When To Stop Trying To Win An Argument

Welcome back to Mid-Week Meditations, Lifehacker's weekly dip into the pool of stoic wisdom, and how you can use its waters to reflect on and improve your life.

Honesty Is Not A Tool For Your Personal Gain

Welcome back to Mid-Week Meditations, Lifehacker's weekly dip into the pool of stoic wisdom, and how you can use its waters to reflect on and improve your life.

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This week's selection comes from Epictetus. In his Discourses, he cautions those who seek to change the minds of people deeply set in their ways and beliefs:

If a man objects to truths that are all too evident, it is no easy task finding arguments that will change his mind. This is proof neither of his own strength nor of his teacher's weakness. When someone caught in an argument hardens to stone, there is just no more reasoning with them. Discourses I, 5.1

What It Means

Once you show somebody hard facts in support of your argument, and they still deny it, there's no point continuing the debate. It isn't because they possess great mental resistance and thus cannot be easily swayed, and it isn't because their teachers failed to teach them the very same facts once upon a time. It's because they cling to their beliefs and refuse to be wrong, no matter how absurd their stance may be -- even in their own mind. Reason cannot pierce the armour of a stubborn ignoramus.

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What to Take From It

Debate is good, especially when you can practise it with other open minds who value reason. But the practise is wasted on arrogant blowhards who are more concerned with saving face, or perpetuating schemes that only benefit themselves. Handing them facts and telling them they're wrong only alerts them to raise their defences and back away into their holes where they are king, where they are always right. Even if you "win" the argument with a barrage of evidence, you do nothing to change their mind. So what's the point?

What you can do, however, is redefine what it means to win an argument. If it's a heated topic where tempers are high, winning might simply mean resolving the conflict peacefully. Sometimes that's the most important win of all. Or perhaps you can convince them to concede just one point -- a point you care about -- and leave them to reflect on it. In that way you plant a seed that may spread the roots of positive change over time. As philosopher Daniel H. Cohen says, stop looking at arguments as war. Nobody wins in war, especially when the other side has stopped listening.

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You can read The Discourses in its entirety for free here.


Comments

    While the advice is sound, I strongly urge you to reconsider the associated animosity. A great deal of the vitriolic outrage and division we see these days can be traced back to the implicit tendency to associate those holding opinions different to ours to somehow be lesser people.

    On first glance it seems logical - those that don't succumb to logical argument must be "ignoramuses". But making that assumption belies the fundamental human trait that Epictetus alluded to - "When someone caught in an argument hardens to stone, there is just no more reasoning with them". The difficult reality of this is that this condition is a human trait, not reserved for ignoramuses.

    I urge you and your readers, admirably seeking more reasonable discourse, to read the following essay. It's a distressing read, but it's worth it. It's not by a philosopher or a psychiatrist, but by a programmer. But it is the single most influential piece I've ever read on arguing. It specifically addresses arguing online, and that medium's powerful anonymity, but the message applies to offline as well. It explains how we naturally and implicitly seek to distance ourselves from the "monsters" (or ignoramuses) that hold different opinions, but as humans we are subject to the same flaws that lead them to their distasteful opinion. Recognising that we're all capable of being monsters in someone else's eyes is transformative in understanding why arguments can get so heated.

    https://blog.codinghorror.com/they-have-to-be-monsters/

    When To Stop Trying To Win An ArgumentWhen you're wrong.

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