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January 3, 2000: what's the sense in arguing when you're all alone


I'm known amongst my friends and coworkers as an argumentative fellow. Some people find it distressing to argue/debate with me because I have a habit of just not letting go of things.

I think people tend to perceive this as a desire to win at all costs, but they're wrong.

I think there's also a tendency to view this sort of argumentation as stereotypically male, and to identify it with stereotypically male competition.

Here's the deal, for me.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that my "opponent" is another person just like me, with the same attitudes and everything. (This is generally the implicit premise when I argue with someone, although it's almost never true.)

If I find that I am in conflict with such a person over something for which there is some truth of the matter (as opposed to, say, something like the abortion debate), then three scenarios are possible. Either the other person is wrong, I am wrong, or we are both wrong.

At such a moment, my biggest concern is not about being right in my current belief. What I do care about is the future. I may be right or I may be wrong, but I would like in the future to be right, not wrong. Therefore, it is incumbent upon me to discover whether, indeed, I am right, or whether, instead, I am wrong.

The way to do this is to have a discussion, a debate, an argument.

We should challenge each other's ideas and justifications for beliefs; not because we are so certain that we are right, but because we want to test our justifications and are at the same time looking for a good reason to change our minds.

At least, that is what I do.

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attribution dammit: Lucky Ball and Chain They Might Be Giants