by Niall Doherty

I find myself less interested in arguing with random people these days. Experience has taught me that such arguments are usually a waste of time.

I think of someone like the late Christopher Hitchens. Now there was a man who had impressive amounts of courage, intelligence, and speaking prowess. You can see endless videos of him on YouTube debating religion with pious people, and usually winning. But what did all that “winning” accomplish exactly? I’m sure Hitchens gave comfort to countless other non-believers, which in itself is a great accomplishment, but I sincerely doubt he changed the mind of a single person he argued against, despite all his smart and well-structured points.

An acquaintance on Facebook is a hardcore vegan, and preaches a few dozen times a day from the gospel of plant-based diets. Thing is, I can’t imagine any of his arguments — some of which are pretty solid — actually convincing people to quit eating animal products. I was vegan myself for 2.5 years, switched back to vegetarian about a year ago, and just recently began experimenting with eating meat again. All the while I’d been exposing myself to those pro-vegan Facebook updates, evidently to no avail.

A few months ago in Kathmandu I entered into an ill-advised and somewhat lengthy debate with a church group on the existence of a divine power. I remember emerging from that discussion feeling more convinced of my position than ever, and angry at myself for having wasted time trying to change minds that didn’t want to be changed. I imagine everyone in the church group felt the same way.

It’s these examples and many others like them that leave me wary of argument. Arguments can sometimes be healthy, but all too often they’re simply about ego, proverbial pissing contests, where being “right” proves more important than all else.

I’m not saying all arguments are bad. I just think it’s important to pick and choose who you argue with. It’s rare that you find someone who will actually drop their defenses, consider alternative viewpoints, and acknowledge flaws and limitations in their own thinking. Also rare that we allow ourselves to do the same.

To wrap this up, methinks Aristotle’s wise words about anger…

Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.

…could also be wisely applied to arguing…

Anybody can argue – that is easy, but to argue with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.