When To Shut Up

If you’ve been on line and involved in any sort of conflict, you know they can go on nearly forever, with no one winning. It’s the nature of the beast. Some people just won’t let it go. They have to have the last word. They have to prove you wrong. They have to grind you into dust, at least in their own minds. They have to be right. This is particularly true in religious or political arguments.

What people usually don’t realize is that there is a point at which you should simply stop and let the other person rant. Because if you let them rant, you will, 9 times out of 10, find that they really have no idea what they’re talking about, and that they’re making arguments without any real rational reasoning behind them. And what they’re saying paints them as idiots.

Here’s the way this works. Some point gets made or some statement is asserted. It could be by you or it could be by someone else. You argue your side of the argument, and they argue theirs. One thing of supreme importance here is that, in elucidating your side of the argument, you ensure from the outset that your logic is completely intact, your facts are either easily determined, widely known or accepted, and you stand on completely solid rhetorical ground. Do not proceed unless this is the case. In the absence of full facts or statistics, at least know that what you propose is supported by solid reasoning and/or easily extends known circumstances in a completely logical way. It’s also very important to be precise in your language. If you’re guessing, say so. If you’re generalizing, ensure that this is obvious, and possibly include room for there to be minor exceptions. If there are exceptions, ensure that they are truly exceptions, and that in the main, your assertions are correct. Do not argue from an emotional point of view. Use facts, statistics, obvious observations, or completely logical conclusions. None of this works if you don’t do this. The idea here is for you to be the rational one in this argument, because chances are, the other guy isn’t, or you wouldn’t be arguing. Most arguments are between someone rational and someone who’s irrational, even when they think they’re rational.

But here’s the key: make your point, airtight, and then shut up. Sooner or later on the other end, the (presumably irrational) opponent will resort to saying something stupid, irrational or irrelevant, and there you have him. Anything he says beyond this point says more about him than it does about you. Don’t worry about his ad hominems (personal attacks) or whatever. He’s done for. If your audience (the other people who may be involved in the conversation) is halfway intelligent, they’ll see through him and realize he’s just jabbering without a clue what’s really going on.

And there’s another point here that’s crucial. This is an argument about facts, statistics and observations. It’s not personal. He may take it that way, which makes him react emotionally instead of rationally. But don’t you get wrapped up in the emotion of the moment. And don’t, under any circumstances, attack him personally. Ad hominem attacks are typically made when the arguer has run out of facts, or has no logical scaffolding to hold up his arguments. He’s run out of support, but must still assert his rightness. He does this by attacking you. And this is the first sign you’ve won. There used to be a rule on the Internet, that the first person to mention the word “nazi” would automatically lose the argument. That’s more or less still true today, except that most people have never been taught that it’s an implicit rule.

There’s another thing I should mention here. It’s called the “dead agent caper”. It’s when your opponent uses a purported “fact” in his argument which turns out to be untrue. Exposing this to the light of day completely ruins your opponent’s argument, because if one part of your opponent’s argument is shown to be a lie, then none of the rest of it can be trusted either. You’ve just destroyed his credibility.

None of this requires a degree in logic or rhetoric. It’s just a matter of positing a conclusion, showing how it’s rational and logically supported, and then letting the other side try to argue their way out of it. (And often gleefully watching them squirm.) Likewise, though I shouldn’t have to point it out, don’t get emotional in your responses. Don’t get angry or sound angry. Always strive to sound reasonable and emotionally level. This also will often drive your opponent around the bend.

Another tip: don’t be afraid to be wrong. And especially, don’t be bashful about admitting it. This tells your audience, in no uncertain terms, that your integrity is important to you. Similarly, don’t be afraid to agree with your opponent on any given point. If he’s right, he’s right. Give him his due, even if you think he’s a complete blockhead.

I can’t tell you what an excellent reputation you will gain doing the above. Sooner, rather than later, your audience will learn you are not one to be trifled with. And that most of the folks who try to go up against you are probably full of hot air. I’ve replicated this reputation in a number of venues, just by using these tenets over a period of time.

Something else I’ve learned over time: foreign arguers are the absolute worst about misinterpreting what you’ve said. By “foreign arguers” I generally mean those for whom English is a second language. English is a hard language to master, and most native English speakers aren’t even very good with English. But foreigners are absolutely the worst about this. Don’t be afraid to correct their obvious misunderstandings. Make sure, so far as is reasonable, they understand exactly what you’ve said. Don’t spend a lot of time on it, because sometimes it can take a near forever trying to get a foreign language person to understand what you actually said. But don’t spend a lifetime on it. As before, make your point and get off. If he still doesn’t get it, he probably never will.

Also, don’t be afraid to use sarcasm, in modest doses, to grind down your opponent. Don’t go all snotty on the person. But don’t be afraid to make casual fun of them to a mild extent. Chances are, with no logic beneath his arguments, he is sensitive to being made fun of or getting laughed at. He’s taking himself way too seriously. Let him be sensitive. Again, it says more about him than it does about you. Your audience can see you’re just poking at him a little. And when he goes all apoplectic as a result, your audience will see exactly that.

You may also find, from time to time, that your audience agrees with the other guy for the most part. Don’t worry about it. This isn’t a popularity contest, and you shouldn’t be here to make friends and influence people. You’re here to make an argument and be done with it. Posterity will judge whether you’re right or wrong. And that’s not even the point anyway. The point is, were you right or wrong? Not in the eyes of your opponent or your audience (though it’s nice to have their backing), but in your own eyes. Don’t get caught up in the minutia of the arguments. It may not serve your purposes, ultimately, to argue down to the last comma and semicolon. It’s your overall point that’s important. And likewise, it’s not about making him wrong either. He’ll likely do that himself. You won’t need to help him. Of course, it’s perfectly fine and reasonable to savage any point where he’s obviously wrong. But don’t be a poor winner. Just break that part of his argument and move on.

Incidentally, one of the most effective ways to break your opponent is to extend his arguments (reasonably) to their obvious conclusion. That usually results in an untenable conclusion which he’ll try to argue his way out of, unsuccessfully. And again, this just shows he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

There’s more that I could probably say about this whole subject, but this isn’t a course on rhetoric. I’m just pointing out how these things usually progress in the real world, and how you can assist them to get there more quickly. If you’re in a sword fight, you don’t have to hack the guy up completely or run him completely through to win. A few choice cuts to vital areas will do the trick. He will bleed out. You don’t have to hang around to ensure he’s dead. Let him flounder and flop around. As long he’s no longer a viable threat to you, you’re free to go on to the next opponent, and slice and dice him as well.