Register Login
How To Win Every Debate You're Ever In
By Matthew Notch | 20th May, 2013 | 4:15 am

How To Win Every Debate You're Ever In

Those who cannot understand how to put their thoughts on ice should not enter into the heat of debate.--Friedrich Nietzche

It's a curious thing, the way we go at one another. Humans are social creatures, for the most part, as per evolution or human nature or whatever you like to attribute said social quality to. But as always, in looking back on our history, it's usually filled with all kinds of scary animals and angry people looking to devour us, and so for centuries most philosophers and evolutionary biologists have explained that our need for stimulating debate is to arrive at a more perfect, purer form of the truth, in order to stay alive longer and propagate our own genes. As recently as 2011, though, French cognitive scientists have posited a new theory: the ones who dig in their heels might just be the ones who "win" these debates.

Here, take a look at their abstract if you don't mind reading something a bit dryer than this little essay or whatever. Essentially, the good doctors are saying that we argue JUST to win. It's not about clarifying facts, or purifying truth. It's all about looking better than the other guy and scoring all the poon as a result--I mean that quite literally. This is also meant to explain that doggone confirmation bias: the ones who are any good at arguing are the ones who succumb to that very thing, picking and choosing the parts that make them sound better.


So how do I go about scoring all the poon winning my arguments, then? Well, let's just eschew any science at this point and start making stuff up. If the gentlemen cited above are correct at all, I'm already ahead...

5. Remember that it's ALWAYS personal

Read this little bit of Wikipedia, why don't you. If it's all too many words for you, basically it's saying that reason has always been thought of as working against passion. Left brain, right brain... and of course it would be easy to pick out that expression, do a little digging, and make an argument against it, but first ask yourself--why? Why would you need to argue against left brain, right brain? I mean different strokes for different folks, but for some it could be viewed as an attack on their own position, or even an attack on people who don't share that person's ideas, but are viewed sympathetically nonetheless. What I mean by that is, sure you don't agree with those jokers who say, "Our brains are made of swiss cheese!", but in watching them so mercilessly attacked by my assertion that our brains are split into two halves instead of being made of cultured milk, you feel a need to take me down a NOTCH. This ties in very well with Rousseau's concept that "two principles prior to reason" were in place in humanity: a desire to survive and a desire to save other beings like us. And all these years later, I mean we're still dominating as a species, so clearly there's at least some merit to that idea.


"Your flimsy logic and reason can kiss my passionate French ass!"

What that means, though, is that once a debate's under way, you may very well be dealing with ideas and arguments that have little if anything to do with logic. Now you're bringing the dirt into your opponent's house, and he or she is about to have a cow on your ass. Again, if the good doctors are correct, this is actually an evolutionary technique built into your opponent to keep him or her popular with others who share that view. You are going to have a hell of a time convincing thousands of years of human nature to shut the hell up and listen to you.

Your best bet, then, is to tread lightly. Use nice words, but don't ingratiate yourself either; angry people see right through a disingenuous person, because they want to. They are, by all accounts, WAITING for you to be insincere. So don't go too soft or too hard, but remember that "winning" this thing is largely up to the spectators on the sidelines. They too will recognize if you're just fighting for fighting's sake, and people don't tend to give trophies to that guy.

4. Shut the hell up yourself, sometimes

You ever hear that expression, "God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason"? And perhaps you said, "Well God or no, that's on account of stereo perception and echolocation," and then people slapped you for not getting it. People slapping you does not equal winning, just so you know. Sometimes it might feel that way. But you'd be wrong. That's a helpful tip from me to you.

No, that expression means that communication is about 80% listening and 20% talking. And even that 20% needs to be divided up between asking questions (NICELY) to completely clarify what the other party is asserting, and then, and only then, stating your own position as clearly and succinctly as possible. You may well run the risk of devolving your statements into rhetoric, which is maybe okay given the stated goals (i.e. "winning" the debate, "scoring" the "poon"), but remember that politicians are masters of rhetoric, and for the most part nobody likes those guys either.


I will explode you with my noise

Instead, just approach the debate as honestly as you can, with the express purpose of learning a little something. Even, or maybe especially if, you are already an expert on the subject. The thing is, you aren't going to be an expert on a person's heart or emotions, so all the brains in the world aren't going to save you there. Remember that both the person you are debating and the spectators you are trying to win are human beings with hormones and shit.

Speaking of brains...

3. Don't get hung up on brains

The children's author Arnold Lobel won the Caldecott medal for excellence in picture books for children with an eponymously titled collection of Fables for 1980. If I could, I'd like to share with you one of the fables from that collection, retyped word for word because I don't know who to ask to take an excerpt from, and also in spoiler tags:

Spoiler: show
[quote="Arnold Lobel's Fables"]
The Elephant and His Son


The Elephant and his son were spending an evening at home. Elephant Son was singing a song.

"You must be silent," said Father Elephant. "Your papa is trying to read his newspaper. Papa cannot listen to a song while he is reading his newspaper."

"Why not?" asked Elephant Son.

"Because Papa can think only one thing at a time, that is why," said Father Elephant.

Elephant Son stopped singing. He sat quietly. Father Elephant lit a cigar and went on reading.

After a while, Elephant Son asked, "Papa, can you still think about only one thing at a time?"

"Yes, my boy," said Father Elephant, "that is correct."

"Well then," said Elephant Son, "you might stop thinking about your newspaper and begin to think about the slipper that is on your left foot."

"But my boy," said Father Elephant, "Papa's newspaper is far more important and interesting and informative than the slipper that is on his left foot."

"That may be true," said Elephant Son, "but while your newspaper is not on fire from the ashes of your cigar, the slipper that is on your left foot certainly is!"

Father Elephant ran to put his foot in a bucket of water. Softly, Elephant Son began to sing again.[/quote]

Now the moral Mr. Lobel drew from that fable is different from the moral I'm about to drop on you. See, you can very easily overlook critical details when your focus is on knowledge. The analogy I always remember is this: you can be very knowledgeable of the product created by mixing bleach and ammonia, but wisdom is actively avoiding that scenario. All the knowledge on a matter won't do you any good if you don't know how to use it.

Hey, what does this link do? I'll tell you what it does, it takes you to a result in a Google Books search that reveals a bit of the book "What Makes Biology Unique?: Considerations on the Autonomy of a Scientific Discipline" by Ernst Mayr. And what you'll find is that, yes, intelligence is what separates the humans from the viruses. On the other hand, there are way more viruses in the world, and they tend to kill us if we let them. Intelligence helps us in that battle, but all the brains in the world can't save you from advanced ebola, and they won't "win" you any arguments either.



But there's even a third edge to the double-edged sword we call intelligence. Look, if you're a genius, I commend you and offer you my much lesser skills in any way you deem fit to use them to conquer the world with. But let's face it, you're probably not the smartest chip off the old block. There will always be someone smarter, better, more ready to defend and more ready to tear you apart when it comes to debate. If you've spent your whole life leaning on your brains to get you to where you are now, be prepared for a terrible awakening when you discover that a lot of people don't care how long the words you use are, and how reputable your sources are, or even really just how smart you are in general.

No, your best bet is to heavily rely on wisdom to see you through a debate.

2. Don't get too hung up on wisdom

"God dammit Notch, you're killing me!" you're likely saying now, because you think I'm Rebo and also don't really "get" how killing works. I promise you, we're almost done here, and you'll recover soon enough. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, but there are anti-perspirants for that too.

Here's the thing about wisdom: It's often not recognized as such unless it's conventional wisdom. For a specific definition of conventional wisdom, I turn to Wikipedia again, which conventional wisdom dictates I ought not to do.

[quote="Wikipedia"]Conventional wisdom is the body of ideas or explanations generally accepted as true by the public or by experts in a field. Such ideas or explanations, though widely held, are unexamined. Unqualified societal discourse preserves the status quo.[/quote]

In other words, what most people accept is the right idea. The status quo. By the old definition of debate, we'd be constantly trying to refine that, to make it more realistic and reasonable. In real life, and by the new definition, the status quo is entrenched because of how good people are at "winning" arguments through good old fashioned stubbornness. What's wise to one group or side is unwise to the other. It's practically (or literally) in our DNA by now.

How the heck do you even contend with that? By dumping a ton of sources behind your arguments? That could help you, but you run a handful of risks there:

    1. Your sources are incorrect
    2. Your sources are correct, but you aren't
    3. Your sources are too obscure or take too long to read, and the debate ends with you looking stuffy.

And you can try and rely on your intelligence to get past those risks, but then we're right back to rule number 3 again. Indeed, the only way you are going to get past the trap of relying on your wisdom is to accept that you do not, in fact, have any wisdom worth relying on. Religious people seem have it easy in this respect: they can cite a higher power as their source of knowledge, whether or not the arguments they make with that interpretation are correct or not. Of course, they can just as easily be taken down by rationalists with the very same three things listed above. If a rationalist has more knowledge of the holy text that religious person is citing than the religious person, watching the religious person respond with bluster and fury becomes about as awkward as the fourth season of Heroes.


Hey, if anyone's still watching, I'm sort of into chicks now!

You start to see where I'm going with this: Don't rely on your OWN wisdom. Learn everything you can about the other side, including their applications and purposes for having the knowledge they do. Making a broad assumption about why the other guy believes what he believes is going to get you in all the trouble. A little empathy, a little compassion, and in no time you'll wreck their shit so good. Except when you don't.

1. Accept that you aren't going to win them all

For frick's sake, Notch, this is the worst article. Here you've been telling us how to win every debate ever, and now you're telling us that your article is a sham!

I'm really not, though. I've been telling you how to "win" debates, not win them. "Winning" debates is all about getting the rest of the bunch on your side--you can do that fairly easily just by being sincere and nice to everyone. If you're not a very sincere and/or nice person this may be a challenge. Stick to my infallible system as mentioned above, or at least fake it, and you'll do okay.

Will you win, though? No, probably not. Truths get obfuscated, sullied, and diluted every time someone "wins" an argument. Really, your aim in making a debate in the first place should be examined carefully before you enter into one or begin one yourself. It's a fun feeling to have them, in the same way that it's fun to box or play Jedi Knights with questionable branches in the back yard. What defines actually winning a debate varies from environment to environment, though. When we played sword fight you died when you were hit three times anywhere about the body, hands don't count, headshots are illegal. If I played those rules with an actual swordsman I'd likely be castrated pretty much immediately. At some point you're going to enter a "fun" debate with an actual debater, or even worse, a zealot. Or even worse worse, a troll: somebody who doesn't care whether or not you agree, as long as you're spouting bluster and fury and so forth. I've fed the trolls, we've all done it. Now stop it!

The point, though, is that you'll never win a debate with any of those people. A troll wins the moment you respond to it, a zealot wins because DNA, and an actual debater is going to rip you to shreds, even if you are in fact the zealot. And if you still want to "win" that debate, you're going to have to accept that you are outclassed, and concede a couple points as soon as you can. This involves sincerity, by the way: a feigned concession is even worse for you, because those onlookers who see it as your true feelings will view you as weak, and those who see your that concession is clearly duplicitous will view you as untrustworthy. The only way you can save yourself in those cases is to really accept that the other person may indeed be making some good points. If you refuse to discriminate against the other party due to their inferior intelligence, if you insist on hearing their arguments as clearly as possible, if you are willing to learn a little more about your "enemy", and above all things if you remember that it's ALWAYS personal, you'll do better than save face when you are on flimsy ground. You will actually gain respect from the audience, and maybe even from the other party. That always tastes better than victory.

And now, just because I cited a book called "Fables" up there, here's "Fables" by the Dodos:

By the way, we now have some guidelines in place for discussions started in our Current Affairs and Serious Stuff board. Read 'em! And don't try and debate us on the rules, because you didn't make them, chappy. Happy debating!

Tags: debates, Human nature, Five part 16

User avatar
You must be logged in with a registered account to comment on this article.
You can login or register if you do not yet have an account.
8 Comments Full Editor Submit Comment

<< < 1 > >>