A Rant on Winning Arguments

For the last month while I’ve been cramming for finals I’ve tried to keep blogging everyday for the sake of keeping up to date with worldly events but I’ve been slacking off in other departments. For example, I havenâ??t had time to clean my apartment so I’m now living in a dump and the sink full of unwashed dishes has given birth to a new living organism.

I’ve also been unable to keep up with emails and correspondences with several people. One of these people replied to me today with a one liner that I’ve heard a few times in my life during my college years. It went something like this: “…since you havenâ??t replied I assume I win this debate and I hope you reevaluate your beliefs”. To backtrack for a second this is a reader of my blog who I’ve been debating Islam with via email; in hopes of clearing up his misconceptions. By the way I’m not writing this post to embarrass the person or anything; I’m just using a real life example for dramatic purposes, and like I said it’s not the first time I’ve heard it.

What got me thinking were the reasons why we get into debates or arguments in the first place.

To defend what we believe? To attack what others believe? To defend what we believe by attacking what others believe; winning an argument by sinking another’s argument?

I think it’s very hard to change someone’s opinions or beliefs. On a daily basis we form these beliefs and they dry like concrete in a short period of time. Whether it’s from our social environments, our upbringings or our own education, much of what we believe is set in stone. Rarely have I met a person who is completely open minded in the receptive sense of the word; who are actually listening and not hearing. When we hear an argument or read an argument it’s usually to look for holes or flaws in it, and while we hear it or read it we tend to already formulate our responses in our minds. A plan of attack.

Socrates used to argue by posing questions in an attempt I suppose to let people argue their own beliefs till the point where they realize the flaws in their own arguments. He was put to death for ironically making people question their beliefs. But who knows, maybe Socrates didn’t have an argument to begin with and was just a bitter old man who questioned what others believed in instead of taking the step to believe in anything himself. Maybe he was the personification of antithesis; the human embodiment of opposition.

So this is what many people do: they question what others believe in so that they won’t have to evaluate what they believe in. And in a way we argue in order to win: the prize being validation. We have our own beliefs and we create a lifestyle and surround ourselves with an environment that is agreeable to those beliefs. So when differing opinions enter the picture we react to them like an immune system to a virus, and we allocate our mental resources to destroy those opinions and thus restore order to our preconditioned environments. Kind of like all those Twilight Zone episodes where the main character wakes up at the end with a sigh of relief that everything is ‘back to normal’.

In educational institutions you’re taught to form an original idea and then defend it by arguing it. The word “argument” in the real world however means “fight”. When you hear someone say “they had an argument” they mean “they had a fight”: a verbal confrontation where the sole purpose is not to uphold your beliefs by providing evidence, logic and rationale, but instead to “win”.

In Plato’s Republic Socrates poses what feels like hundreds of questions to prove his point. When you include questions in your argument you force people to think; the human mind knows no other option. Today however arguments center on person A unleashing an opinion and person B unleashing his own and they butt heads in the boxing ring like two magnets repelling.

Speaking of myself I try as often as I can to evaluate the purpose of an argument first. I try and read people and see where they’re coming from. Is their purpose to attack my beliefs or to try and understand them? I try and invest some time into this evaluation because it saves me some time in the end, especially if their purpose is in fact to attack.

But these days this process proves difficult as intentions are harder to decipher in this politically correct world of ours. Dare I use the analogy of a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

But maybe people don’t want to listen. Maybe they’d rather win an argument instead of understand a point of view. Maybe in this massively segregated and categorized world of ours where we are liberals and conservatives, Muslims and Christians, labels and labels and labels, which we strive to attach ourselves to in order to belong, in order to feel validated and create and sustain those social environments that uphold our beliefs, maybe in this kind of world it’s harder to convince a person to walk out those few steps with the intent of consensus instead of self validation. We’ve moved our civilizations from the village life where everyone knows everyone, to the city life, where we rush home to lock our doors and feel safe. And our beliefs and the way we approach them have also made that same move.

Maybe we should start all debates with disclaimers which read:

Warning: I don’t want to understand your point of view, I just want to prove that your point of view is wrong. I won’t be reading what you’ve written or listening to what you say; instead I’ll be looking for flaws and formulating a reply that intends to destroy your beliefs. Consensus is not an option. Proceed at your own discretion.”

If they printed this disclaimer in the form of a sticker we could all stick on our shirts so that when we met we’d all know where we’re coming from, well suffice to say we’d all save each other a whole lot of time and energy. Time and energy that could be better spent towards, I don’t know, bringing about world peace maybe?


If thou continuest to take delight in idle argumentation,
thou mayest be qualified to combat with the sophists, but never know how to live with men.
Thou will also be asking for an ass whooping.

– Socrates


  • you need to add the following to the warning:

    You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile!

    lol i think that Socrates actually coined the term ass whooping didnt he?

  • Well said Nas, well said…

    I liked your above explanation of why people tend to argue and react the way they do �like an immune system to a virus.�

    Last night I was complaining to a friend and asking:

    Why..Just Why do some people make it a full time job researching and looking for some questions in other people believes, not for the sake of knowledge but just for the sake of mocking or questioning it?

    I didnâ??t find the answer until I read your post today, and actually I am feeling better now 🙂

    Just today I read three posts arguing this fact or that research or this teaching.

    I can understand if they want to ask or share their thoughts about it. But this is not the case, what I read was like “Oh, please, can you believe this” or “Come on this is not true” orâ? this is too much and no one can prove its true !!”.

    I hope this will stop soon and people start asking for the sake of listing to the questions and to prepare their defense.

    Thanks again Nas and good luck in your exams.

  • Hmmm, can smell the pessimism associated with the exam disease?:p

    I thought about it a while ago, when someone just didnt want to get my point of view, and to tell you the truth: I was truelly annoyed. It was so crystal clear to me, how can it be to him?

    And then I rethought it a bit, and said what if it was the other way around: would I reconsider my convictions?

    We spend out lifetime building our selves up, including those beliefs and convictions that we grew up with. It simply becomes our daily reality, or maybe our taught reality?

    Thats why I’m so impressed by people who change their mind and give themselves time to re-evalutate their way of thinking and giving that other self some of their time and “listen” ;as u said; and not just hear them out.

    Its not an easy process though, to re-evaluate all the time, you dont want to be a cameleon at the end. So we’re back to finding a half way, which is the hardest of all

  • God dame it, it turns out you cantâ??t use the smaller than sign!

    I make a point of never questioning anyoneâ??s belief or ideas unless they have an apparent negative impact on his/her surroundings, or if he/she in the first place was looking to question them, cause then you can question together otherwise its moo point.

    One very interesting reality is that:
    # People who call others closed minded (smaller than smaller than smaller than) # People who are open minded

    Or maybe that makes me closed minded about people being open minded! Who knows

    PS. Arguing could be an enjoyable past time, as long as you do not forget that there was no great objective behind it in the first place.

  • An old Sufi tradition advises us to speak only after our words have managed to pass through four gates. At the first gate, we ask ourselves, “Are these words true?” If so, we let them pass on; if not, back they go. At the second gate we ask; “Are they necessary?” At the third gate we ask; “Are they beneficial?” and at the fourth gate, we ask, “Are they kind?” If the answer to any of these is no, then what you are about to say should be left unsaid.

Your Two Piasters: