In Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic” sketch, a man is looking to enter into an argument just for the sake of argument. As the sketch progresses, it becomes clear that this is more just a back and forth series of contradictions: “Yes it is!,” “No it isn’t!” In response to which the man complains, “This isn’t an argument!”
Anyone who has spent time reading comments to almost anything online will be familiar to these polar and contradictory exchanges. Argumentation, which is pointed out in the sketch, is an attempt to work towards an answer through discourse, what we might also consider debate. However, we live in a world where rational debate is increasingly absent. Today, argument for the sake of argument can be found in abundance outside the confines of the Argument Clinic. Why is this?
Apparently, it is a waste of time to try and change someone’s mind. I’ve long had an inkling of this, being puzzled, as a scientist, by people that would ignore reams of data and go with what seemed, in my view, the contrary conclusion. Perhaps this is more correctly stated as people being unwilling to let go of assumptions in the light of data that should lead to an interpretation contrary to those assumptions. Today’s unfortunately politicized and polarized issues of evolution, climate change, immigration, overfishing, and how to behave in the current pandemic lack the civilized discourse that could move us towards a solution. The strange “with me or against me” on so many topics tears at the fabric of society in a way that increasingly threatens our very survival on this planet.
Though it has been tempting to put this down to deficient intellect on the part of the other side, I’ve noticed myself making mistakes of judgement due to holding on dearly to prior assumptions. So, I have found myself willing to look beyond the blanket assumption of impaired mental capacity. The Dunning-Kruger effect likely provides a piece of the puzzle as to how people with a High School degree, or less, are willing to vehemently disagree with medical doctors with decades of experience managing epidemics about whether to wear masks during the current pandemic. This is the case where people with a little knowledge about think they know much more than people with actual knowledge.
There is also the issue of confirmation bias, where people tend to disregard contrary data in favor of data that supports their view. As they aggregate more and more supportive data, it becomes increasingly difficult to let go of flawed assumptions. “Look at the pile of stuff that supports my view and… I don’t remember any of the contrary bits.”
After decades of feeling the need to reason against people that did not see the light, I was on the verge of just throwing up my hands and saying, “Yep, you are right, the world is flat. Be safe sailing out there, I hear the edge comes upon you mighty quick!” However, the book “How to win Friends and Influence People,” Dale Carnegie presents the interesting viewpoint that an argument can never truly be “won.” The fleeting glow of victory in you will ignite an ember of resentment in your vanquished foe. You may have won the battle, but lost the war. Rather than beating someone over the head, and into submission, with facts and data, it may be better to rather come to an understanding of points of agreement.
To start building understanding, the interaction cannot be transactional. You have to be willing to build a relationship with someone that you may find yourself disliking, even if it is just on an ideological level. Finding common ground, however, goes both ways, and being able to do so sets that foundation for understanding. Often our understanding of opposing views is mere caricature and stereotype. Understanding may lead to, quite possibly grudging, respect even without the heartfelt agreement we may hope for. Still, if we can find issues in alignment, we have possibly won an ally in those battles even as we may remain opposed in others.