Two people are debating a question that has no correct answer. One passionately defends her points, insists that her opponent’s case is flawed, and refuses to budge on her stance. Her opponent is just as fierce. So, neither person concedes nor refines her views. The debate leads to no new resolution or insight. In fact, the debate ends with both opponents fired up, even further convinced that they are right and that their opponent is wrong.
Sound familiar? This is Congress in gridlock. This is Columbia’s “Vagina Monologues” controversy. This is Israel and Palestine. This is you and your boyfriend, each pointing to the other as the culprit who ruined Friday night plans. This is what starts wars. This is how arguments become irreconcilable. And yet, this is how we are taught to argue.
But not all who hold strong opinions argue in this way. Some make an effort to understand their opponents, and then refine their opinions depending on what they hear from the other side. Unfortunately, these open-minded people are generally the losers of the debate because they choose to listen to their opponents instead of fight them. The perceived winners are the ones who don’t budge, and whose passionate attitudes let them dominate their opponents—or force them to face gridlock and declare wars.
What’s interesting is that the perceived losers seem to have a better set of personal qualities compared to the perceived winners. The losers are critical thinkers, more levelheaded and open-minded, and less ego-driven. By listening to opponents and being amenable to adopting some of their views, the losers leave the argument with a stance that is stronger than the one they started with. The losers experience growth. By contrast, the winners are headstrong and stubborn, closed to new ideas, and personally attached to their views. The winners leave the argument with their position untouched—after all, they won.
The losers play an important role in discussion, and in society at large. They’re the ones who find resolutions and develop stronger ideas. In fact, it sounds like the losers should be considered winners. But since they’re still the losers, no one wants to be one. Those entering a debate who want to win (and who doesn’t?) experience pressure to follow the script of the winner: someone who doesn’t concede or change her argument.
We are socially trained to argue like typical winners, and that’s a problem. We’ve grown up with the belief that sticking to our opinions and getting our opponents to change their views—while ours remain untouched—is the right way to win. From structured high school debates to college seminars, we are judged on the quality of our arguments, not on our willingness to listen to the other side or our ability to be flexible and negotiate.
Though we may not realize the harm that this social training causes us in an academic setting, there are many real world examples that clearly show we need to re-evaluate the winner-loser dichotomy. They’re the same examples as before, like the Congress shutdown, and they highlight what happens when two opponents are equally devoted to winning an argument. Boehner and Obama both believe they’re demonstrating strength—the mentality of a winner—by refusing to engage with or listen to the other side. As a result, Americans lose $300 million a day to support two people and their respective parties that are determined to win by waiting for the other to buckle. There’s a real cost that impacts us when people in power care more about winning than they do about listening.
We must address the fact that our societal acceptance of the winner-loser dichotomy can lead to grave costs and can slow or even prevent social progression. If we want to break from this system, we need to redefine the winners and losers. We should prize the people who are flexible and willing to listen to the other side. We should think of this as strength instead of weakness, because the ability to be open to the other side is what leads to the best discussions, judgments, and resolutions.
But how can we create a shift away from the traditional winner-loser framework? The evolution toward progressive discussion and disagreement has its roots in individuals: the next time we participate in a debate, we should take pride, not shame, in a willingness to be flexible with our beliefs. We should praise, not criticize, people who change their minds. At the very least, we can make an effort to empathize with our opponents, even if we don’t choose to be flexible with our own arguments.
We need to reframe our view that debates result in winners and losers, and instead view debates themselves as either winning or losing. In a losing debate, each side fails to engage with the other. A winning debate is one where both sides are improved, not untouched, after an argument. That can only happen if we understand that losing isn’t about being wrong, and winning isn’t about being right. Losing is reaching a deadlock, and winning is a progression of ideas. Though it is idealistic to assume that all debates can be winning ones, we can at least aim to avoid losing ones, because those are toxic to the growth of knowledge. By changing how we interpret and value debates, we can move away from debates that lead to deadlocks, and encourage debates that lead to growth.
Sarina Bhandari is a Columbia College senior majoring in sociology. Keeping Balance with Bhandari runs alternate Wednesdays.
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