Winning Arguments Doesn’t Make You Right.

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 8.442% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

My favorite webcomics creator Tailsteak Tweeted this today:

As an veteran winner of arguments, lemme tell you why the man is right. Because I had a shameful habit of debating with lovers about what was “fair” in our relationships.

I won every argument. Rationally. Coldly. Cleanly.

They all left me because I was a dick.

Turns out walling people’s emotions off with logic ultimately loses.

But it goes deeper than that. Because what often happens when you “win” an argument is that you’ve simply chosen a battleground that favors your approach:

  • If you’re quick on your feet, you can “win” any verbal argument against someone who’s slower to form their rebuttals. Take it to a slower pacing, like exchanging emails, and you might find the day it took them to come up with a response completely dismantles your point.
  • If you’ve got access to more “facts,” you can “win” any argument against someone who isn’t as encyclopedic as you are. You see this all the time with creationists, who can pull out reams of plausible-sounding pseudoscientific BS they fling in the air to confuse people who don’t know any better. Or, if you want a real-life example, read the impassioned essays of economists before the dot-com bubble burst in 2001, each trotting out scholarly study after scholarly study to “prove” that this wasn’t just a fluke, tech stocks would rise and never fall. None of their “facts” saved them any money when everything tanked, but they sure did have a lot of information to throw around.
  • If you’re more tolerant of the stress of conflict, you can simply outlast anyone debating you by standing tall against all comers until they get frustrated or upset and walk away. But endurance isn’t correctness.
  • If you’re more charismatic, you can pepper your argument with jokes and write compelling essays spoken in a mellifluous voice that can put a nice fragrance on stinking dogshit. And especially if you’re playing to people’s biases, you can propose fractured ideas that’ll still have people yelling “YEAH!” no matter how many logical gaps that argument has.
  • If you’re logical, you can memorize a list of logical fallacies and poke holes in legitimate concerns all day long until you prove that black is white. It doesn’t hold up to common-sense scrutiny, because life’s messy and feelings aren’t binary, but hey! You’ve never met anyone like the person they’re describing, so that person must be imaginary! STRAW MAN!

…and so on.

The point is that a lot of arguments are “won,” but not really. The people convinced are convinced more, the people who are dubious remain dubious. (And yes, if you think I’m somehow not richly guilty of this, please recognize that I most certainly am guilty as heck. Though I’m trying to get better.)

What I’d argue – and of course I’m arguing now – is that true winnings are holistic. They involve all the variables – engaging both emotion and logic, altering opinions instead of barraging people until they walk away, ensuring the “facts” that hold up your side of the debate match reality as closely as possible in a complex universe.

I don’t know what percentage of arguments that have been counted as “won” have been truly won, even if we break it down on a person-by-person basis. Even leaving aside the people who can’t be budged from their starting opinion, I suspect any number of arguments that someone’s claimed “victory” for were just winning a battle, not the war.

But it’s something to ponder as you’re arguing with your friends and lovers: are you valuing cleverness over thoughtfulness? Are you hauling out facts that aren’t really facts, but are actually a justification for your biases? Do you hold the upper hand only because you’re more belligerent?

I’m not trying to convince you, man. Because I probably can’t. I can only ask the questions.

In the end, on this one, you gotta convince yourself.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous Alex
    Feb 23, 2018

    As a veteran of many such discussions (I would probably consider myself mostly in the logic/endurance category), I don’t consider any of that to be winning. To a large extent, it depends on how you define “winning.” But you pretty much covered that.

    Do people really consider it a “win” if the other person just goes away or gives up talking? I certainly don’t.

    But then again, I long ago decided that the only person I’m really trying to convince when I argue (privately, not professionally) is myself.


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