In Alaska, if you were new to the area, getting a car with four-wheel drive was a really dumb move.
It seemed smart; why wouldn’t you want a car with more traction? Ah, but all that power meant was that you’d travel that much further out into the wilderness before you’d get stuck. And there you’d be, far from any cell phone tower or passing motorist, stuck next to an angry moose and a cloud of hungry mosquitoes, wishing you’d been a little wiser in choosing your paths.
In the real world, if you’re really smart, winning arguments can be a really dumb move.
I say this because I recently schooled a guy on gay marriage. I mean, I crushed him: I explained how his arguments about society falling were the exact same arguments people had used to block interracial marriages in the 1960s, shot down his idea that “people don’t want gay marriage, so we shouldn’t have it” by pointing out that people don’t want women to drive in Saudi Arabia and surely he doesn’t think that argument is a good one, then landed the body blow by dissecting his overblown opinion that “gay marriage would lead to the end of morality” by pointing out that honestly, if gays get married I’m pretty sure we’ll still be against theft, rape, and murder.
When I was done, he said, “Well done you once again have proved that your a good writer. That doesn’t however mean that what your saying is correct.”
The thing is, I absolutely agree with him.
Not about gay marriage – he’s still full of shit – but as a smart guy who works with words, over the years I’ve gotten really good at arguing. It’s like a videogame, where I’ve been playing it for so long that for me, the weak point in the boss monster’s arguments light up in glowing red circles. I will burn your straw men, Troncycle-cut off your attempts to change the topic, spread sawdust on that slippery slope. If you’re not as skilled in this PVP arena, I will shred your argument as a voice booms, “FLAWLESS VICTORY.” But here’s the thing that people forget:
Being good at arguing is an entirely separate skill from being correct.
When I was in the middle of the dot-com boom, I said, “All these Internet stocks seem ridiculously overinflated. Take this online toothbrush-selling store; wouldn’t these guys have to sell like three times as many toothbrushes as the brick-and-mortar equivalents in order to be worth this much? Doesn’t this stock price then hinge on the idea that all of America is suddenly going to buy three times as many toothbrushes?”
And Very Smart Stockbrokers told me that this was all very complicated, and clearly I didn’t understand, brought in a thousand reasons to show me why I didn’t quite understand the stock market. They crushed me. They had all these facts and responses and high-level studies at their disposal. Hell, “being right about stocks” was what they did for a living, so how could I really respond?
As it turns out they were wrong and the toothbrush industry has remained woefully analog, but what the hell.
Likewise, if you’ve ever really had a discussion with a die-hard Creationist, he’s got a thousand responses to every Evolution 101 retort you throw at him. I’ve been out-argued by Creationists, with my every point seemingly dismissed summarily, and it was only until I later went to some anti-Creationist sites and found that the scientific surveys he was citing were, in fact, flawed. Then I went back, and he explained how the site I’d found – oh, yes, he was familiar with it – was very flawed itself.
Thing is, he was so good at dismissing my every retort that the only reason I believe in evolution is – much like the great toothbrush-selling scandal – because I stubbornly said, “No, this smells wrong to me.”
In other words, I lost the argument but retained my original opinion – and I’m still sure I’m correct. Him winning doesn’t mean that he’s right, it means he’s just really awesome at debating this particular question.
And let us not tar just creationists and now-penniless stockbrokers with the same brush; let’s talk about my shattered personal life, shall we?
I spent the better part of a decade shuttling from broken relationship to broken relationship. I had about, oh, forty women I dated in the 1990s, and all of them ended poorly.
Years of therapy had shaped me to become the Mike Tyson of personal arguments. They’d try to stick me with the blame? I’d dance out of the way and show them how my reactions were their fault! I had a problem? Yes, admittedly, but here’s why your problem is more critical to this relationship. By the time I was done, they were weeping with shame, because everything they were miserable about was something they could change, but they hadn’t because they had a weak character, but thankfully I loved them despite these awful flaws. I’d hug them, proclaiming my love, knowing that I was the better person because they had come to me so angry and yet I’d calmly managed to show them the error of their ways.
You may note they still left.
Everything I said was, actually, true – it just wasn’t that relevant. Certainly, they had their foibles – but for me, an argument was not an opportunity to fix the relationship, but rather to make sure that I didn’t get stuck with any of the blame. (Not that I would have admitted, or even really understood this, at the time.) I had flaws, deep ones. I was wrong.
And where I was most wrong was in assuming that “convincing someone that I was correct” equalled “I was actually correct.” When actually, what it just meant was that I was pretty damned awesome at arguing my point.
I won the argument, and lost some pretty spectacular girlfriends. This was not actually victory.
Arguing is a talent that can be honed. Put a flawed argument in a brilliant woman’s mouth, and it will sound like sweet music. Even more so if she actually believes it. There’s a reason America is locked on issues like global warming and evolution, and that’s because frankly, you have two eloquent sides marshalling their titanic powers of rhetoric – and to someone who doesn’t know much about the issue, either side sounds absolutely convincing for as long as they have the mike.
The danger is when you, Mister Smarty-Pants Mass Debater, come to think that your untrammeled string of victories stems from the rightness of your cause and not your golden tongue. “I won the argument,” goes the thinking. “That means I’m right.” And there you are with that four-wheel drive thrumming underneath you, your car carrying you deeper into the woods, not realizing you have an appointment with an angry moose.
But I’m still right about gay marriage, dammit.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.