“You’re Just Trying to Win the Argument”

Generally, I don’t like things that are good for me. I’m really envious of people who like exercise. I hate it. I like sports and games that involve physical activity, but I have real trouble motivating myself to do the exercise video that I do every morning. I’m only able to do it through a combination of bribing myself with television and discipline. Needless to say, I often fail.

One of the few things that’s good for me that I actually like is arguing. Arguing is good for you. Engaging in rational argument is one of the most important steps in rational thinking. We all have unconscious biases which may be completely invisible to us, but obvious to a third party. Submitting our ideas to criticism and rationally defending them is one of the only ways to expose biased thinking. It also has a chance of exposing us to new information or new perspectives that we hadn’t considered before.

I count myself lucky that I enjoy argument. Most people do not. Despite its virtues, engaging in argument, especially about things we consider important, can be daunting. Putting your ideas (especially controversial ideas) out into the world means exposing a vulnerability. Giving people access to your thoughts and feelings, especially when others are likely to disagree, is like giving someone a handbook on how to attack you. It’s scary.

It’s also scary because it puts you on the spot. Arguing about an idea means that you have to be able to articulate, in rational terms, why a certain idea is good, true, useful, etc. This, of course, is one of the reasons why argument is good for us. It’s a lot easier to justify something to ourselves than to articulate the justification to other people. Even if we get no pushback, just the process of saying it out loud often makes us look at our ideas from a new perspective. If we do get pushback, we’re forced to consider other people’s ideas, and answer their questions. It forces us to go outside of our own head and confront our ideas from another person’s perspective. If I can’t articulate a rational justification for an idea, I take that as an indication that my idea is flawed, or at least that I have some thinking to do about it.

Because I enjoy arguing, I do it a lot. I especially enjoy arguing about topics where my thinking is most outside the mainstream, as those are the topics where (a) it’s easiest to find people who disagree, and (b) I have the highest chances of being incorrect. The result is that I often find myself arguing about what honest communication really means, atheism, polyamory, and concepts like that.

You still disagree?  You must not be listening.Recently, I was accused of “just trying to win the argument.” It was not the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. However, I feel it’s a very unfair criticism. For one, it’s an ad hominem attack, and has nothing to do with any of the points being argued. This is all to common in discussions online. People tend to resort to this sort of thing early and often on the internet, as if the only reason that you could possibly disagree is because you have some sort of character flaw which prevents you from seeing the undeniability of the point being argued. Another issue is that I’ve never seen anyone actually make a rational argument attempting to prove that my motives are questionable. It’s always just been tossed out as a way of ending the argument while simultaneously blaming me for perpetuating the argument. Implicit in this statement is the subtext that “if you weren’t just trying to ‘win,’ you would have conceded defeat by now.” It’s implied that the other person’s argument is just so devastating that to continue to disagree merely shows my closed-mindedness.

In reality, if I’m perpetuating an argument, it’s because I disagree with my opponent. Like I said before, I enjoy arguing. But I do not enjoy it when I have substantial doubts about my own position. When I have such doubts, I tend to take a much less confrontational stance, and view the conversation less as an argument, and more as a joint venture, where we’re both trying to figure out how to properly think about a concept.

Most of the time, I’m rather confident in my positions. As I said previously, I argue a lot, and I’ve heard all of the counter-arguments that anyone is willing to make to me. Chances are, if you’re arguing with me on one of the topics I mentioned above, I’ve heard your argument before, and I have a counter-argument ready. Not because I want to be ready to win arguments, but because, if I didn’t have a convincing counter-argument, then I would probably not disagree with your position. The fact the I’m arguing against your position is evidence only of the fact that I disagree with you. If I wanted to win, there are better ways to do so than arguing rationally:

If I’m making a rational argument, it means not only that I disagree with you, but that I respect you enough to think that there’s a chance that you have something to teach me.

5 responses to ““You’re Just Trying to Win the Argument”

  1. I agree with much of this post, but I don’t think claims that some people “just want to win the argument” are necessarily ad hominems. also closed minded people (most actually) who can’t admit they are wrong about anything… at least not in mid-argument.

  2. @Staks – how is that not an ad hominem? If I were to respond to your comment with “Staks, you’re just arguing to be contrary” while ignoring your substantive points, would that not be an argument ad hominem? I’m not formally claiming that your argument is invalid, but I’m certainly implying it using an attack based on an unrelated character trait. If I’m doing that outside of the context of an argument, it’s not any kind of fallacy, so maybe that’s what you were saying? But if I’m using it as part of an argument I’m making, then I don’t see how it doesn’t fit the bill.

    I also don’t understand your second sentence. I looks like you may have gotten cut off by accident.

  3. My point is that some people (most) actually can’t admit that they are wrong. They become too emotionally invested in their argument that they can’t acknowledge the possibility (however slim it might be) that they could be wrong. So they argue from a close minded position. Calling them out on it might be (in most cases) an ad hom., but it could also be a way of exposing the other person to this problem. Context is everything.

  4. honestdiscussioner

    I wanted to punch Eckhart during that. Or at least his character.

    Probably the most damaging thing to our species is confirmation bias. It’s quite sad really, our ego’s get in the way of understanding the truth.I would love to see an open discussion between a group of people that did not have this liability.

    If we didn’t have this ego problem, EVERYONE would enjoy arguing.

  5. While it is certainly true that sometimes people say “you are just trying to win” as code for “if you were reasonable, you would agree with me by now.”

    However, it is also certainly sometimes the case that people start ignoring key points the other side is making and focus only on what they can attack. People, sometimes unconsciously, also slowly turn the conversation to a different but related topic. People use emotion to sway, or bludgeon, the other person. I know one person at work who just defaults to literally screaming to get their way. They are so unpleasant to argue with that most people just agree to do things their way to avoid the confrontation.

    Those rhetorical tricks (if screaming counts as a trick) are all about winning. They are about getting your way, regardless of the facts of the case or what might objectively or rationally be the best course of action.

    Does this apply to you? Perhaps not, but when people make the accusation, perhaps it is worth stopping and examining your past few posts and looking for any sign of such behavior. Or ask them to identify posts that look questionably motivated. Or you can even say “I apologize if I came across that way. I assure you I am interested in a rational two-way discussion with an opportunity for both of us to learn from it. If I may, allow me to summarize what I think the key arguments are so far, and, if you agree with them, let’s proceed from there.”

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