I enjoy civilized debates, but I rarely get the chance to engage in them. That’s because in my experience nearly everyone assumes they’re correct, so they only debate to beat their viewpoint into the other person’s head at all costs.
In other words, most people argue to win… and I can’t stand it. Whenever I mention this pet peeve, the response is almost always “Oh, so you argue to lose, huh?”
Not exactly. I see a third alternative, one that seems more productive. I argue to learn.
In fact, I think the best possible outcome of a debate is when my opponent convinces me that he’s right and I’m wrong. That way, I’ve learned something new or improved my worldview by fixing a mistake. It’s just boring to convince someone else that I’m right. What do I gain from a debate that I “win” in that manner? Very little, I think.
That’s the point of this website. I’ve decided that I can no longer develop my ideas in isolation. I’m blind to the flaws in my own ideas because I’m simply too biased towards believing they’re true.
It might seem like I shouldn’t be annoyed with people who argue to win, because they’re doing me a favor by enthusiastically attacking my ideas. While it’s true that I desperately want people to attack my ideas in order to identify flaws in my reasoning, the problem is that people who argue to win generally aren’t very persuasive. They’re certainly motivated to attack my ideas (which I appreciate), but the resulting arguments have always been much less enlightening than conversations with people who disagree with me in a calm, non-confrontational manner.
That’s because you have to understand another person’s position at least a little bit before you criticize it. Otherwise your attacks might not be aimed at their central point, or you may misinterpret their position altogether. Your arguments must also serve as a “bridge” between the other person’s position and your own, to show the other person how to cross the intellectual distance that separates your positions. Finally, you can’t simply grab the first argument that appears to support your position or attack your opponent’s. This happens most often in verbal debates where there isn’t much time for research or introspection between intellectual salvos. But it also occurs in written debates with depressing frequency, and the resulting arguments simply aren’t challenging enough.
For me, debating means to seriously entertain my opponent’s viewpoint, to examine the world through the lens of his assumptions. If I happen to like his viewpoint better than mine (which happens occasionally) I cheerfully say “thank you for correcting me” and drop my old position like the proverbial hot potato. I’m not on anyone’s side but my own, and sometimes I’m not even on my own side…Last modified February 6th, 2012