I tend to avoid conflict like a lactose intolerant person avoids milk. When coerced into a debate, my face goes red and my nostrils flare to a disproportionate size. I try to exude wisdom and composure at all times, and this simply isn’t possible when something is metaphorically farting all over my opinions.
I joined a debating society to see if I could be taught how to get the upper hand. All that I learnt was that people who join debating societies can be arrogant twerps. Because books are less annoying than humans, I escaped to the library to see if I could learn a thing or two there.
I began with J.S. Mill’s On Liberty. After battling through prose that was dryer than the Amazonian desert, I realised that Mill could not help me. He was filled with smarty-pants reasons for why we should argue, but offered no actual tips on how to do it. He also kept talking about dead dogmas, which made me concerned about his attitude towards animal welfare. I don’t want to kill any dogs, even if they are better at debating than I am. Despite my disappointment, I am grateful to have learnt one thing from Mill. Keeping an open mind is good, as it stops you from turning into your racist grandparents. How can we be sure of our opinions unless we allow others to play devil’s advocate?
But secretly, I don’t think arguing has all that much to do with being right or wrong. It’s a power struggle, and one that must be won in order to keep your dignity intact. When I’m drunk and I’m viciously fighting with a friend over the correct spelling of “albatross,” it’s not because I’m passionate about spelling. It’s because I want to irritate my opponent and eventually get the chance to say I told you so.
So I turned to another philosopher, one that had a good rep for being persuasive. A quick flick through The Communist Manifesto gave me all the material I needed. The next time I was losing a battle of words, I pulled out my secret weapon. “Your arguments are inherently bourgeoisie.” I said smugly. “Because you’re part of a discourse that continues to colonise silent majorities, it’s impossible to coherently communicate with you.” Neither of us knew what I was talking about, which meant that I had the last word. And in my book, that constitutes winning an argument!
Drunk from victory, I yet again raided the philosophy section of the library. Shortly I found out about the logical positivists. The logical positivists were a pernickety bunch of bearded men who decided that a proposition was only meaningful if it could be empirically verified. This basically means that any claim that can’t be proved should be dismissed as gobbledegook. Take the proposition all butterflies are happy. Can we objectively prove this? Is their happiness something we can see? Because the answer to both those questions is ‘no’, the proposition means nothing at all.
But what has this all got to do with arguing? Well, let’s say that you and a friend are having a disagreement over education systems. Your friend believes that private schools are a necessary part of society, whereas you think she is a jumped up elitist.
In order to defeat her, start by clarifying her point. The core of her argument is that private schools are good for society. Ask her how she can prove this. She might point out the high grades, but then she is committing a fallacy by equating “high grades” and “good for society.” Besides, what does “good for society” even mean? Continue asking her to clarify and then verify every point she makes. Emulate the child that screams BUT HOW DO YOU KNOW?! every time they are told something. You may lose a friend, but you’ll certainly win the argument.
If such a technique is too aggressive for your liking, then take a leaf out of Wittgenstein’s book instead. Before I talk about Wittgenstein, please humour me by doing a quick Google image search on him. Is it just me or is he dashingly handsome? Anyway, Wittgenstein was originally part of the whole logical positivism trend but then he realised he was too good looking to hang out with those guys and totally changed his ways. Like a student coming back from their gap year, he had an intellectual epiphany and realised that language is vague and interpretational and has no fixed meaning. Humans are always misunderstanding each other because they think language is objective, but it isn’t. When a psychopath uses the word love, I’m pretty sure they mean it in a different way from how I mean it.
This sheds a new light on arguments over religion. Intellectuals like nothing better than locking Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury in a room together, eager to see who will die first. Not only does neither man die, but neither suddenly realise that they’re wrong, either. An atheist’s logic is different from that of someone with faith. The reason that we’re all still arguing about god/s is that we’re playing different language games. As an atheist, I talk about someone’s belief in god/s in the same way that I would talk about believing in unicorns. To me, the concept of god/s lacks meaning, as it fails the scientific definition of existence. A believer, however, is talking about a whole different thing when they discuss religion. To them, god/s transcend science, and they are speaking from a position of faith rather than logic. God is not something that they equate with unicorns, but a whole other kettle of fish that I will never understand unless I have a Cat Stevens style epiphany.
So to avoid arguing until the menopause, finish the argument by explaining the whole language games thing. Again, by finding a finishing point you’ve sort of won, haven’t you? If nothing else, you’ve have the opportunity to namedrop Wittgenstein (to save you embarrassment, please note that it’s pronounced vit-gen-stine).
I’ve been told that my discussions of philosophy are powerful enough to send and insomniac to sleep, so perhaps I should move onto another subject. Pack up your books and head to a different class of thought, it’s about to get real Freudian up in here! Don’t run off upon hearing the word Freud, there’s more to him that incest and penises. The fabulous thing about the psychodynamic approach is that it never allows itself to be proved wrong. I feel like this can best be illustrated with a mini play.
PATIENT ON SOFA: Doctor, I think I may have broken my foot!
THERAPIST: Ah yes, that’s definitely broken. Tell me, does your mother buy your shoes for you?
PATIENT: Well, er, I guess she did when I was younger.
THERAPIST: Well then, the reason for your broken foot is quite simple. You unconsciously want to murder your mother, and this guilt has caused you to injure yourself!
PATIENT: But I get on very well with my mother!
THERAPIST: That’s what you think. The hate is in the unconscious, and you can’t access the unconscious.
PATIENT: But my foot is only broken because my friend dropped her bowling ball on it!
THERAPIST: Because you tripped her up. Your guilt has lead to the need for physical punishment. Besides, the bowling ball clearly represents the womb.
It’s complex, but very useful for arguments. Freud used the word projection to describe the action of accusing someone of what you have actually done yourself. Next time someone claims that you always think you’re right, turn it right around. Say that they always think they’re right, and their secret awareness of such a fault has let them to arbitrarily accuse you of having such an annoying personality trait. They can’t deny it, because it’s all the work of the unconscious, and we can’t access the unconscious. Again, this is a hair-tearing irritating way of arguing, but it still gets the job done!
Finally, if you’re not into the psychobabble thing, then just tell the other person they’re right. This tends to work best of all. It’s not a technique advocated by any thinker that I’ve ever read, but it’s successful nevertheless. When I humbly tell a friend that they are right, they panic at the unexpected outcome and start telling me everything that was right about my argument. They feel guilty and buy me presents. I become a weird argument martyr. The idea of winning is much more fun that the reality. By making yourself the person that always loses, you’ll never have to argue again!
Written by Phoebe Eccles