On having a debate

Cool link of the day: Memeufacture: Weblog and Automated Trend Reporting

In some really excessive midnight geekiness, I hacked modtool, a perl script for usenet moderators, to do NNTP authentication at Earthlink. I can only assume it was a more trusting time back in 1996 when the script was last updated, when NNTP servers ran wild and free… Anyway, if you want my modified script, email me and tell me what newsgroup you moderate and I’ll send it to you.

Now, back to the meta. I was thinking about this topic even before I saw Melymbrosia’s comment, to which I hope this entry will be a sufficient answer. First of all, the purpose of a debate is not necessarily to convince the other party of the truth of your own point of view. Argument purely for the sake of winning converts is more properly called proselytization. The proselytizing mindset is most ironically seen in A’s allegation, you’ve already made up your mind. In that case, A believes that the sine qua non of argument is the potential for changing B’s mind. The possibility that B’s opposing arguments might, in fact, change A’s own mind has been completely overlooked.

There are very few cases in which I get into debates with the hope of persuading other people, and most of them involve communal activities where everyone wants a certain outcome - say, a fair set of rules for the ASC Awards, or a new XML DTD. In the case where there is a final goal the group wants to reach, you need people to be able to compromise on the outcome. Yet there is never a need for anyone in the group to actually change their mind about what they, individually, feel would have been the ideal story categorization.

Most of the time, I argue because I enjoy thinking about whatever the topic is, voicing my ever-ready opinions, and hearing what other people think. It’s entertaining. I don’t expect anyone to change their mind because of what I say, except possibly me. I don’t expect anyone to stop writing slash because I don’t care for it, any more than I expect professional SF writers to change their styles because I got bored halfway through their last book. Without a communal goal in mind, there is no pressing need for people to agree with one another.

Because it’s my personal soapbox, my blog is the biggest repository of argument for the sake of hearing what I think. I write it down because it clarifies issues for me, entertains me, and may even interest others or prod their own thoughts. If I get into a debate with another person about something as non-earthshattering as the latest fan follies, I don’t do it to convert them to the gen cause. I just find it interesting to dig down to where we truly differ. It’s fine if they’ve already made up their minds, as long as they can say how they came to that conclusion, and I can figure out where we diverged.

So where do discussions go wrong for me, so that I have to walk away? It’s never that B holds an opinion. It’s not that B doesn’t want to discuss the matter - in that case, B is the one who has walked away and I see no point in pestering her. If B is willing to argue, yet unwilling or unable to do so rationally, then I’m the one who has to walk away.

If B is incapable of expressing why she thinks X instead of Y, she’s useful as a statistical point in an opinion poll but not as an opponent in a debate. If B consistently misconstrues A’s statements or resorts to logical fallacies like ad hominem, whether out of malice or out of a simple lack of reasoning skills, it becomes impossible to have a rational discussion. Maybe other people enjoy a flamewar, but I don’t.

Is walking away from a bad B in itself itself impolite? If you’re face-to-face with someone, maybe you do owe them an explanation, but that explanation cannot be you’ve already made up your mind because there’s nothing wrong with having an opinion. That B stands by her original cause at the end could just mean that A presented no convincing arguments to the contrary that were based on premises B would accept. With a bad B, that’s not the case, but it’s logically possible. It’s not polite to tell B that she’s not as intelligent or interesting as you would prefer, so it’s probably best just to bow out of the situation gracefully and not get involved with B again.

If you’re on-line, most communication is asynchronous anyway, so there isn’t really a problem with dropping the ball when you’re tired of B. Unless B has left some outstanding question that A couldn’t answer (and this is unlikely with an irrational B), A can let her explanation stand. A could do so even with a rational opponent who hadn’t made any particularly intriguing points in the last round. Most arguments peter out one way or the other.

For instance, it could be 3 a.m. and A might need to get to bed.

On debating for entertainment rather than proselytization, and methods of walking away.

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