Winning an Argument

The two men argued. They debated emotionally, raising their voices, often interrupting. They attacked each other’s character, belittling, condescending, and dismissing the other’s talking points. This was not going to end well.

For many reasons, neither man could possibly admit or even hint at defeat. It was televised. Each man represented millions of like-minded viewers, not to mention competing advocacy groups paying their salaries and counting on them to win the debate while crushing their opposition.

The topic, network, and individuals involved are not relevant. It could be any argument among thousands occurring daily on CNN, MSNBC, Fox, CBS, ABC, PBS, and countless radio stations or podcasts. It could be among any number of people representing just about any cause or issue.

I’m finding this increasingly annoying. What’s the point? For the stations, its ratings and the money that follows those ratings. What’s the point for the audience? Enlightenment? Are we learning something? Are we just being entertained? Are we being persuaded? Perhaps it’s a bit of all of these, or none.

As a sport’s fan, I like good competition in which one side or the other wins. Sure, occasionally in some sports there is a tie, usually an unhappy outcome for everyone. In these contests, there are rules and scores that determine winners and losers. This is not the case with arguments. Surely there are formal debates with rules and scoring mechanisms, but 99.9 percent of arguments do not follow any rules other than those ascribed by show producers or the FCC. I suppose we might remember the way Hamilton and Burr settled their differences. Now that’s entertainment!

Many years ago, as a young man, I read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. One of the chapters titled You Can’t Win an Argument includes the following explanation.

Nine times out of ten, an argument ends with each of the contestants more firmly convinced than ever that he is absolutely right.

You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it. Why? Well, suppose you triumph over the other man and shoot his argument full of holes and prove that he is non-compos mentis. Then what? You will feel fine. But what about him? You have made him feel inferior. You have hurt his pride. He will resent your triumph.

A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.

Ben Franklin went even further on this point. In his autobiography, he wrote the following.

. . . My list of virtues continued at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud, that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation, that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by mentioning several instances, I determined endeavoring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list, giving an extensive meaning to the word.

I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it. I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so, or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I denied myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering, I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appeared or seemed to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this charge in my manner; the conversations I engaged in went on more pleasantly.

The modest way in which I proposed my opinions procured them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevailed with other to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.

And this mode, which I at first put on with some violence to natural inclination, became at length so easy, and so habitual to me, that perhaps for these fifty years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical expression escape me. And to this habit (after my character of integrity) I think it principally owing that I had early so much weight with my fellow-citizens when I proposed new institutions, or alterations in the old, and so much influence in public councils when I became a member; for I was but a bad speaker, never eloquent, subject to much hesitation in my choice of words, hardly correct in language, and yet I generally carried my points.

In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility. . ..

When I observe the angry divide in our country, I cannot help but wonder why we don’t consider the wisdom of Carnegie or Franklin. Would we be more enlightened, or more persuaded to a right course of action, if the arguments were offered with some humility or empathy?  Shouldn’t we want outcomes we could all embrace? Apparently, few of us learn to argue this way.

Even in sporting contests, most of us were taught to be gracious winners and good sports in defeat by sincerely congratulating the winners.  Those on the losing teams even honor and respect their opponent’s victory in a fair contest. Successful teams learn critical lessons from their losses, the silver-lining. That surely helps them improve and prepare for the next contest. Shouldn’t the same logic apply to competing ideas?

When congress or the local village board decides on some policy, shouldn’t those who argued for something else, respect the will of the majority and help to make it work, at least until some better idea surfaces and wins the day.

What we observe at this moment in the history of our country is destructive. We have winners who want to bury their opponents, and we have losers who want to take away the victory.  This cannot end well!

About DocStephens

Retired college professor of science and mathematics, academic administrator, and president (emeritus).
This entry was posted in Human Behavior, Media, Politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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