Our obsession with debate and argument: Why I think it is unhealthy

My thoughts on the seething, argumentative culture we have in the United States.

Previous posts I’ve made here as well as on The Uncommon Geek have made it pretty clear, at least I hope, that I don’t care much for debate and arguing.

Long ago, when I was a teenager and the internet as we know it was just getting off the ground, I spent more time than I should’ve on message boards and chat rooms. Part of it was due to the sheer novelty of it all, being able to interact with people that weren’t in the same state or maybe not even the same country as you. Of course, I also had tons of free time since my only obligation in life was school. I still lived with my parents and didn’t have to work, so I had plenty of time to bullshit.

In these days, I was much more angsty and hot-headed. I was also inexperienced in the ways of things like sarcasm, parody, sardonic dialogue, and people using the anonymity of the internet to act up or be a troll just because they could. I took everything so seriously in those days that I let people get me riled up, even when in most cases they were either just acerbic in text and didn’t realize it, or they were just trolls whose whole existence apparently revolved around trying to piss off strangers on the interwebz. The latter are a sad bunch. They’re like school bullies but with even smaller balls.

It was in these early days that I first noticed the trend that is now a staple of the internet and modern social media: people arguing. About. Everything. So many people seem unable to stop at the point of offering their own opinion. They give their opinion but in such a way as to demean the opinions of others. Then they will argue with people in order to either defend their position, or to somehow convince someone else that their opinion is wrong. At turn after turn I see arguments on the internet about everything from sexuality, video games, politics, movies, finance, books, really almost anything that is open to a form of discussion. Sometimes these debates and flame wars really are nothing but trainwrecks that are almost fun to watch in a sad sort of way, or it may occasionally be amusing in the same sort of silly way that it is amusing to watch monkeys fling things at each other.

I will give an example of the mentality behind this. Just a few days ago I was on Youtube scanning through various channels I subscribe to. Somehow the site ended up suggesting a video to me about Man of Steel, the title of which referred to “reasons why you are WRONG about Man of Steel.” Yes, this is just one example and it is about a movie, an arguably inconsequential one in the grand scheme of things. But think about even the phrasing of that video’s title, before you even watch the thing. “You are wrong.” What that really says is “your opinion is wrong.” How can opinion be wrong? If I say that I like a movie, you cannot refute that. So all you’re doing is trying to make me feel bad for liking the thing. Or you’re trying to get hits for your video or article by using an intentionally inflammatory title or headline. That may indeed get you some hits but it is a dick move.

Continuing to use Man of Steel as an example, this is something you can declare right or wrong: “Russell Crowe was in the movie.” If I said that he wasn’t, you could definitively say that I am wrong, as it is a provable fact. You cannot say with any credibility or provable evidence that my liking the movie is wrong, or if I thought it was a disappointing Superman film that my point of view is invalid.

This kind of thinking can and does extend to any and everything humans are able to debate. We do nothing but attack each other over opinion, backed up by nothing but opinion and pure subjectivity. Sure, some people may debate in such a way that up front seems legitimate, but using fancy words or trying to goad people into responses the way Socrates did in ancient Greece does not mean you are right or that you making an argument based on pure subjectivity has any merit. Using an analogy that is not apt does not make you a great debater. There’s a less friendly word I have in mind for that.

We live in a debate-crazed culture. In our school systems, there are classes centered around debates. We even have debate “champions.” These same school systems don’t teach kids what checks look like, how to write one, how to balance a ledger or track finances. They in some cases fail to teach basic sex education. Kids graduate often lacking critical skills needed to survive in college or the workplace, but holy shit they do know how to argue and debate. Except the debates we see day in and day out are not rooted in logic, objectivity or fact.

Hey, I’ll be fair about this. Sometimes you and a buddy may be destined to debate about something. I know people who will go their graves thinking the original Alien is the best in the franchise, while I think Aliens is the best. Those folks and I will be at odds but I know better than to take offense to this, or to demean the opinions of these acquaintances, or to somehow make it my mission in life to convince them that Aliens is the franchise at its best. Again, this can extend to anything, including politics or religion. I have no religion. My best friends consider themselves Christian. Despite my strong feelings in regard to religion, my friends and I maintain a respectful boundary where neither side tries to demean or encroach upon the other. We simply exist and go our own way.

Not to say that we should stop questioning, that we should not have opinions, or that we should not argue against or debate on subjects that truly matter and affect all of us, but our obsession with being right, our fanatical devotion to arguing, the constant competition to out talk one another is unhealthy. I offer for your consideration that you stop and ponder this before you jump into your next flame war.


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