Stop trying to win every single argument
Last week, one of my work friends spent half an hour telling a college student to stop posting so many bikini selfies. It didn’t work. In fact, the student started posting even more.
No, I’m not going to share them here. We all know what scantily-clad college girls look like on Instagram.
My friend gets into tons of these arguments. With pretty much everyone. Coworkers. Family. Students. She thrives on confrontation. Except she doesn’t thrive at all. She’s a wreck.
By the time my friend finishes arguing with everyone, she has no energy left for parts of her life that matter most. So then she’ll come to my office and describe all the arguments she’s had.
So I tend to avoid her.
It’s like she’s mistaken real life for Twitter. By the way, stop arguing with your family and friends on social media. And strangers. Stop it. Just stop. You’re only pissing each other off. If you want to trade opinions, do it in person — or at least email.
There’s nothing wrong with blowing off steam, or talking your way through a problem. Sometimes, though, I catch myself venting too much. Or trying to convince someone of some stance, just because…
During the election, I used to debate trolls online, anywhere I could find them. But the aftertaste was awful. One time, I even lost my temper at a Trump supporter, only to find out it wasn’t a person at all, just some bot with a supermodel avi — programmed to spew hate speech at anyone who would engage. That made me feel pretty stupid.
We have a problem with argument in this country. We’ve forgotten the difference between these things:
Debate — you agree to take different sides on an issue, for the sake of exchanging opinions.
You’re not trying to win anything. People used to debate in order to sharpen their minds. They were fun, enlightening, and civil. You could debate with your friends about important topics like abortion, or something trivial like who would win in a fight, Jessica Jones or Black Widow.
Debates have rules. Simple ones like you don’t talk over each other, you don’t call each other names, and you don’t get personal or cruel.
Also, you’re not allowed to use logical fallacies. If you do, someone calls you out. The “debates” we see on the “news” don’t follow these rules. Both CNN and Fox have fucked up our public discourse.
Facebook has encouraged us to create echo chambers.
Sure, sometimes you have to get nasty. But when you do that, you’re not participating in a debate anymore.
Discussion — you put your mind together with someone else to solve a problem, or at least understand it better.
Unfortunately, we’ve abused the hell out of this term. “Mommy and daddy aren’t fighting, we’re just having a discussion.” Remember that line from your broken childhood? Or maybe, “We’re not dysfunctional. We just share different opinions.”
No wonder our political culture’s so fucked up. We’ve watched so-called grownups call everything by the wrong name.
Let’s start calling interviews on mainstream media what they are. Verbal boxing matches. And we enjoy watching our side meter out punishment. That’s all many of us care about anymore.
Argument — you didn’t plan on having a debate, and you’re kind of pissed off.
You really just wanted your spouse to refill the ink in his own damn printer, instead of asking to use yours every week.
Who prints stuff anymore, anyway?
There’s argument in the academic sense, and then the everyday sense. We have other words for argument like proposal, assertion, claim, proposition, theory, and so on.
Let’s give argument back to the people.
Fight — you feel like you’re losing an argument, so you start yelling or screaming.
That doesn’t work, so you throw some shit. You get what you want by acting like a lunatic. But only briefly.
What passes for “debate” in politics and news now looks mainly like fighting. Whoever can grandstand the best wins.
The rest of us lose, though. We’ve already lost the ability to exchange opinions. Nobody should brown nose white supremacists and call them “very fine people,” because they’re not.
But we’ve seen what happens you when you try to guilt and shame them. It only reinforces their narrative. Outrage feeds their cause.
So I’m not talking about civility for its own sake. I’m talking about the best strategies to smother this resurgence of intolerance. Maybe outrage and bombast will win. Who knows?
But let’s at least understand the difference. When you start a fight, that’s because you’re giving up on discussion and debate. And you’ve also started to lose the argument.
Action doesn’t need argument
Sure, I speak my mind. Normally I just state my opinions concisely, offer reasons, and then shut up and do what I think should be done. I’ve never had much patience for long, drawn-out arguments and fights.
The worst thing I’ve ever said is, “That’s a bad idea. I’m not doing that.” You can listen to the other person all day. But sometimes it’s their job to convince you, not the other way.
Other times, maybe you just think you have to convince someone to do something. In truth, you don’t.
Sure, it would be nice. But it’s not always required. When my mom refused to take her anti-psychotic medication, we reached a certain point where she would start screaming and throwing things. Continuing to argue with her put everyone in danger, so we just had to back off.
Our next step was to call the police. They wouldn’t come out unless my mom got violent, though. So we had to wait for things to get bad, and protect ourselves. Growing up with that sucked. But it taught me something important — you can’t reason with everyone. Still, there’s lots of ways around an argument.
Arguing with people gives them power
You wouldn’t believe how many new teachers get into prolonged arguments with their students. They come to me for advice on how to win. I ask them why they want to so bad.
It usually comes down to dignity or pride. In truth, I’ve never had a problem with a student that needed more than one conversation. Show them the grade book. Re-explain assignments. Decide if I’m going to give them a deadline extension, or forgive absences, and that’s it.
Let’s say a student plagiarizes. Well, I’ve either got evidence or I don’t. I’m either going to give them a second chance, or I’m not. There’s no point in arguing with them, or trying to shame them.
Last semester, I caught a student plagiarizing. He turned in a Wikipedia post as a paper. The conversation was almost funny. The guy confessed immediately. I gave him one more chance, and he did it again.
So I failed him.
There was no long speech about how he’d betrayed me. I just told him that he’d plagiarized twice now. And he knew the consequences.
He got really pissed off. But I stayed calm. After all, I was just doing my job. I was actually making money as we spoke. He was the one who’d just thrown away about a thousand dollars of tuition.
A few weeks later, the student sent me a long diatribe over email. He told me that his other teachers had helped him, that I’d been petty. Thanks to everyone else, he’d still managed a 3.0 GPA. So if I’d wanted him to fail out of college, then I should feel deeply disappointed.
So I just wrote back to him saying congratulations.
I’d never wanted him to fail out of college. In fact, I would’ve preferred for him to pass my class, too.
He never wrote back. Why? Because he’d wanted an argument. I wasn’t going to give him one. So his power vanished. Out of curiosity, I looked up his transcript. He’d lied about his other grades. His GPA hovered somewhere around a 1 — the loneliest number.
Sometimes we give people too much control over us. In reality, only one or two people in the entire world can actually tell us what to do. Our boss, and then maybe their boss.
But we forget that all the time. We give away our power. Because we want someone’s approval. Or we want them to agree with us.
Ignore bystander opinions
Heads up, not everyone’s going to agree with you. You don’t need everyone’s support to do your job, or make a decision about your life.
You might owe someone an explanation, or a discussion, maybe a debate. Sometimes, it’s good to listen to people who disagree with you. I’m sure your partner would like discussion and debate before big decisions. But your life is yours to do with as you please.
Most arguments do nothing but drain you. So let’s say someone comes up and starts an argument over your bikini pics. Sure, listen to them. Consider their opinion and their reasons. But it’s not your job to convince them to love your bikini pics. They can’t make you stop taking selfies.
Now, scale that reasoning up to something important — like whether to quit your job and start a bikini clothing line. Yes, you’ll want input. But that’s your decision. Know whose opinion matters, and don’t let bystander advice distract you from your goals. Best of luck with your bikini line.