When Argument is a Waste of Time

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January 16, 2021 by lucieromarin

Many of us have experienced the kind of conversation that smashes to a halt thanks to an emphatic pronouncement. Here’s one example:

1: How was your day?

2: It was pretty dramatic at the soup kitchen –

1: There’s no need for anyone to be homeless. They have welfare, and there are so many programs these days.

Uh, okay. What to do? Well, it depends who you’re dealing with. One more step should be enough to reveal it:

Development One:

1: There is no need for anyone to be homeless. They have welfare, and there are so many programs these days.

2: Actually, not all homeless are on welfare, and, in any case, you have to pay rent to stay in a refuge. So that’s not really an option for our clients.

1: What? They don’t all get welfare? Well, how are they supposed to get off the streets if there is nothing for them? Do we have to pay footballers so much and then the homeless sit on the street?

Development Two:

1: There is no need for anyone to be homeless. They have welfare, and there are so many programs these days.

2: Actually, not all homeless are on welfare, and, in any case, you have to pay rent to stay in a refuge. So that’s not really an option for our clients.

3: NO! In the old days there was nothing! NOTHING! People are LAZY!

In the first case, your interlocutor doesn’t cling to his opinion in the face of new information. Sure, he retains a strange need to condemn somebody, so he turns to a new target, but he’s not permanently closed to the possibility that other people might have something to tell him. A conversation with him can be exhausting, but it isn’t necessarily a total waste of time.

In the second case, your interlocutor not only needs to frame his thoughts in condemnatory tones; he is also so attached to his own identity-fantasy that he, without ever having worked a day in a helping profession, will dismiss outright the information given to him by a housing caseworker rather than admit that his idea of himself needs amendment.

Now, there’s a difference between a person who is inclined to frame his or her statements in an emphatic way, and a person whose conversation is the permanent equivalent of yelling at televised sport. Trying to discuss anything with the latter is a total waste of time.

Think about it. Any person who yells at the television screen during a sporting match could be forced to admit that their voices are not heard by the players and do not influence the game. However, forcing this admission will never change their behaviour, because their behaviour fulfils an emotional need, rather than an intellectual one. The same holds true for opinionated people making pronouncements. The character in Development Two is really hardly thinking about the homeless at all (and even less about your day.) His speech exists to fill an ego-need, which is why he experiences contradiction as a threat, rather than a potential source of information. He equates agreement with authority and authority with value, so when you say, “Actually, some homeless don’t receive welfare,” he hears, “I deny your authority; you are worthless.” You can speak as much truth to this person as you like, and you will only ever receive random aggressive fire in return, because he’s not listening for ideas; he’s listening for ego-validation or identity-validation, or subculture-reinforcement-as-a-form-of-identity-validation. Being Right is really about him, not about truth, so a correction to his knowledge about homelessness feels to him as outrageous as the denial of the existence of God.

This distinction is useful and necessary during a time when it’s impossible to step out of your house or into cyberspace without being assaulted by the opinions of people who know exactly what the Church and the government should be doing about masks, borders, quarantines, vaccines, you name it, and why everyone else is a bad Catholic or an agent of the One World Government.

Remember – yelling at the television will not help the player to catch the ball, and the viewer secretly knows that. He yells for a different reason. Telling you what the government should be doing will not influence the government, and your interlocutor secretly knows that. When she insists that other people are cowards, lazy, stupid, conspirators, disobedient (whatever the perspective is) and that the government should be faced with resistance and rosaries, (or should deploy drones and fines) she knows that no one’s listening, and that drives her mad. Everyone should be listening to her, because she Did the Research (aka a Google search), she knows, and she’s right. Her pronouncement is not ordered towards a real-life change of government policy; it’s ordered towards the fulfilment of an ego-need. If she receives your agreement immediately, she fulfils her need for subculture-affirmation. If she has to verbally batter you to get that agreement, she fulfils her need for dominance.

This is the case even for a person who prides herself on her commitment to truth. It’s entirely possible for someone to believe herself to be truth-oriented, but, in fact, to make pronouncements from an ego-need. So, where the truth (or even just a legitimate variance of opinion!!) contradicts her most recent utterance, that truth itself will be experienced as an injury, and you will still cop the flaming eyes, the sharp inhalation, the raised voice, the swirling tentacular rage.

It runs contrary to much human instinct to leave sweeping statements unchallenged or false statements unchecked, but, where this person is concerned, the best response is no response. No only is it okay to choose not to engage – it’s better to choose not to engage. Why? Because it is okay to choose to keep the peace without surrendering your own dignity. You don’t have to agree, but you also don’t have to fight. You can’t cure anaphylaxis, so you keep peanuts out of the way of your anaphylactic friends. You can’t heal the other person’s ego-wound, so it’s okay to refrain from rubbing salt into it. You can reply, “It sounds like you’re keeping on top of things,” or “It sounds like you’re keeping up with the research,” and they will never hear your irony. They will contentedly monologue about their own brilliance for a little while longer and then leave you in peace, needs met, without noticing that they never even found out what you actually think.

Seriously, put your own mental well-being first. When you’re confronted by a sweeping, inflammatory or judgmental statement, pause before replying. Ask yourself some of these questions:

  1. Is this person, in this moment, genuinely seeking an exchange of ideas or fulfilling an ego-need?
  2. Is ego-need evidenced by the use of insults in his or her judgements of other people?
  3. Is there a meaningful third party in this conversation right now who might be influenced by the result of our discussion, and, who, therefore, needs to hear me present another case? (i.e. are you debating in front of a government that’s about to pass legislation, or are you debating in a comments box on Facebook?)
  4. What am I to this person in this conversation? Am I, in fact, not much more than a convenient source of ego-need fulfilment right now?
  5. What would my disagreement sound like to this person? Will she genuinely interpret my opinion as subject for exploration or will she treat it as a problem to be fixed?
  6. Do I want to offer myself for a verbal battering to fill this person’s dominance-need?
  7. Do I, in any way, wish to cooperate in this person’s fantasy of herself?

You’ll see where these answers take you. Don’t waste your time!

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