Argue, but have fun
David Henry | Thursday, September 9, 2021
I love to argue. Arguing is for the mind what sports are for the body — good exercise. Yet arguing seems to have a bad reputation. For many, “arguing” conjures images of bickering and yelling, or in other words, a conflict. But arguing, at its core, is really just putting forth and defending a view. Arguments of the more successful kind can be called civil disagreements or even just discussions — although disagreement and thus conflict are essential components. Conflict can be stressful, so it seems almost natural to try to avoid it. But plenty of us love sports, and sports are only fun because of the competition. I think the reason that many of us tend to like sports more than arguments is that we take arguing far more seriously than we do sports. When we play soccer, for example, we know that it’s just a game where the goal is to have fun with the other players. The game becomes much less fun when someone starts to take the game too seriously. Yes, one team might win the game, but it only becomes personal if you make it personal — no one likes a sore loser or a boastful winner.
The issue with arguing is that we tend to take arguments personally. Having someone contradict you or tell you that you’re wrong feels invalidating. However, how personally a disagreement is taken has a lot to do with what is being disagreed upon. If my friend and I disagree on whether regular Coke or Diet Coke is better (hint: it’s Diet Coke), neither of us are likely to get upset because we know we each have our own preferences. Arguing about it might be a fun way to pass some time, but only because we know the argument is of little consequence. But if my friend and I disagree on the validity of his or my religious beliefs, the argument has much greater potential to cause strife. We all usually like to think of ourselves as open minded, but when our most deeply held convictions come under question, we tend to dig in and become more entrenched in our positions. We cannot compromise on these convictions because they are essential parts of how we view ourselves and who we believe we are. An argument about our religion or other moral positions become a lot more than just an argument about ideas, it becomes an argument about ourselves. An attack on the ideas that make up our identity becomes an attack on us.
This way of thinking is actually fairly intuitive and is reflected greatly in what we feel makes a “good person.” A good person certainly does good things, but they also do those things for the right reasons. The story of Tony Stark, as portrayed in Marvel’s films, is compelling because it is the story of an egoistic billionaire who eventually changes and seeks to do good. In the end, he sacrifices himself for others, knowing full well what the consequences for his own life would be. If we later learned that Tony Stark was motivated by a desire for revenge rather than a selfless commitment to the greater good, it would call into question his image as a hero, even though the action he performed would have been the same.
This feeling that our motivations socially matter at least as much as our actions adds increased pressure to arguments about moral issues. When we present our arguments, we often feel like we are presenting ourselves. We defend our image to ourselves and others just as much as we defend our position. We can also end up taking arguments too seriously by feeling a duty or obligation to convince those on the other side of the disagreement. If we view arguments as saying anything about us morally, it makes sense that we might feel an obligation to convince others of their incorrectness. Like missionaries, we try to convert them in order to save their souls. Or perhaps we are just so convinced of our own positions, that we see convincing others as just one more step in making our view become reality. From Person A’s perspective, what they advocate is a simple and obvious truth, so when Person B is unable to see it just as Person A does, it becomes a personal failing on their part. Disagreement then gives way to disrespect. It should be clear by now that nothing above is helpful when trying to have a successful, constructive argument. Taking attacks on your ideas as attacks on your person, or feeling that your reputation is tied to your arguments, or believing that your ultimate goal is to change the mind of the person you’re arguing with will only lead to frustration and anger. Rather, the goal should be to have fun, to understand your opponent’s position, and to maybe even learn something new. Persuasion should be understood as a possible byproduct rather than a goal. One of the best arguments I’ve had was with my roommate last semester. We were arguing about the Problem of Evil. We both enjoyed it greatly, and other members of the dorm found it interesting enough to join in. I think it’s safe to say that he did not abandon his faith, nor did I abandon my atheism as a result of the argument, but rather we understood each other and each other’s perspectives better than we did before. Just like playing a sport, when your only goal is to have a good time, no one really loses.
David Henry is a sophomore majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies with a supplementary major in ACMS and a minor in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Originally from Minnesota, David lives in Baumer Hall on campus. He can be reached at [email protected] over email.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.