Do you or people you know get stuck “winning” arguments only to find they’ve annoyed or alienated people around them?
It’s hard to do anything about it because when people aren’t arguing they tend to feel they don’t do it — that only others do. And when they are arguing they’re often least open to exiting argument mode into self-reflection mode.
A scene in The Big Lebowski that illustrates the effect perfectly. Here is a version in not such great quality:
Here’s a version with cool typography.
It’s overly dramatic to be funny and has a lot of cursing, but it covers most major points on the counterproductivity of “winning” arguments.
- People debate issues that can have multiple “right” answers depending on your values and perspective, or neither can be proved wrong.
- People don’t debate issues that can be objectively determined or that can measure or look up in a source both trust.
- Winning a debate in which neither can be proved wrong usually requires something other than reason and rarely ends in agreement.
- Even well-meaning people resort to emotional pressure, violence, threats, name-calling, ad hominem attacks, not listening, yelling, and so on.
- People resent others and themselves for resorting to such tactics.
Do you see the futility of arguing or debating a point where both parties can consider themselves right and the other wrong?
John Goodman’s character, Walter, commits most of the problems he could — which is what makes it funny and genuine. It starts with an unwinnable point: no measure everyone can agree on can determine if Smoky stepped over the line. Leaving aside their counterproductive positional negotiation technique (they didn’t read Getting to Yes), Walter’s perspective is that everyone should follow his rules. Not everyone agrees, but he insists he is right. The Dude’s perspective is that it’s a game and rules can be relaxed.
No one talks about the difference in perspective, they just argue they are right within their perspective. In this sense they are all right and no one can prove them wrong.
Walter’s insistence on “Am I wrong? … AM I WRONG???” encapsulates his problem. Seeing the issue as right and wrong sinks him. He’s imposing the rightness and wrongness to an issue where they don’t apply. That’s why he has to ask “Has the whole world gone CRAZY?!?” He lost whatever sense of the value of relationships in favor of rightness.
Most people in a relationship-straining argument insist they are right,
an insignificant difference from asking if they are wrong, leading to outcomes like Walter’s.
The scene continues after the three videos linked above. The final words of the scene capture the folly of “winning” arguments over communicating productively with people and enjoying life.
WALTER: Well, it’s water under the bridge … am I wrong?
DUDE: No, you’re not wrong–
WALTER: Am I wrong!
DUDE: You’re not wrong, Walter. you’re just an asshole.
“You’re not wrong, Walter. You’re just an asshole.” How many Walters to you know you wish realized that? How much do you wish you sometimes did?
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