A young man goes to a wise old guru and asks, “what’s the secret to happiness?”
The guru replies: “Don’t argue with idiots.”
The young man scowls and says, “that can’t be it, it must be something different!”
The guru replies: “You’re right.”
There are very few good reasons or good opportunities to argue, but sometimes the stars align and there’s actually good cause to have a debate. But when that happens, you have to make sure that you’re actually debating, and not trying to educate.
Imagine you’re trying to debate with someone over whether or not you should plant a row of trees in front of the community center. You start with some thoughts about ascetics and maybe reduced energy costs resulting from shade, and the other person says it’s a terrible idea because the trees will be an eyesore since they’re made of metal and glass. You say, “I’m pretty sure you’re thinking of skyscrapers,” and they say nuh-uh, because skyscrapers are big blimps that carry messages over football games, and now you’re definitely not debating that row of trees anymore because you’re stuck trying to get the other person to understand what zeppelins are.
You can’t educate and debate at the same time. If someone needs to be educated on the foundational elements necessary for the debate to happen, then debating them is pointless. And if someone is in the mindset to debate you, then they’re definitely going to be closed off to being educated. So you can’t do both.
In many cases, the real reason to debate someone is for the benefit of an audience that may be swayed by you (even if your debate partner isn’t), but you lose that benefit if all you’re doing is explaining rudimentary terms to someone.
This is why, by the way, you shouldn’t try to sway opinion too much if your primary goal is education. As soon as someone disagrees with you a bit, most people then dismiss everything you say as argument, even if it was meant to be (or should be) educational. So if your actual goal was educating folks, you just shot yourself in the foot by trying to push a particular agenda.
We can debate fiscal policy, for example, if you want! But we can’t do that if one of us doesn’t understand what interest rates are. And mid-debate is really the wrong time to realize that and try to explain it. Because as I’m trying to explain the fundamentals of interest rates, you’re still thinking that I’m trying to argue with you about something, so you’re trying your best to disagree with the definition of interest rates just because I’m saying it. Now neither thing is happening!
Walking away in that moment is hard – but trust me, it’s worth it.