Reasons To Argue

People are far, far too quick to pull the trigger on an argument.

There are some very decent reasons to debate, mind you. But I’m going to give you a secret that can change your life for the better: Disagreeing with someone is not a good reason to argue. Not by itself, anyway.

You’d probably never know it from talking to me, but I have some pretty deep, strongly-held political positions. Things I’m passionate about. I almost never discuss them. Why? Because the cost is so high, and the payoff is so low.

A regular argument takes lots of mental energy and is unpleasant and taxing. That’s a high cost in time and stress, and generally I only do things that cost that much to me if they’re going to be extremely beneficial for me. Arguments don’t meet that criteria – not even close.

Consider: First, you have no guarantee that the person you’re debating with is even playing the same game as you. Are they trolling? Arguing in bad faith? Just looking to signal to their peers? Chances are good they’re not coming to the table with the pure intentions of learning and exchanging information. And you know that, somewhere in your mind, but the lure is strong.

Second, even the best case scenario is that there’s only the tiniest, almost infinitesimal chance that you change anyone’s mind or influence anyone in that format. Persuasion is a powerful force, but individual arguments are the completely wrong forum to apply it in. A stage debate where you have an audience – that’s a little better, because the point isn’t to change the view of your opponent, it’s to change the view of the audience. But even that is subject to many other factors.

Third, and this is the biggest component: So what if you do change their minds? Are they in any position to alter the world with their new worldview? Or did you do all that convincing just for someone to go “Huh, I guess you’re right,” and then change nothing at all about their lives, let alone the lives of others? If I convince Bill Gates that there’s a charity that will do better things with his money than what he’s doing with his foundation now, I have the possibility of making a huge impact. But if I have that same argument with Bill from Accounting who doesn’t even donate to charity, I’ve wasted a lot of breath.

So when SHOULD you argue? When you know the other person is arguing in good faith, you won’t damage treasured relationships, and you have a decent chance of influencing one or more people who will actually have a tangible impact on the world if they move closer to your position. It also helps if you know you’re right, but nobody’s perfect. That criteria sure narrows down the opportunities to debate, doesn’t it? Following those rules, you’d never have arguments at Thanksgiving dinner or with the person in line in front of you at Starbucks or with strangers on Twitter, would you?

This is a long way of saying “Pick Your Battles.” Don’t make sacrifices without cause. Don’t fight with loved ones, because they matter; and don’t fight with strangers, because they don’t. Take your deeply held values and act on them – make the world a better place. Build the world you want to see. You get there by acting, not by arguing.

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