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Couldn’t Be Me: Don’t talk to people who want to ‘debate’

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In this week’s advice column: How to talk to people you disagree with, and when to know you shouldn’t talk to them at all.

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Welcome to Couldn’t Be Me, a weekly advice column where I solicit your personal dilemmas and help out as best as I can. Have something I can help you with? Find me @_Zeets.

In this world, no matter how well we maintain our social bubbles, we will inevitably encounter people with different ideas than us. Sometimes those ideas are so antagonistic to what we value that it’s hard not to become angry when we talk with those people. Especially if their ideas are purely based in theory, and for us it’s a lived reality.

It can be difficult to know whether one should engage with those ideas, and how to do so — whether there’s an intellectual benefit to challenging oneself and one’s ideas, or if it’s pointless to argue with people with whom you have fundamental differences. This week, we look at how to decide when you can learn from someone else’s view of the world, and when you’re better off distancing yourself from an opinion that is rotten at its core.


Joey:

How do I politely deal with people that have entirely different (entitled/ignorant) —far-right— perspectives than me? Or better yet, is there a trick so I can hide my facial expressions of disgust?

CBM:

Those who hold bigoted opinions often justify themselves by pretending that ideas are frivolous — mere fodder for high-minded intellectual debate. They discuss the world as if it exists in a bubble of ideal circumstances, rather than its current, violent state.

In that bubble you’re supposedly obligated to debate people as a participant in the “marketplace of ideas,” which is some weird fake nerd shit that pretends that we’re all in the Athenian Assembly and have some responsibility as intellectuals to give space and validity to heinous ideas. The trick within the trick is, of course, that those “different views” often question the humanity of certain marginalized groups. Once you’ve given the ideas any time, you’ve lost, even if you win that particular argument.

I believe that before you engage in a conversation (not a debate) with someone about contentious issues, you have to determine if you agree on certain foundational ideas first. For example, before I begin talking to someone about the best way to solve the problem of homelessness, it would be best to make sure that the other person and I agree that homeless people are human beings who deserve dignity and compassion. Otherwise, I may find myself debating an individual who thinks homeless people are waste. At that stage, we would disagree on so much fundamental ground that conversation would be impossible and infuriating.

You also have to make sure that you and the other individual are in conversation to gain a better understanding of the world, rather than to argue for victory. That is why I often roll my eyes at the notion of debates. They’re a waste of time because they aren’t truly an exercise to find truth. When winning an argument is the only objective, it turns conversation into a dirty fight where each of you is trying to trick or embarrass the other. “Debate” is an exercise for people who want to feel smart without being so.

If you find yourself in a situation where another person is genuinely ignorant on a subject — because we often grow up with specific ideas of the world, without really questioning them — then I don’t think there’s any harm in informing them about the things that they don’t know. But you are under no obligation to entertain people with abhorrent views who are just trying to win arguments. There’s so much work needed to make the world better than to waste effort with people who are only interested in intellectual masturbation.

On the question of hiding facial expressions, I’m actually on the side of making your disgust clear. I have a habit of glaring at people when they say really stupid things or try to waste my time with philosophy 101 nonsense. I know that the expressions might make someone think of you as rude or insufferable, but that’s fine. I don’t think your obligation in those circumstances should be to make people comfortable.


Yatin:

Hey Zito! Thanks for always being open to questions. I recently made a step up in my career and got to a position that I have been wanting to get to for a while, under pressure from peers and my own expectations. Now that I’m here, I’m wanting even more. Contentment seems to be evading me even though I have achieved this goal. How do you find satisfaction and not always have greed for more in a world where there is always something more to do/earn/get better at?

CBM:

I used to be awful with this problem. I played soccer and was good at it, and my father was the kind of sports parent for whom no achievement is good enough. I was so competitive that I never could look around at what I achieved. I was always focused on what comes next. More. Better. Bigger.

The issue with always looking at what’s to come is that you might not be thinking about whether those things will make you happier, or represent your true ambition. You may realize you want something because you want everything. And you may often see yourself in competition with non-existent opponents.

I think it’s important to take time away to determine what life you want. What are the things that are important to you? While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with going after a better life, a life built around greed is inherently destructive. At some point, life has to be less about the accumulation of things or wealth, and about maximizing and appreciating what you already have. But in order to be happy and drag yourself away from constantly wanting more, you have to reckon with yourself about who you want to be and what brings you joy in this world, first.