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When to debate vs. when to walk away

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Every now and then I find myself in a conversation that turns into a debate.  Usually a simple 'I don't agree with that' sparks it.  I try to avoid such debates since I find them frustrating when the other person is jumping from concept to concept, being emotional, or just wants to argue for the sake of arguing.  However, I will engage if there are others listening to the conversation/debate in hopes of influencing them. 

 

In the past most informal debates have enraged me (especially when dealing with the irrational).  Please share your thoughts on when, why, and how you engage with a person during an informal debate (any social situation), and when you decide it's just not worth it. 

 

I have learned that as an informal debate is starting it helps if you can agree to not contradict yourselves.  This seems to be a great way to influence the people listening.  Pointing out a contradiction your opponent makes seem to really resonate. I also start by saying that the point of the debate is to be right, so if there is any error in my logic I want to correct it.  I will ask the other person if that is true for them too. 

 

 

 

 

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Well, I have roughly two ways of handling it. If I do engage, I do so in a quite detached way. I make sure not to feel angry or frustarted. I accept that I won't be able to change anyone's mind, so I only do it as an exercise in fleshing out my own understanding. If the person is clearly irrational or emotion or angry or abusive, then I simply stop. I have no interest in going further, I don't feel frustration. If I felt frustrated, it meant I thought they should change their mind and that they have to and I can't make them. That's totally wrong. Just live your life, don't worry about them. Their not getting it doesn't change you, your life, or how you live. Be content with your own understanding of reality. And occasionally, someone will point out a lacuna or contradiction in your thoughts, and that is a real delight!

 

And secondly, I simply avoid it or I talk around it. That is what I do 95% of the time. I just don't care. People will believe what they believe. I have mentioned only briefly to my own girlfriend my own interest in philosophy and objectivism. Even she has really very little idea about it and about my interest in it. She was surprised, after two years dating, when I said the point of life is to be happy. She had not imagined I would think that, and she was very pleased. I found that amusing.

 

I'm an individualist in every sense. I want to understand reality. I don't care about others. Write a blog post if you want to get your ideas and arguments out of your head. Writing is really the best way to spread your ideas because people who are interested will read, agree or disagree, respond or not, and that's that. Release them into the aether, and leave it. Polemics sucks.

 

I have occasionally felt guilty that I have exactly zero interest in engaging in politics. But it soon disappears into contempt for the whole thing. My life is too short to spend any minute of it on politics. I will donate some money to people who like doing that kind of thing when I'm able to, and that will be my futile contribution. Besides, I'm much more interested in how people can find happiness, a career they love, joy, pleasure, interesting careers and that sort of stuff. I'm a firm believer that people should just focus on themselves.

 

Most people don't want to be right. They want to win the debate. They have their self esteem wrapped up in their ideas and so being corrected is an attack on them personally, that is why they get angry and will not see clear contradictions in their own arguments. Most people were raised in public schools that fail to teach children proper methods of thinking and of arguing. Moreover, many, many people are second handed and care about appearances rather than reality. Once you identify a person is like that, just stop. Smile, stop talking, and move on.

Edited by Peter Morris

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Nathaniel Branden took this up once in The Objectivist Newsletter.  Briefly, he said that people commonly make two mistakes in arguments.

One is to persist too long, after the other party has shown that he isn't willing to be reasonable.  People will rarely state this up front, he said.  Some symptoms to watch for are "refusal to answer specific questions or arguments, persistently running off to irrelevancies at crucial points in the discussion; appeals to authority...; impugning the motives or intelligence of the opponent."

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Most people don't want to be right. They want to win the debate.

I think people want to be right but they also want to win he debate ;) when self-esteem is wrapped up in it. If you want to move things forward, you have to get out of debate mode. Not for everyone -- some people are just fine with a to and fro and will suddenly appear to "capitulate" when they see some point you're making. Often, though, a debate gets heated and two people are talking at cross-purposes, picking up the weakest points of their opponents rather than trying to examine the strongest ones. 

 

Often, if you want to change a person's mind, you have to give up your own need for feedback: the desire to see yourself succeed at this miracle of convincing others and changing the world. You just have to realize that people mostly change their minds when they think about a question apart from you. So, you might have to ask them some questions that they can't answer too satisfactorily and give them some alternative they have not thought about, and simply leave it at that -- not pressing for a better answer or pushing your own insight. If they take ideas seriously, they will not be satisfied until they have reached a better place in their own mind. Give them the time and space, and they might change.

Edited by softwareNerd

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I think people want to be right but they also want to win he debate ;) when self-esteem is wrapped up in it. If you want to move things forward, you have to get out of debate mode. Not for everyone -- some people are just fine with a to and fro and will suddenly appear to "capitulate" when they see some point you're making. Often, though, a debate gets heated and two people are talking at cross-purposes, picking up the weakest points of their opponents rather than trying to examine the strongest ones. 

 

Often, if you want to change a person's mind, you have to give up your own need for feedback: the desire to see yourself succeed at this miracle of convincing others and changing the world. You just have to realize that people mostly change their minds when they think about a question apart from you. So, you might have to ask them some questions that they can't answer too satisfactorily and give them some alternative they have not thought about, and simply leave it at that -- not pressing for a better answer or pushing your own insight. If they take ideas seriously, they will not be satisfied until they have reached a better place in their own mind. Give them the time and space, and they might change.

i always try to use feelings as an indicator as to when to bail out. Never respond to the anger of others, and never show anger yourself. As fpr the later, if you feel anger coming on, politely excuse yourself.

 

Andie

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Good thread.  When to debate and when not.  You assume your opponent does not share your fundamental ideas.

 

And so, never enter a debate that begins with an arbitrary assertion with no reasons for the conclusion.  You can only successfully debate the reasons for the subject assertion.  You might ask your friend, "why do you think that?"  You're trying to get to more fundamental premises that may be disputable because trying to dispute the conclusion of a person raised in the environment of pragmatism is a waste of time.

 

In the end you will, more often than not, smile and say goodbye.

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This thread helped me with a topic I've been struggling with for a few weeks. Burgess Laughlin said that only experts in a philosophy should engage in debate, and that non-experts should only discuss their ideas and not debate. I was wondering why he thought that, exactly, when I came across this thread.

 

It's better for non-experts not to debate because their debates will usually be of low quality. A non-expert will have holes in his understanding, so he will have to evade or make poor arguments to defend his position if he is under pressure. It is better for non-experts to discuss their positions in an environment where there is no such pressure, so that they are free to admit that they don't understand something or don't have an answer to an argument the other person has put forward.

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William O - What constitutes an "expert" in Objectivism?  Thru my ages 30 to ca. 45, I found myself in the position you described above - I had a feel for Objectivist ethics and politics, but it was not "internalized," and so I fell apart in debates with clever people.

 

At age 60, today, after 10 years of retirement self-study - Objectivist (Aristotelian) metaphysics and epistemology and western philosophy generally - I still don't feel like an expert.  But, I don't fall apart in discussions or debates anymore because I can now take the premises espoused by others and refer them to the person in history that originated (or made famous and accessible) the idea, and what prior philosophical ideas led to the conclusion.

 

While the philosophical content came from Ms. Rand, much of the method of analysis and debate came from Mr. Peikoff.  The ability to spot an arbitrary argument and either dismiss it, or insist that your debate opponent specify the premises on which their arbitrary conclusions are based, is often the key to moving your debate opponent to moving the debate to fundamentals. 

 

Anyway, I'd be interested in your take on these points, especially, what makes one an expert.  Txs, Jack

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