What’s the point of an argument?


Key Points:

1. The point of an argument is NOT to win. It’s to find common ground and understand where and why you disagree.

2. When we forget this, we dehumanize those with whom we disagree and lose any chance of finding actual solutions.

3.  Just like we are not our thoughts, we are also not our political opinions. That said, be careful in conversation with someone who hasn’t yet realized this.

What’s the point of an argument, debate, or discussion? If you answered, “To be right,” or “To find out who’s right,” congratulations! You’re wrong. Okay, maybe that was a bit harsh. I apologize. I’ll preface this week’s discussion by saying that this is merely my opinion about the way things should be. I’m sure quite a lot of people disagree with me on this. 

We’re certainly conditioned to view things through a binary, black and white lens of right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, unhealthy vs. healthy, and so on. However, life is so rarely like this that approaching it in such a way is missing the point. Pretending that it’s this simple contributes to the extreme polarization rampant in modern Western society. This oversimplification can also lead us to start to see those with different views as caricatures of their beliefs, irredeemably misguided, or even bad, evil people. 

In truth, most people with whom we disagree want the same core things: safety, love, happiness, prosperity, and opportunity. They simply disagree about the best ways to make these concepts a reality. So, in the interest of promoting the wellbeing and dignity of all involved, I’d like to offer an alternate perspective for how we could handle debates and disagreements.

Political Debates

First, let’s highlight an example of exactly the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve. Political debates are a farce. They’re designed for entertainment purposes only, with both sides rushing to declare “victory,” over the other. Right. As if there was any chance someone would admit their chosen candidate “lost” to the other in a subjective contest where no actual points are scored. Success is judged by who avoided making “gaffes” or who generated the snappiest soundbite. We’d be better off entirely scrapping debates in this format, because they don’t accomplish anything.


Think of entering any discussion, disagreement, or argument with two goals in mind:

1. Finding common ground with the other person

2. Gaining an understanding of where this common ground ends, and why you disagree

This immediately reduces the tension of such scenarios, because it makes the format collaborative rather than adversarial. We’re no longer working against each other to declare a “winner” using some arbitrary standards, we’re engaging in the pursuit of truth and solutions together.

A Word (or three) of Caution

It’s best established immediately during a disagreement that your intentions are to achieve the two goals listed above. If the person you’re speaking with believes that the point of an argument is simply to “win” or prove that they’re right and you’re wrong, you’re probably better off not engaging with them. Now, if they’re open to joining you on this pursuit of truth, then you can learn a ton from someone with whom you vehemently disagree. 

So, establish up front that you’re not trying to prove that their beliefs are wrong; you’re simply trying to understand where you differ. Find out if they’re open to doing the same. If not, you’re obviously still free to engage with them if you’d like, but remember one key thing. People often deeply and thoroughly identify with their beliefs and opinions. To clarify, they invest part of their sense of self in certain matters they believe to be true. When someone’s sense of self is threatened, they often respond with a level of hostility or aggression that would be more appropriate if their life was in danger.

They don’t realize that we are not our opinions, just like we are not our thoughts.

So, particularly if the topic of conversation is one fraught with identity traps, be prepared for the possibility it may grow heated. Also, be on the lookout for this in yourself. If you find yourself becoming upset during a discussion, ask yourself which identity or core belief is feeling threatened.

To that end, let’s use a particularly fraught example.

The abortion debate has dominated the news cycle recently, and with good reason. I’m going to risk an unsubscribe or two by sharing my own opinion, then exploring the opposite viewpoint, with the goals of finding common ground and understanding why we disagree.

To be clear, I do not believe anyone should be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. Terminating a pregnancy is an incredibly personal decision, and I do not believe the government should be able to compel someone into either choice.

Now, there are plenty of people who believe I couldn’t be more wrong. We’re going to examine some potential reasons why, but first, let’s search for common ground.

Potential Common Ground Area

Life is precious and it’s generally wrong to take one. I believe this, and I’m certain someone opposed to abortion does as well, especially in the case of an unborn fetus. Where we likely disagree is in our definition of life. Some people believe life begins at the moment of conception. I believe that in the case of a baby, it’s not truly a separate life until it’s viable outside its mother’s womb. Now, the distinction here is somewhat arbitrary, and we’re not likely to change each other’s views on this. But it is good to keep in mind as an underlying influence on both of our beliefs.

If I was having this discussion with someone and I sensed or they indicated that they were open to having their beliefs questioned and examined, I’d start to ask questions about in which scenarios a mother’s life should be prioritized over an unborn baby’s and vice-versa. I’d also ask under which circumstances they would eat meat, kill an insect, or uproot plants. In my experience, most people typically aren’t comfortable with this line of questioning, for one of two reasons. Either they have become too thoroughly identified with their beliefs that they feel as if they’re being attacked, or they start to see that the lines they’ve drawn are somewhat arbitrary. 

And this last part is true for all of us. We like to think that our beliefs are based on rigid, unchangeable, and concrete principles, but in practice, this isn’t often the case. Sitting with that realization can be quite uncomfortable, but I think it’s ultimately necessary for personal growth. 

Where We Might Disagree

In the United States, anyway, the anti-abortion crowd is often motivated by religion, particularly Christianity. While I hold somewhat different spiritual beliefs than many Christians, I can certainly see that if someone thought banning abortion was “God’s work,” they’d feel incredibly motivated to pursue such an end. If someone genuinely feels that the higher power responsible for their creation wants them to prevent ending the life of innocent, unborn children, how do you argue with that?  

Here are the avenues I would take, in the form of multiple questions:

1. Do you believe God values the life of an unborn child and the mother equally?

2. Do you believe God wants unborn children to live happy, healthy lives once they are born?

3. Do you believe God views it as your responsibility to make sure anyone other than you and your romantic partner do not have an abortion?

4. If yes to question #3, what do this country’s freedom of religion laws allow you to do if someone disagrees?

It’s crucial to remember that in this hypothetical scenario both the person I’m in the discussion with and I have agreed to try to find common ground and understand where we differ. If either of us started asking questions like, “So you think it’s okay to murder babies?” or “So you think it’s okay for your invisible man in the sky to tell other people how to live their lives?” then we wouldn’t get anywhere. 

What’s the point of all of this?

Put simply, it’s to humanize those with whom you disagree. As I mentioned previously, it’s too easy to see someone whose views differ from yours as a mere caricature of their beliefs. How common is it for those who hold anti-abortion views to see their “opponents” as irresponsible, promiscuous skanks who want an easy way out since they couldn’t be bothered to be more careful with all the men they’re sleeping with? On the flip side, how common is it for pro-choice proponents to view those with opposing beliefs as heartless monsters who want to control women’s bodies and force people into a life of poverty as a righteous punishment for having the audacity to have sex for a purpose other than procreation?

Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t some people whose words and actions don’t come uncomfortably close to matching either of these stereotypes. However, I’m quite confident in saying that most people’s views and behavior are far more nuanced. Perhaps if we acknowledged this, some sort of workable solution could be reached. In the case of this example, maybe not. Perhaps it’s an issue too closely tied to intractable identities. However, I guarantee one thing. Actively remembering that those who disagree with you are still human and treating them as such will help. It certainly won’t make polarization any worse than it already is.

In the meantime, before you go, I’d love to hear from you! Did I pick too polarizing an example for this week’s topic? Also, what’s your style when debating or discussing an issue with someone? Reply to this email and let me know!


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