The Secret to Winning Arguments is That You Can’t

Arguing sometimes seems like an inevitable part of life. Now more than ever, with social media fully integrated into the everyday lives of people all over the world, people seem to be endlessly arguing amongst themselves about what to care about, who to vote for, and whether or not hot dogs are sandwiches.

While there might not appear to be any trouble with a friendly, spirited debate, anyone who’s been to the comments section of a Facebook post or YouTube video knows that arguments are rarely friendly. More importantly, these arguments never seem to go anywhere. Even the most civil discussions can quickly escalate into virtual screaming matches where everyone loses.

So, how do you win an argument? According to Stanley Fish’s book Winning Arguments, you can’t.  No one can. There is no “end game” to arguments, for multiple reasons.

We argue too much

For one, people don’t argue to reach an agreeable end; they argue to win, to prove to the other party that they’re right and always have been. When two people go in with the mindset that they’re right and nothing the other party does could possibly convince them otherwise, facts and opinions blur to the point of equivalency. For example, it doesn’t matter if the overwhelming scientific consensus is that human activity has had a direct, negative influence on global climate change. A climate change denier need only argue that some scientists still disagree, therefore the overwhelming consensus is irrelevant.

People are cognitively hard-wired to believe only what they want to believe, and so they don’t argue with individuals; they argue with immense, abstract ideas and people’s feelings about them. To quote Fish himself, “Rather than listening to and weighing what your opponent says, you hear his words as the surface issue of deep ideological commitments you fear and despise.”

Why we argue

Another reason arguments have no end is that they have no beginning. Arguments don’t arise from nothing; they are the culmination of small, seemingly insignificant moments of conflict that snowball over time. There is no way to pinpoint the exact moment Americans started debating about race relations, because it’s an argument that’s existed for at least as long as the country itself.

This subtle growth of discord exists outside politics as well. No married couple decides to divorce over one fight. Tension doesn’t appear; it evolves.

Though Fish’s outlook on the nature of arguing can appear pessimistic at best, he does assure readers that people aren’t so bullheaded that they never change their minds. He believes that change must come from within, and is rarely the result of one heated argument on Facebook.

The Takeaway

That doesn’t mean we should stop arguing altogether, though. Rather, Fish claims that arguing is the natural state of human nature; arguing is what leads to discovery and to as close to an objective truth as we can possibly achieve. Arguing productively, with calm fairness and the ability to recognize our cognitive biases, is not just valuable to human growth but necessary for it.