simultaneously blaming me for perpetuating the argument. Implicit in this statement is the subtext that “if you weren’t just trying to ‘win,’ you would have conceded defeat by now.” It’s implied that the other person’s argument is just so devastating that to continue to disagree merely shows my closed-mindedness.
In reality, if I’m perpetuating an argument, it’s because I disagree with my opponent. Like I said before, I enjoy arguing. But I do not enjoy it when I have substantial doubts about my own position. When I have such doubts, I tend to take a much less confrontational stance, and view the conversation less as an argument, and more as a joint venture, where we’re both trying to figure out how to properly think about a concept.
Most of the time, I’m rather confident in my positions. As I said previously, I argue a lot, and I’ve heard all of the counter-arguments that anyone is willing to make to me. Chances are, if you’re arguing with me on one of the topics I mentioned above, I’ve heard your argument before, and I have a counter-argument ready. Not because I want to be ready to win arguments, but because, if I didn’t have a convincing counter-argument, then I would probably not disagree with your position. The fact the I’m arguing against your position is evidence only of the fact that I disagree with you. If I wanted to win, there are better ways to do so than arguing rationally:
If I’m making a rational argument, it means not only that I disagree with you, but that I respect you enough to think that there’s a chance that you have something to teach me.