Debating vs Arguing, or how to prove your point without being a jerk

I’m an argumentative person. I don’t go after topics to argue, and I’ve never been politically oriented, but I enjoy getting into deep discussions with people who disagree with me, really digging into the points to find out what the other person thinks. This is fun to me, and a lot of people don’t like it. More than once I’ve had to spell out the difference—rather, what I think the difference is—between debating and arguing. To me debating is how it should be, when you bring your points against your opponent’s points without attacking the opponent. Arguing is when things get heated, when people start to get hurt and try to hurt their opponents in turn. This second thing happens far, far more often than I think it should, and I hope I don’t startle anyone by explaining that I think it’s a terrible thing to do.

When I was in high school debate however many years ago, we had to learn to speak respectfully to our opponents, and we were usually judged on our ability to do so. Your ability to rationalize your arguments fell apart if things got heated, and if anyone was particularly salty, it ideally happened between rounds, not during. I think this applies any time people want to have a discourse about something, any time there’s a dispute to be settled. All insulting does is serve to bully your opponent.

Yelling is the same way. People who yell what they have to say, who shout over the opposition, are really only trying to intimidate their opponent into compliance, and that is a childish way to discuss something. It doesn’t matter whether they have legitimate points, whether they’re right, or whether they’re trying to overcompensate for failing logic.

What matters is that yelling and aggression ruin debate. They demonstrate a lack of empathy, a lack of willingness to come to any kind of compromise with your opponent. If you aren’t willing to treat your opponent as a human being worthy of respect, they generally won’t be inclined to listen to you or agree with you. Then you’re just bullying them, trying to enforce your position over theirs instead of coming to an agreement, and that’s utterly selfish.

Maybe satire has its place in some debates; I generally don’t bother with it, since I take debates fairly seriously. Humor and sensationalism certainly draw in more viewers than dry discussion. But mocking your opponent has always seemed to me another harmful tactic, another way of belittling them to get your point over theirs. It’s not fair discussion. It’s not legitimate discourse. It’s not even as direct as explaining contradictions in your opponent’s arguments, and it’s a lot more unkind. One of its worst impacts is that it muddles the issue, turning the opponents into strawmen—anyone coming into the discussion will likely hear the farcical parody of one side’s perspective before they hear what that side actually has to say for itself, and you can’t have fair debate if you don’t even know what the other side is trying to say.

I understand that plenty of people are prejudiced, or they’re resistant to change, or they’re happy with their business model that marginalizes this group of people or mistreats that group. I understand why people get angry about things that genuinely hurt them, and it’s not my place to call them wrong for getting angry. But I recommend self-control. I recommend showing people the respect you think you deserve from them, not the respect you think they deserve. Fair, respectful, convincing arguments must have their place somewhere along the line or the discussion becomes a cesspit of people bullying and ignoring each other.

I’m not talking about “Authority” respect, the kind kids are supposed to show to our parents, that adults are supposed to show to the government and police. I’m talking about “Human” respect, the basic courtesies and compassion that let us function as a society of people instead of miserable loners.

And I’m not trying to change the world, either. Some people have principles that demand they oppose you. Some people are not trying to be good people. Some people will steal and kill because they’re selfish or their principles are so different from yours that they can’t reconcile your existence with yours or they’re mentally unwell or they just don’t have compassion for their fellow human. These people will always exist, though as individuals they may redeem themselves. But I believe that everyone has the potential for far better; that most people need to extend just the basic efforts to be good to their fellow people.

I’ve widened my focus to existential levels now, so I should probably narrow things for the end. Being respectful to people, even when you disagree, means considering their well-being and feelings. That’s at the heart of the idea of “checking your privilege”, no matter how some people might resist that phrase. Let me simplify what I mean to say: before you say or do something to someone, consider how it might hurt them. Consider that it might hurt them in ways you don’t yet understand, and be willing to learn those ways. And hey, to the other side getting hurt: don’t use that as a weapon against the one hurting you. If you intend to speak up to defend yourself, and you should, don’t use “I’m offended” to stifle everything they’re trying to say. If you do that, now you’re the one not being compassionate or respectful, and you aren’t going to convince anyone that way.

Following this can take some thought and some work. It involves learning why people use terms like “rape culture” and “micro-aggressions” and “fat-shaming”, because even if you think these things don’t exist, some very hurt people do think they exist and you should have the decency to be able to consider how they feel. It involves considering that even if you’re offended, other people are, and it would be decent of you or whoever and whatever offends to try not to hurt people, not to dismiss them as “oversensitive liberals” or “Social Justice Warriors”.

It involves giving up slurs, not just the obvious ones like “faggot” or “nigger” but less obvious ones like “bitch”, “whore”, “gypsy”, using “gay” for something stupid, or as an insult. If you don’t know why some of these offend people, go read the explanations written by people far better-versed in their intricacies than me. See, I told you it would take some work, but you should care about learning how to avoid offending people, because that’s part of being compassionate, which is part of being a decent person.

It may not be easy to respect others, what with the whole willingness-to-learn-and-expand-your-mindset thing, but I think it’s simple enough. Try not to hurt people, even when angry, even when proving a point. If you lash out, respond with dignity while also trying not to hurt the other side. An argument, debate, et cetera ends badly when you upset your opponent or beat them down until they give up. It ends well when you compromise and learn from each other. So you folks try not to hurt each other, and I’ll try, too. It’s the only way we’ll all get along.



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