“Never have a battle of wits with an unarmed person,” advised Mark Twain, a writer who has gone down in history because of the intelligent irony he poured into his works and an indomitable character that was closer to that of the “feral” Huck than the “Civilized” Tom. His advice will save us many, a lot of headaches: we must not argue with someone who has no tools to understand.
To debate you have to be willing to understand
The discussion, understood as a constructive debate in which different ideas are exchanged, can be extremely positive, even if it becomes heated. When we expose ourselves to different ideas we can reflect and even expand our intellectual horizon. It is in the differences where it is built, not in equality.
However different and opposed these ideas may be, if there is a willingness to understand, the debate will be fruitful. That does not mean that one of the parties has to convince the other and that a “winning” argument must be reached. Sometimes it is enough to change some ideas to foster the essential understanding. Mark Twain himself said: “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed down-stairs one step at a time”.
However, for a discussion to be really enriching it is necessary that both parties are willing to listen to the other in a climate of respect and tolerance, that there is a willingness to dialogue. If those assumptions are not given, the discussion will be useless. Therefore, the golden rule is: never argue with an idiot.
Intellectually unarmed people
An intellectually unarmed person is not that one who does not know an argument but that one who is not willing to know it because he suffers from a deep motivated ignorance. That is, he decides not to understand, not to know, not to deepen, not to listen …
This person is a victim of confirmation bias; that is to say, he does not want to hear more opinion than his and makes deaf ears to everything that does not coincide with his vision of the world. He only pay attention to the information that confirms his opinions, passing over the rest, however reasonable, well argued or true.
With such a person, it is better not to argue because the odds of reaching an understanding are low tending to zero, and the odds of getting angry are high tending to infinity. Beginning – and continuing – an argument with these people will only drain us psychologically. Antisthenes, the founder of cynicism, said: “In order to give up on who contradicts, it is not necessary to contradict him; it is necessary to instruct him”.
Are we every day less reasonable?
People who are walled behind their arguments and who do not want to hear have always existed – and will continue to exist. However, we are living in a peculiar era in which “Social media give the right to speak to legions of idiots who first spoke only at the bar after a glass of wine, without damaging the community. They were quickly silenced, and now they havethe same right to speak of a Nobel Prize. It is the invasion of fools”, said Umberto Eco.
We are living in the society of opinion, a society in which the power of the referent has been shattered giving way to everyone’s opinion – with more or less knowledge of the cause, with more or less preparation and with more or less common sense.
Of course, the problem is not the fall of the referents since questioning the established can give rise to new paths and discoveries. Only if we assume a critical attitude with what is established we can continue to develop. The problem is when it is questioned without arguments. When opinions become attacks because there are no solid reasons to support them. When there is no will to build but only to destroy, to impose an ego that desperately needs the validation of the hordes that “think” the same.
We all have an opinion, but we need to be aware that it is just that, an opinion. And that from time to time, listening to other opinions, could allow us to enrich our intellectual baggage. Because if we meet a truly wise person, a person who is not going to argue with someone who does not know how to listen or establish common benchmarks, we will have wasted an opportunity to learn. And every missed opportunity is another step towards intellectual darkness.