Don’t get your back up over this

1 06 2009

I don’t lose arguments.

Arrogant? Maybe. But also true.

I have lost arguments, many, many, arguments. But not anymore.

Why not? I’m not a genius, and I don’t know everything, so it’s not as if I couldn’t lose an argument. And I still get pissed off and lose my mind—which is not so good from the never-lose-argument perspective.

And I still drink.

Nonetheless, there are a number of very good reasons why I no longer lose arguments:

One—and this is the most important reason—I don’t engage in arguments I know I’ll lose.

It is so, so easy to avoid losing arguments if you keep yer yap shut when you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. I don’t argue about baseball statistics, the appropriate strike formation for an attack on North Korea, or the best way to skin a rabbit. I don’t argue about the advantages of a V- versus inline-cylinder engine, the success rates of arthroscopic surgery, or what makes a souffle rise or fall.

In other words, I don’t argue about most things, because I don’t know most things.

Two, I always admit when I don’t know something. This is not only the honorable thing to do, but it’s also useful: I don’t hang an entire argument on a questionable piece of information.

So, for example, I might suggest that the reasons that women get abortions early in their pregancies are distinct from the reasons of women who procure later-term abortions. I don’t know this for sure, i.e., I haven’t conducted a survey or read through all the data on abortions, but I’ve done enough reading to render this a plausible argument.

But that’s as far as I’ll go. I won’t say This is a fact or Everybody knows when I don’t know if it’s a fact and it’s not something that everybody would know.

(And I never say Everybody knows. Good lord, talk about an easy way to lose an argument: All one’s interlocutor has to say is I don’t know that and game over.)

Three, I’m ruthless. I’ll nail the other person for trying surreptitiously to change the terms of the argument, using a phrase carelessly, or trying to back away from a statement which has since become problematic.

Four, I don’t cheat. This is the flip side to number three: I don’t put myself in a position where the other person can call me out.

Five, I don’t argue when I’m drunk. Anymore.

Six, I don’t argue when I’m really angry. Anymore.

You’ll note, then, that my overall posture is defensive. I don’t overextend myself and always seek the firm ground, and a large part of my strategy is simply waiting for or baiting the other person (in)to making a mistake.

This strategy, of course, does not necessarilly lead to winning. I do sometimes win arguments, especially when I have a command of the facts that the other person does not or I simply frustrate the other person into a blunder, but more often I simply don’t lose. Draw.

I learned the beauty of the draw in grad school, after losing many many arguments to my friend D. D. was smarter than me, more worldly, already had a master’s upon entering the Ph.D. program, and one of the most competitive people I’d ever met. We’d start a conversation, which would turn into an argument, which would turn into a wipeout.

Then, at some point, I got smarter. I paid attention to how D. argued, how he’d slice away the portions of an argument which were inconvenient to his point of view, change the terms of the debate, or assert matters of fact which were, in fact, contestable.

I say this in admiration. He was smart and competitive and knew that the rules only mattered if you got caught. And I started to catch him, and once I did, I stopped losing to him. I don’t think I ever won an argument, but I could draw him out until we would admit to a mutual, exhausted, halt.

THAT was victory.

This history helps to explain why I love to argue with people who are smarter than me: It makes me sharper and forces me to call on every last scrap of knowledge in order to keep up.

Similarly, the desire to stay sharp goes a long way toward explaining why I keep up with the arguments of whatever ‘other’ side there is to an issue I care about. If they have a good argument I want to know it, so I can learn how to counter it.

(No, it’s not all tactical. I also keep up with ‘other’ sides because ‘my’ side has its own blind spots, and if I truly want to know something, I have to be able to see what I can’t see.)

To state that I don’t lose arguments isn’t to say that I’m never wrong. I’m often wrong—I don’t know most things, after all—and, given that I don’t know most things, am far too free with my words. But these are fragments, shootin’-the-shit briefs with coworkers or friends meant to be toss-offs. Assertions, after all, are not arguments.

Finally, I should reiterate that I don’t, in fact, engage in many arguments. I argue with Jtt. because she’s always ready for a throw-down, and always willing to put her authoritarian views on the line. (Also, every conversation with Jtt. can seem like an argument, even when it’s not. It’s how she is.)

But it’s rare that an opportunity for a truly interesting argument presents itself, one in which all present are sober (enough) and engaged (enough) and informed (enough) to really go tits-out  into battle.

And that’s cool. Once I no longer worried about losing arguments, it was no longer so important to turn every discussion into an argument. Now I can have good, heated, involved, conversations with friends, conversations in which our passions lead us to question and into uncertainty and, perhaps, into discovery.

I like to compete, and to know that I can compete. I also like that there’s more to conversation than competition.

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