Arguing with fellow humans

I couldn’t get a better title for this article. Perhaps the muses gave me nothing else because the clumsy one I have used is accurate. In this big world, there are people who argue with mosquitoes (at night) and TVs (during football matches) and other non-human things.

And so it might be important to clarify, by using a blunt title, that in this article I am only concerned about arguing with our fellow rational bipeds. Maybe one day I will be able to write an article on how to argue with such non-human entities.

But first I would have to learn how to do it well, and I don’t even know where to start. If you have some tips, let me know. Actually, you know what? I am not interested. Keep the tips. Or write your own article on how to argue with non-humans.

Lengthy introduction aside, you may ask why I, a clueless millennial, have set myself the mature task of teaching you how to argue. The simplest answer is that this isn’t the task I have set myself. Rather, this article is an attempt to distill my thinking on the art of argument.

However, if you insist that I lay down my credentials before I spout theories, please be informed that my only qualification is that I argue a lot. Those who know me personally know I am something of a contrarian. In fact, you do not need to know me personally to know this. You only need to go through the archives of this blog.

This does not mean that I am decidedly good at arguing. For a long time, I loved it solely for the thrill of opposing the ideas of others with my own. Lately, however, I started to appreciate its importance for human flourishing.

As a tradition that we have engaged in throughout history, argument is, at the very least, a very important and unique element of our nature. In fact, without it, our history would be very different. It may even be argued that we would have no history at all.

To argue, according to the dictionary application on my phone, means, among other things, “to debate, disagree or discuss opposing or differing viewpoints.” It is, in other words, to converse with people about matters on which you disagree with them.

I think it is important that the definition specifies that to argue is to oppose viewpoints. A viewpoint, literally, is a point from which we see the world. It is our seat in the theatre. To argue, then, is to talk about the same thing from different points of view, rather than to talk about different things. It is to oppose opinions, not truths.

This seems like a truism once it is explicitly articulated, but it’s often not apparent when in the heat of argument. Which means most of what we call arguments are actually quarrels, something for which we share qualifications with animals (you have surely seen dogs snarling and bearing teeth at each other for a chance to mate).

You will often hear that, to argue properly, you must not be attached to your opinion. Considered flippantly, this sounds like a very sensible dictum. In fact, I agreed with it for a very long time (and obviously found it hard to live by). But now, having thought about with some reasonable depth, I beg to differ.

I think we should be attached to our opinions. I know this sounds a bit too radical and selfish, but hear me out. At some level of analysis, what you own must be attached to you. To not be attached to your own opinion means to have no opinion, to not care. And it is not possible to argue if you do not have an opinion.

But therein lies the catch. To be attached to your opinion, it must be really yours. You must have thought it through and concluded that it is a reasonable position to hold. It may, and often will, be the case that someone else has articulated a similar opinion before you. That does not matter.

What matters is that you own it. There is no harm in being a follower, as long as you are aware that you are a follower, to understand who you follow and know why. However, to be attached to an opinion that you haven’t thought through is to be a spineless follower. And Spineless followers are the kinds of people who commit genocides.

That said, and I guess this is what those who say we should not be attached to our opinions mean, we should always keep in mind the little fact that opinions can be wrong. And if you, during an argument with someone, discover that your opinion is the wrong one, then the right thing to do is to modify or abandon it altogether.

I consider this, conceding that you are partially or completely wrong, to be the hardest part of argument. It is, to extend the metaphor we used above, like giving up what you hold to be the best seat in the theatre, with the best padding and clearest view of the stage, in exchange for that which you initially thought to be worse, or even the worst.

In practice, it often feels much worse than the metaphor might indicate. A deeply held belief is a pillar of your life, a source of security against the world, as it should. It is the house from which you see the world. Letting go of such a belief is like burning your house down to ashes, with yourself inside.

But, if you are wrong, it is necessary to burn down. Much like the proverbial phoenix which rises out of its ashes, you cannot be reborn if you do not first burn down. You cannot build a stronger house for your life unless you demolish what you already have.

Further, it is necessary to be reborn regularly. Without this periodic catastrophe, you will grow increasingly older and progressively lose your ability to deal with the world. If you cannot give up your opinions, you become a slave of fixed ideas, complaining about “kids these days” and missing out on what today’s world offers.

Here we come to what I consider the most important element of argument, the personal element. Argument is exchange. For it to work properly, the first condition is that the parties involved must be ready for the loss that necessarily accompanies exchange.

However, because you cannot force your interlocutor to be prepared for the exchange, you have to enter each argument with the assumption that you are the only one ready for it. You have to be ready to concede your opinions, without expecting the other person to.

Basically, if you are not ready to give the other person the benefit of the doubt, then you better not even start arguing with him. You will waste your time and end up resentful. Only argue with those under whose influence you are prepared to change your opinions.

Ultimately, is this also an opinion? Yes, it is. You can choose to argue with it if you like.

Feature image: Photo by on Unsplash.

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  1. Incredible Matthew!!!
    But I suppose it’s not always true that opinions have to be ours for us to hold unto them truly. They could have been passed to a community by trusted authorities say, religious leaders who have been influential since time immemorial.
    The other lot who influences the masses a lot are the politicians. Their opinions on the trending matters count a lot. Case in point in our country majority of Kenyans for sure won’t go through the BBI document but will hold scrupulously onto the opinion of their political/religious leaders ardently.
    Thanks for the document Matthew.

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