An Argument Isn’t About Winning or Losing

Ben Shapiro I think is the poster boy, as much as anyone in the modern era, for the corrosive idea that arguments are about “winning” and “losing.” Creative Commons photo.

One of the most corrosive ideas — and to be sure, there are a litany of them — to our political culture, is the idea of there being “winners” and “losers,” and that the way to achieve this outcome is via debating. The point, then, of debating those you disagree with, is to “win” and for them to “lose.” Now, obviously, this concept isn’t something new, but if you wanted to try to trace it in the modern political culture, you could certainly start since I’ve been alive, going back to the proliferation of talk radio and the Rush Limbaugh influence, but I’m particularly thinking about the influence of Ben Shapiro, so maybe the last 10 or so years?

And I think about Ben Shapiro specifically because of his mantra of sorts, “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” and how a direct line could be traced from the proliferation of, “Debate me,” bros on the internet to Shapiro’s influence. A hint at where I’m going with this: I don’t believe anyone who is so adamant about debating, and heckles people to debate them, have a good faith interest in an exchange of ideas. They care about appearing to win and the other side appearing to lose. See, that’s the rub, too. You don’t even have to actually win, but just appear to to your side. Which is again, why it is not a good faith effort.

The first philosophy class I took at Miami University, I was hooked. I’m awful with names, so unfortunately, I can’t recall the name of my philosophy professor who was so influential on my thinking and becoming a philosophy major to begin with, but he is the one who changed my mind about arguments. When I was younger, first blossoming into political, cultural, and religious thinking, I did think the point of debating, especially on online forums which is where I maturated, was to win. Fortunately, this professor reframed everything.

A true exchange of ideas, an argument, if you will, even though that has some negative connotations around it, I like it more than the connotation around debate (winning and losing), is not about trying to win, but about an exchange of ideas in order to reach the truth (and perhaps the capital “T” Truth). Because think about it even before you get to that lofty follow-through: If both people, who disagree with each other, are coming to the table with the good faith motive to exchange ideas and see where that leads them, that’s already a more palpable table setting than if two people, who disagree with each other, are coming to the table with the hostile, competitive endeavor to win. It changes the entire dynamic.

I had occasion to think about this reframing because of the recent unfortunate death of George H. Smith, a scholar and author known for his libertarian and atheism writings. I honestly can’t say I was familiar with his work, but a quote of his I saw circulating after his death certainly spoke to me:

“An argument, ideally considered, is not a zero‐sum game like chess in which one person wins only if another person loses. An argument … should be cooperative, not competitive; it should be a common venture in pursuit of truth.”

Exactly. Too many people, molded in the image of Ben Shapiro, and in reaction to Ben Shapiro and his acolytes, view politics, culture, society itself, as a zero-sum game, a Judgement Day-level struggle, and where our ideological differs must be squashed, must lose. And if we’re talking about it on the scale of a Judgement Day-level struggle, then to lose is the worst thing that can happen, and conversely, to win is to galvanize and validate.

If we are to forge a new polity based on good faith, the mutual exchange of ideas (which also goes against the trolling, “Debate me!”), and emphasizing the importance of our hoped-for outcome of arriving at the truth, then we need to reframe the entire way we talk about important issues. We need to shift from the obsession with debating, winning and losing, and zero-sum, to talking with each other rather than at each other, and in that way, at least our discussions would be more honest, and importantly, more fruitful to real solutions.

Because that’s the real danger here. Even beyond some argument about improving the “aesthetic” of our discussions, the real issue is that this winner-take-all approach to discussion (and again, which is an “appearance” of winning) is an end unto itself rather than the desired policy or social outcomes! Those don’t actually matter. If they happen, cool, that’s just further “points” in the zero-sum game they’re playing (a recent example of this is how conservatives are downplaying the Roe draft Supreme Court Opinion, and instead, focusing on winning debates!)

And it should be pointed out, we know this cooperative discussion works! We do it, ideally, in the workplace, for example, all of the time! Or at home (again, ideally, if you’re trying to “win” against your loved ones, you’re doing it wrong). We just need to apply it to politics.

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