You Can’t Win This Argument

It is impossible to defeat an ignorant man in argument.
– William G. McAdoo, US industrialist, lawyer, & politician (1863 – 1941)

Walking away from an argument when you know you’re right is right up there among the most difficult things we can do.

However, remaining to argue when there is no possibility of winning qualifies as questionable judgment. Arguing with an ignorant man is one of those unwinnable fights.

This is “ignorant” in the sense of “not knowing,” not in the more commonly used meaning of “rude.”

An adult who knows very little about anything grew up fighting an uphill battle. With no wealth of information at his disposal he had to depend on his wits to win anything.

Experience would teach him that winning with his wits would be very difficult because wit can’t substitute for verifiable facts for long in a debate, even a friendly one. He learned that the best way to win any argument (in his mind) was to dig in his heels and maintain his position even when the burden of fact weighed heavily against him.

Winning an argument in the mind of such a person means being the last man standing, not defeating the enemy on the basis of well presented set of data. He knows from abundant experience that if he can’t win on the basis of fact, he can be the last man in the debate with dogged persistence at maintaining his position.

In North America, for example, a smoker who argues in favour of his continuing to smoke is such a person. Facts such as that tobacco contains poisons, that it contributes to the premature deaths of thousands each year and compromises the health of countless more, that’s its socially offensive to a majority of people or that cigarette smoke permeates upholstery and remains there for ages to stink up furniture mean nothing to him.

He will maintain that it’s his fundamental civil right to smoke and that smoking gives him enjoyment. Nothing will knock him off that pedestal, even if governments and supreme courts rule that we have no right to kill ourselves slowly or to kill others with second hand smoke, or even to offend others with the smoke residue of our habit.

What the ignorant man believes is the foundation on which he has built his meagre life.

You can’t shake him from that foundation by argument, no matter how valid the data, because without that foundation he would have to admit that his life is worthless. No one will admit to that readily.

The best advice for situations when you see a discussion heading for argument because one party holds firmly to a position based on belief rather than on fact is to walk away from it. The ignorant person won’t hold your position against you later.

And you discovered something about that person that working with him for years might not have revealed. You discovered his Achilles’ heel, his vulnerability.

Even a good, honourable and charitable man may have this weakness. Whether you exploit this and kick the foundation of his life out from under him is your choice. If you choose to take advantage of this weakness, be prepared to deal with the consequences of what will be a destroyed life, even if the destruction happens in private.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for parents and teachers so they can learn the essential streams of child development and attend to them all so that weaknesses such as ignorance never gain hold.
Learn more at http://billallin.com

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