Is Arguing a Waste of Time?

Is Arguing a Waste of Time?

“Time spent arguing is, oddly enough, almost never time wasted.”

— Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian

I was told earlier today that “a debate for debate’s sake is masturbation with no happy ending.” The thread in question was, (coincidentally) not just a debate for the sake of a debate, but about politics and whether “the solution is not political.” The personal implications of this are, of course, pretty dramatic, but to the opposition, pointing out that the question has not been specified is besides the point.

But this tendency and general attitude has grown in recent months, as our political geography has become more deeply and perhaps more permanently divided. With diminishing odds of persuading the other side in an argument, it is ever more tempting to ask “why bother?” Is debating really a waste of time?

Aside from the general ineffectiveness of debate in terms of persuasion, there is also the lost time and energy. We all have a limited number of fucks to give, and wasting them on strangers on the internet means less care to people and things which are perhaps more deserving of them. Instead of doing chores or spending time with family and friends, arguing — it is argued — merely allows people with no connection with you to mess with your emotions and take years off your life with the frustration, anger, and despair that excessive online interactions can often produce.

This perspective, however, aims at the wrong target, which is the source of [1] the feeling of hopelessness, [2] the excess emotional investment, and [3] the greater portion of lost time.

The tacit justification for most people in debating is to persuade the other side of the superiority of your position. Arguing, it is assumed, is important because the world would be a better place if more people believe as you do — this is the source of failure [2] (excessive emotional investment) and by extension, failure [3] (the greater portion of lost time). Since the other participants in the debate are likely coming in with the same underlying justification, the odds of success amount to zero, because neither side is willing to understand or consider the opposing view. Their only goal is to change the mind of the other side, hence failure [1] (the feeling of hopelessness).

But this view is not growth-oriented. It requires one to believe that all of your positions are already correct, that you are already smart enough, that you are already well-read and well-versed enough in your positions, and perhaps worst of all, that there is no value in becoming smarter.

Imagine, by analogy, that someone believed that the only justification for exerting their body was to physically overcome enemies. They would waste away and remain weak, until finally they actually did have to defend themselves, whereupon they would quickly lose.

Mark Rippetoe wrote in Starting Strength that being strong is intrinsically valuable, a sentiment recently echoed by Joe Rogan:

“I want my body to work better. It’s like having a race-car, and you can choose what horsepower engine it is based on how much work you put on it. That’s essentially what your body is, you can choose how much tread you have on your tires, you can choose how good the suspension is, how supple it is and how well it can maneuver…”

Someone who takes this attitude will not only become stronger for the sheer sake of being strong, and enjoy the experience of life more as a stronger, healthier person, but should the time come to defend themselves, they will have a much greater chance of success. The fact that that is not their primary goal is why their odds of success are higher.

In the same manner, debate is not fundamentally about proving the other side to be foolish and intellectually inferior. It can certainly be used to that effect, and sometimes, it is important to use it in that regard. But if we approach the activity of debate—online or in person—as first about our own mental development, then not only will we be less prone to frustration and obsession, but when the time comes where our ability to debate really counts, we will be more likely to succeed.

“…it is absurd to hold that a man ought to be ashamed of being unable to defend himself with his limbs, but not of being unable to defend himself with speech and reason, when the use of rational speech is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs.”

— Aristotle, Rhetoric

As with being strong, being intelligent and well-read can make the world a more exciting and enjoyable place to be. Appreciating artwork, literature, mechanical models and strategic plans is easier, and the colors appear more vibrant, as the educated person can see connecting threads that weave the world together into a more harmonious, more fascinating, and more awe-inspiring experience. Sure, taking the wrong ideas can make one pessimistic and depressed, but the analogy with strength-training carries on here too: one can do enormous damage to one’s body if you train incorrectly. Needless to say, that is not a reason to reject strength training, and the dangers of poorly-motivated arguments or the danger of too much wisdom are no reason to avoid debates.

Arguing is not a waste of time. Like weight-training, it is a growth-activity, and just as the capacity for great strength makes the neglect of the body a waste of life, so too does the extraordinary capacity of our minds make the neglect of their cultivation through contest and exertion wasteful, perhaps even more than with physical strength. So long as we bear in mind the correct goals, we can—and should—debate with others, online and offline, because it is better to be strong than weak, and it is better to be well-read, open-minded, and rhetorically skillful than not.


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