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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Sarcasm not the way to win friends or debates

    When we’re presented with opinions contradictory to our own, we lash out with full fury, utilizing our full arsenals of emotional and rhetorical tools, aiming to expose our opponents for the fools they presumably are.

    In doing so, we turn a potential dialectic – an exchange of ideas which has the potential to eventually arrive at the truth – into a screaming match, a penis-measuring contest, or a duel of wits. That’s an especially unfortunate term to use: “”duel”” implies that someone has to die or, at least, be humiliated or fatigued into acquiescing. Admittedly, it’s fun to make people look like idiots. But it accomplishes nothing.

    This is true for media from print to speech, any format of conversation from a single article to a full-fledged debate, and any topic from politics to whether cats or dogs make better pets. (Cats, by the way.)

    In the public sphere, only two types of people really attempt to engage in or watch debate: People who are undecided or merely curious, and people who already have a strong opinion and are seeking validation. Being caustic and vicious in an argument will certainly draw whooping and hollering from the people in your camp, but it only rarely convinces fence-sitters.

    You won’t change a conservative’s mind about stem cell research by remarking that “”Republicans care more about a clump of cells than they do about living, breathing humans.”” And you won’t change a liberal’s mind by portraying their belief that terrorist suspects should be tried in a court of law as a desire to let them roam free throughout our country.

    This sounds like common sense, and that’s because it is. But too many of us let our emotions, our egos and our desires for self-aggrandization take priority over our common sense when we enter the sacred arena of debate.

    I’ve been guilty of this myself.

    In columns I’ve written during the past five semesters, I’ve taken endless opportunities to jab at people from across the political, social and religious spectra. I’ve occasionally received props from people who agreed with me. But in my twilight as a columnist for the Daily Wildcat, I seriously wonder if I could have done better to convince and educate people by taking a less caustic tone and being more respectful of the views of others, no matter how bizarre and self-evidently false they seem.

    It was endlessly amusing to watch the hullabaloo generated when, for example, I referred to Ronald Reagan as a “”doddering, incompetent old fool.”” But every nasty letter I received in response to that claim represented someone who was led away from the point I was trying to make.

    Back in August, I traveled to a Baptist church in Benson to see a young-earth creationist speaker present material – and to debate with the townsfolk. I noticed something: When I was calm, collected and attempted to act as a responsible ambassador of science, answering questions with examples and ideas rather than chiding people for being misled or ignorant, I was more successful. I probably “”won”” a few arguments using the latter method, but it didn’t matter.

    I was too busy trying to “”score points”” – which is what many of us try to do when we’re caught up in a discussion about something we strongly believe in. But this brings to mind the main problem with impassioned arguing: Who cares who wins?

    There isn’t a counter floating around the universe that increments every time you beat someone in a debate. You don’t get treasure, experience points or a castle in Heaven based on how many wicked burns you unleashed against an opponent or how dumb you made them feel.

    The only real metric for evaluating one’s success in arguing is how many people you convince to rethink their ideology or adopt yours. Ann Coulter and Ted Rall, to use examples from both the right and the left, have been pushing their respective ideologies for years, each accusing the opposing side of being stupid, inconsistent or laughably immoral. But I’d bet you could count on one hand the number of people who have ever been swayed by either of these folks.

    The fact that blatant ideologues like these two are still employed is a testament to one uncomfortable truth: People tend to be much more interested in justifying what they already believe than in hearing what the other side has to say – and when people are presented with biting critiques of their arguments, they retreat even deeper into the warm recesses of their ideology.

    No debate in science, politics, religion or philosophy has ever been settled in the long-term merely by winning an argument. Remember this the next time you have the opportunity to express an opinion: Facts and logic have an odd tendency to speak for themselves. They don’t need help from anyone’s ego to “”win”” in the long run.

    -ÿTaylor Kessinger is a senior majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, math, and physics. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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