We live in a land of opinions. Whether it be gay marriage, Hamlet’s delay or the East-West schism of 1054, university halls, Facebook comment threads and coffeeshops are full of people eager to express their new-found beliefs about every controversial topic imaginable.
On the surface, this is a great thing. Debates and controversies force us to examine their beliefs about important things in unique and revealing ways. But this is not always the case. When people are more interested in winning than discovering the truth, intellectual disputes devolve into dead-end mind games that do little more than frustrate everyone involved.
This is only natural. In fact, studies have repeatedly shown that human beings would rather continue defending bad ideas than admit intellectual defeat. But this doesn’t make pointless arguing any more forgivable. So here are three tips to make this year’s intellectual debates more fruitful.
Unfortunately, most arguments are started for the wrong reasons. Whether due to some intellectual defect, survival instinct or ancient fall from grace, most of us argue to vindicate our own preconceived beliefs—not to discover truth.
Knowing that, why continue to pit yourself against the illogical barricades of your opponent?
Instead, use your discussions to ask questions. Find out what your opponent really believes. Who are his influences? Where did she come to adopt these ideas? What can you do to better understand their positions?
You’ll find that such questions build bridges toward mutual understanding that no argument ever will. Not only are your opponents forced to more seriously examine their beliefs, but they will understand that you are serious about discovering truth and might actually return the favor.
Respect Others’ Opinions
Though it may be hard to believe, most people form their opinions with the best intentions in mind. Whether Republican or Democrat, atheist or theist, optimist or pessimist, people around the world hold opinions because they believe they are correct and will make the world a better place. Only crazy people hold an opinion because they believe it is wrong, dangerous or destructive.
So, instead of snubbing your intellectual opponent, remember that his or her opinion likely comes from the same longing for truth that gives rise to your own beliefs. Pitch your ideas as a solution, not an argument. Look for areas of common ground. Be sure they understand that your beliefs come from the same desire for peace, truth and justice that underlies their opinions. In no time, your opponent will begin to take you much more seriously.
Use Your Resources
Like it or not, no one is going to change a long-held opinion because of your thirty-second lunchtime monologue. Even if your opponent is proved totally wrong, they would probably rather continue arguing than embarrassingly admit defeat (wouldn’t you?)
Instead of trying to change someone’s mind over the course of one conversation, recognize that learning is a life-long process. Recommend books and other resources that address the topic at hand. Find discussions of the topic at hand to help organize your debate. Remember that anything you say has probably been said more eloquently before.
Know When You’re Beat
You’re no more likely to enjoy the prospect of admitting you’re wrong than anyone else is, but being willing to do so actually makes you a better debater who enters into conversations willing to learn something, to surrender long-held positions and concede points. Even if any given debate doesn’t completely change your mind, debates are opportunities to inform your views and bring balance and nuance to your understanding. Approach your debates as a student, not a boxer, and you’ll be better for it.