Thursday, April 22, 2004
The Purpose Of Argument

Well, I'm back in TO again...for the day, anyway. As I was passing the time until my mid-afternoon review, I thought I might work out a few thoughts I've been having over the last few days. Ready for some blind rambling? Me, too:

[A bit of out-of-nowhere comment first - anyone who doesn't own both of Five For Fighting's latest two albums should go purchase Pop in the second, and play "100 Years" as you read this, to get the feeling I'm currently having. -- Ed.]

I was involved in quite a number of deeper discussions this past week, most of which occurred on the weekend. It got me to thinking, as most things do, about the nature of disagreements, and the purpose they serve in every day life. Given the nature of this blog, its contents and its readers, I have inevitably come across a lot of argument and disagreement on various issues. I've also come to the resigned conclusion that I'm not going to change the minds of most people (if that were the point, I think I'd go crazy from the frustration). So why do we, as humans, insist upon persisting in vehement and (occasionally) violent discussion, if it's not going to bring about change in our opponents?

I think my answer has a few parts. First, it's not a given that our oppenents won't change their minds. The possibility is very slim, perhaps - maybe so slim as to be infintessimal - but hope springs eternal, as they say.

Second, the focus of debate and discussion is not always on the two parties arguing their sides. Quite often, there are a number of third parties that are watching and listening to debates; and just as often, those watching have not yet made up their minds on whatever issues are being discussed.

It's an interesting construction that forms. It's certainly not directly intentional, it just-kinda-sorta-happens this way. Every time I've been involved in a deep discussion, there have almost always been more people around than just myself and my 'opponent.' And the thing is, even if they aren't exactly interested in the exact contents of the debate, per se, they are (like most humans) drawn to the note of competitiveness in the tone of the discussion. And indeed, it is a contest - but we aren't competing for the minds of the opposite sides, we're 'fighting' for the affirmation of the third-party. So those innocuous bystanders who just happen upon the argument (assuming, of course, it's not of an intensely personal focus) become the de facto prize and judge.

So we are competing when we debate and discuss, but it's for the minds and opinions of those with whom we are only peripherally acquainted.

Third, it's the nature of human frailty to attach our egos to ideas. To ego-identify with ideologies or dogmas or concepts is a dangerous thing, but it happens all the time, to everyone. So when we, who are deeply invested in an idea or concept, take a defensive fight-for-our-ego stance when we realize that someone doesn't agree with us, it becomes intensely personal - even if the issue itself is generally benign. But because we've attempted to equate the truthfulness of our position with our personhood, we feel personally attacked (and are liable to fly off the handle rather quickly in defense) when those who disagree with us speak up.

And why do they speak up? Because everyone broadcasts their ego wherever they are. We do it in our speech, in our body language, in our demeanor. Everything we do, generally speaking, has some aspect of ourselves in it. Sometimes we crave affirmation of our ego, sometimes we're looking to attack an overly aggressive ego-presentation, but it always boils down to 'me vs. them.'

Argument, discussion, and debate are intrinsically wired into our lives. We can't escape it, unless we use it to find those who completely agree with every aspect of our personal ego and just seclude ourselves to living with them (very impractical, not to mention impossible). So if we have to live with it, why not make it valuable?

That is, why not be open to ego-critique? Sure it's painful, but in the end, it's all that will save us from a massive waste of energy - which is really all that argument is, assuming nothing changes afterward. The success of work is not measured in how much effort one exerts, but in how much is accomplished. Wouldn't it be better, then, to give argument a purpose that can be achieved? So that all this frustration is not in vain?

Tell you what, I'll go first: I hereby promise to fully examine the positions that others present to me, even as I argue against them - so that I might be open to correction in my thinking.

That wasn't so hard. Now you try...

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A webjournal of ideas, comments, and various other miscellany from a Texan university student (with occasional input from his family) living in Toronto, Ontario. Can you say "culture shock?"

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