or: "Collie, you're just so intimidating!"

(Originally posted January 2005)

To Bob, Dave, & Lou, who aren't intimidated… or so they say. ;)

As those who know me are aware, I love a good argument. By "argument," of course, I don't mean screaming and verbal fisticuffs. I mean a thoughtful, mentally challenging discussion where two or more folks can hash out interesting philosophical beliefs. A good argument isn't about winning — it's about clarity. What's critical in discussions like these is we all hopefully learn something interesting, we all remain polite, and we all gain from hearing each other out.

Discussions like this, however, work only when someone is capable of laying out the reasoning which led to their conclusion and (perhaps most critically) is capable of following that reasoning through to a logical conclusion.

from "Monty Python's Argument Clinic":

"An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition. … It's not just contradiction!"

"Yes it is!"

"Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes!"

I mention this because in a good argument all the participants must be able to explain themselves coherently, even if they're thinking through the process right then and there. In a good argument, thinking things through is encouraged — it's the whole point of the discussion, after all. People should be given the time and help they need to do so during the argument, or it's not a good and fair discussion.

Equally important: good argument participants should be capable of changing their minds. If we work through the logic and my conclusion doesn't fit the facts, then either my conclusion is erroneous, or we don't yet have all the facts. It's also possible to have two (or more) correct conclusions after going through all the facts, so a good arguer must keep in mind there is always the possibility of more than just one "truth," or right answer.

For a simple example, if the fact you have is "the street is wet," you could deduce it must have rained recently. You might also assume a streetsweeper has just gone through and dampened down the street. Both statements are potentially correct, based on the data to hand. Further data would reveal one or both statements are either correct or incorrect.

Logic doesn't necessarily directly equate to "Truth-with-a-capital-T," of course. All it means is your conclusion fits the facts you have to hand — and facts change. The data available to us used to support the conclusion the world was flat, but as we gained more knowledge about the world, we realized our initial "facts" were incorrect.

An erroneous conclusion, however, has absolutely nothing to do with self worth! All it means is there was a belief which wasn't correct. It's a shame today's society seems to have decided incorrect equals bad, or even "evil" in some cases. Attitudes like this unnecessarily polarize issues into simplistic binaries. No one wants to admit to being incorrect, if incorrect equates to stupid or bad.

Was it something I said?!

Why do I make these obvious statements? Mostly because in my past I've repeatedly had trouble with this entire issue, to the extent I've been several times informed I'm too intimidating to argue with. It took several intelligent and thoughtful friends whose opinions I respected (and who all really love a good argument with me) to help me realize this was not necessarily a bad thing. My friends pointed out to me the people telling me I was intimidating were almost invariably people who didn't have well-reasoned beliefs in the first place. In such a situation I can see how being asked to logically defend illogic would indeed be intimidating.

Still, despite the assurances of friends, this is an issue I've been struggling with for a while: am I really intimidating people — forcing them to either agree with me or be silenced? I hope not. I know I don't want to browbeat people I'm trying to have interesting discussions with. I don't think anyone rational really wants to be an asshole.

After all, how can you think creatively and expressively if you're being constantly stifled — or stifling? That's why I try to be polite (if also intense, I've been told ;-) when in discussions like these. That's also why I make an effort to be helpful when folks are trying to work out their reasoning, and I'm just as happy to be quiet while they think things through, if they ask me to do so.

On the other hand, I've no desire to be so "touchy-feely" that I allow obviously illogical conclusions to be foisted off on me as truth. Just because someone somewhere believes something does not make it true! As a simple example, you may insist the Easter bunny is physically real until you're blue in the face. However, until a big rabbit with a basket of colored eggs comes hopping in, I'm not going to agree with you.

Why is logic so terrifying to some people? Why won't people calmly and logically examine their basic underlying beliefs? For that matter, why do some folks cling so desperately to their emotional illogic, when faced with logic?

I'm happy to agree to disagree with (generalized) you, but please don't ask me to capitulate to what is blatantly, provably illogical nonsense… and please don't get angry with me if you've asked me to argue logically with you, and then I'm able to clearly demonstrate a logical fault in your reasoning.

"This above all: to thine ownself be true"

Here's another odd thing: I've more than once given a "code phrase" to folks who don't want to argue with me. It was, in essence, a polite way to ask me to not enter into a good argument with them, which I'm usually way too eager to do.

The phrase was a simple one: "That's a very interesting conclusion, Collie. However, while I don't agree with it, I'd prefer not to discuss it right now." What puzzled me was that on several occasions when it would have been appropriate to use, the people in question never used it — they just got increasingly more quiet and unhappy.

Indeed, I had to read their body language, figure out they didn't wish to discuss the issue just then, and ask them politely if they'd like to end that line of conversation. Doesn't sound like a big deal, until you realize many of those conversations were on-line, where we can't truly see each other's body language — I had to extrapolate hastily off the subtle, perhaps unrealized changes in their writing. While I've done this with some success, it's not easy to be courteous to someone when you can't see what result your words are having.

Similar Posts: