Not Avoiding Debate

I just had a debate with an old friend about a certain current hot topic, about which we vehemently disagree with one another but also feel quite strongly about. We have clashed before regarding this issue, but this time both attempted to hear each other’s arguments out in long text format in hopes of convincing the other of their own position. At least that is how I proposed it and hope that is what she saw the interaction as well.

Well, neither of us convinced the other, and I do not think my position shifted even slightly towards my friend’s point of view. Usually this is not a good result when the argument contains many nuanced points, and I am not exactly proud about being so resolute. Yet I also am tempted to defend myself by presuming I have made myself more thoroughly familiar with the topic and as such just know more of the general arguments, research-based facts, and statistics regarding it. I also feel like my position has received more critical consideration even against my own values and beliefs compared to hers, as I’ve changed my mind about this topic once already after holding largely the same stance my friend still holds. I would like to think I’ve considered the topic rationally, and that despite no solution existing that would please everyone, the one I advocate for has the least suffering involved for all parties.

Anyhow, the point about the debate was that I was trying to debate in a way in which I was only arguing against the stronger points of my opponent, while not dwelling too much on some of the weaker points. I also tried to argue in abstract as much as possible without pulling in anecdotal evidence or statistics even when I knew them to support my claim in case they would have taken the spotlight off of the underlying points – which I felt stood strongly enough on their own even without concrete research.

”[W]hen it comes to spontaneous self-questioning, one is much more likely to spontaneously self-attack strong points with comforting replies to rehearse, then to spontaneously self-attack the weakest, most vulnerable points.”¹

I was rather hoping my friend would manage to shake me by attacking the weaker points of my position, since people are easily blind to them themselves, yet I did not feel conflicted during the course of the debate. I felt like I had good answers for everything she said. And I felt like her arguments were exceedingly weak.

Still, I think it’s rather good that we both have a clear position on this, and that neither is willing to just agree to disagree, which is a cop-out people who can afford to not get invested often make to maintain harmony in their own social relationships. As long as you are willing to take a stance, you are putting yourself out there to be challenged, and there’s the potential of you changing your mind. I myself tolerate points of views which I think to be false, but if the question comes up I never pretend that I find two contradicting positions equal. This gives rise to debates, and sometimes I do change my mind completely or at least shift my stance a bit. I find it rewarding to have my beliefs questioned.

Even worse than agreeing to disagree, however, is pretending you’re looking at an issue from a neutral perspective. Very few things in life are really matters of taste, so pretending like you don’t have an opinion and feeling superior for it signals to me of cowardice.

”It’s common to put on a show of neutrality or suspended judgment in order to signal that one is mature, wise, impartial, or just has a superior vantage point.”²

This is more true regarding real life socio-political issues than academic research, but in principle it still applies. Even if the difference between two historical interpretations has very few real life implications and as such does not demand fervor in order to inspire positive change in our environment, if a person who is well-versed on the topic hides behind “it’s complicated” they just seem like a liar or a coward to me. So, even if I found my friend’s arguments weak and unconvincing, she still receives more respect for me for engaging in debate than anyone who pathologically dodges arguments by posturing neutrality. There’s a time and place for debates, sure, but at least in the context of academia I think that time and place is – almost always – now.

¹ Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Avoiding Your Belief’s Real Weak Points” in Rationality: from AI to Zombies” Berkeley, MIRI (2015). 318.

² Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Pretending to be Wise” in Rationality: from AI to Zombies” Berkeley, MIRI (2015). 61.

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