Why We Don’t Need to Win Arguments


“I’d like to have an argument” begins the infamous skit by Monty Python. Maybe it’s a strange thing to say out loud, but sometimes it really is good to have an argument. It can be an emotional one that clears the air, or an intellectual one that presents a conclusion supported by reasons. Either way, I’m a fan. If history tells us anything, it’s that we’re all fans. What irks me is the notion that arguments have to have winners. The idea that an argument has to conclude with someone being triumphant and someone else defeated, seems to demean both kinds.

The emotional/mental/social value of everyday arguments, the ones that we have over taking out the garbage, being late to a movie or eating the last slice of pizza, I’ll leave to psychologists. I can, however, speak to the importance of the other kind. Properly done, an argument can dispel myths, present new viewpoints, and force us to be honest with ourselves. I’ve seen firsthand how empowering it can be for thinkers of all ages to put a strong argument together, to be able to present something and back it up with good, solid logic. An argument can be civilized, inclusive, ongoing, and yes, even friendly- more than can be, it should be.

Maybe it’s the whole debate club mentality that makes us think that arguments are meant to be won and lost. You show up, you get into teams, and you try to out-talk one another. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great exercise in public speaking and rhetoric, but not quite the same as an argument. Competition fits more in the realm of sports than in learning to think.

Perhaps it’s the “squeaky wheel gets the oil” mentality that feeds our need to win arguments. Even in the midst of logic and reason, we still seem to think that if we yell louder than everyone else, we will come out on top, even if what we’re yelling doesn’t really make any sense. Watch politicians go at one another, or tune into a daytime talk show and you’ll see what I mean.

If anyone should win an argument, it should be everyone. If a bad idea gets taken out of circulation, we win. If a harmful assumption or stereotype is challenged, we win. If we find a better way to think about something, or become more inclusive and open to different perspectives, we win. If we manage to dig our way past mere opinion into something more closely resembling truth, we win.

So how do we make sure there isn’t one winner in an argument? It’s incredibly simple…and incredibly difficult. We put aside ego, we drop the bravado, and we listen. I don’t mean the kind of listening you do in debate club or on a talk show, where you (pretend to) jot down your opponent’s points and wait for your turn to blast them. In a good argument, we admit that we might be wrong, that we might not know everything, and that there might be another way to look at things. Maybe we don’t get to yell, vent, or stick our fingers in our ears, but we do get a decent dialogue out of the deal, and if we’re lucky, we find fellow thinkers.

Feel free to disagree…if you can provide an adequate rebuttal.

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