It’s a beautiful, late-summer day. The sun is shining outside. Your favorite song is playing on the radio. You woke up on the right-side-of-the-bed this morning, you’re feeling great – your hair is on-point and your skin is clear, and the universe appears to be conspiring in your favor.
And then, in an instant. The blink-of-an-eye. Someone – be it friend or foe or complete stranger – comes along and ruins it. It might be the person who cut you off on the highway, giving you the finger as they speed away. Or the coworker who doesn’t know when to stop talking about last night’s episode of your least-favorite show. Or especially that @sshole on the internet who knows just how to push your buttons and get a rise.
You shouldn’t have to stay away from the world in order to maintain your mood – you’re feeling great, after all. And you know why you support the things you do, why you love what you love, and how you can make a difference. You’re confident that no matter what someone throws at you, they won’t be able to shake your conviction.
But then there’s that annoying quip, that backwards belief, that mind-bogglingly asinine quote, that gets you right in the gut.
Staying in a good mood tends to be easier if you avoid the internet – or, at least, the comments section of just-about-any article you read, the increasingly-common forums and discussion boards, or political conversations on social media in-general; if you avoid the keyboard warriors looking to hit you with their “knowledge,” and the people who get paid to start fights online. And, of course, the trolls who do it just for kicks.
It can be hard to be confident
Even when you know that you’re right. You can’t get into the minds of others (the best X-Men power). And, again, it doesn’t even have to be a stranger; it could be someone you know, an old friend or lover, that blindsides you with one of those backwards beliefs we were talking about.
How could you vote for so-and-so?
How can you be in support of this-or-that policy?
A view that seems so very normal to you, but isn’t held by someone else. And, suddenly, you’re suddenly in a full-blown argument, pulling out all the stops, hurling insults with rapid speed (the worst X-Men power) in a desperate attempt to prove you were right all along.
Especially when it comes to politics. It often seems easier just to give up.
And those 19 GIFs for winning any political argument on Facebook will only get you so far.
Why do people argue so much?
There’s the obvious, simple answer to the question of why we argue – people like to be right, no matter the question or topic or issue. People often argue simply because they like to argue, and there is an increasingly pervasive idea that we need to win no matter what.
But an argument can’t be won or lost – it can be either valid, or invalid, and many arguments are quickly invalidated by engaging in logical fallacies, personal attacks and insults, or anything else that makes a person feel as though they have come out ahead, to have the last word, even as the discussion deteriorates into nothing.
Though, on some level, it may not even be conscious: As published in PsychCentral: “These responses are not rationally chosen… they are triggered by external stimuli which cause your brain to fire almost instantly.”
People who argue aren’t always (or even often) looking for truth; it’s just a knee-jerk reaction.
Plus, we’re all insecure creatures. When we feel threatened, we immediately go on the defense. Our intrinsic fight-or-flight mentalities kick in when we’re faced with an idea or argument that challenges what we believe (we know) to be true.
So don’t be so hard on yourself: Humans generally have trouble differentiating between emotional responses and logical ones.
But how, in the Age of Information, can people remain so close-minded?
The problem is arguably getting worse: the way we now consume information can be called “narrowcasting,” i.e. we’re looking at the social media posts that often lack context, and finding only the things that support our beliefs, relying on information that caters to a small, like-minded audience. Our instincts, fight or flight, when faced with an opposing POV are not tailored to the Information Age, as it’s much easier to find things we agree with and ignore the rest. Even though we have greater potential to expand our worldview than ever before, we are actually becoming more entrenched in our own opinions.
Does this make it easier to stomach? Sadly, no.
When you argue
Identify, and avoid engaging in, these logical fallacies that will invalidate your argument – and identify them when being used against you:
- Appeal to ignorance: Something must be false, simply because it can’t be proven to be true, e.g. aliens must exist, because we can’t prove that they don’t.
- Tautology: You state the same thing twice, but in different ways. Similar to a circular argument: “You’re stupid, and if you disagree with these facts it just proves how stupid you are,” or, “The Bible is the word of God, the Bible says so, and the Bible is infallible, so the Bible is the word of God.”
- Appeal to authority: You make your argument using only the words or views of an influential/famous person, e.g. “President Obama supports so-and-so, so that means they will make a great president.”
- Sweeping generalization: You assume that because something is true in certain cases, it must be true in every case, e.g. “A person is educated, so they must be voting Democrat,” or “A person is Latinx, they can’t be a Trump supporter.”
- Red herring: You distract from the real issue, e.g. someone says, “Trump is a misogynist,” and the response is, “Well, Hillary mishandled emails!” – also can be used as tu quoque fallacy in which a hypocrisy is used as an argumentation tactic, e.g. “You’re eating a cheeseburger, or using a plastic fork, or driving a car, etc. therefore you don’t truly support climate change action.” One thing does not cancel out the other; make the other less-true.
- Faulty analogy: You assume that because two things are alike, they’re alike in every way, e.g. “Someone is voting the same way as me (or different) so that means they agree (or disagree) with me on every issue.”
- Slippery slope: If something happens a certain way, it will surely start a chain of events leading to a negative outcome, e.g. If your child doesn’t study every night of the week, they’ll never get good grades, they’ll never get into a good college, they’ll end up working a low-income job they hate, etc.
But it’s also important to remember that you needn’t engage in every debate – that sometimes it’s okay not to have an opinion, and that many arguments, e.g. arguing for children in cages or against human and civil rights, are invalid before they begin – to engage with someone who supports locking up children and separating them from their families, to entertain that point of view and give it air, is to sink to their level.
As Noam Chomsky illustrates to an ill-prepared William F. Buckley Jr. in this clip from Firing Line in 1969.
A simply remedy for getting caught with your pants down is ensuring that you’re informed; that you’ve done your research, and that that research is sound – moving beyond headlines, soundbites, and unvetted sources – and also listening, keeping an open mind: to listen before responding.
And, of course, to not use any argument based in fallacy – again, it is not about winning or losing, nor is it about being right. If actually change is to occur, wasting time on those who would rather “destroy” someone in a conversation, who would rather “win” something that can’t be won, will hold everyone back.
And, simply walking away from an argument is more effective that punching your opponent in the nose, even (or especially) when they deserve it.
You won’t get credit for taking the high road. But, to put it simply, it’s always better in the long run if you aren’t the asshole; as long as you’re not dragging yourself through the mud, you won’t have to spend time with people who are.
Read next: You’re an @sshole: Being right in the Digital Age