Thursday, September 13, 2012

Don’t Patronize Opponents Who Have Better Arguments

When participating in debates (or watching other people’s debates), I often see patronizing phrases like “we’ll agree to disagree” and “I respect your opinion, but…” that are commonly used to end arguments without further discussion.
These phrases are euphemisms for the attitude: “I think your argument is nonsense, but I can’t be bothered to debate it further and explain to you why you’re wrong, so I’ll cloak my disgust at your wrongness under a patina of respect.” (The pseudo-Catholic equivalent to these phrases is “I’ll pray for you.”)
This is a toxic attitude to have when debating. For starters, the person using it can’t answer the point, and is simply unwilling to acknowledge the fact. For another, it reflects an attitude of undeserving, prideful superiority: “my argument is inherently better, and your argument is obviously wrong.”
Debate should not be an exercise of establishing superiority. It is about discovering the truth of a matter, and convincing an intellectual opponent (and audience, if the debate is public) of the rightness of one’s position. It is not about running whenever one gets bored or tired of debating a point and making a snarky comment while slamming the door on further discussion of a topic.
Dear users of this tactic: When debating, either finish what you start, disagree on first principles or irreconcilable worldviews, bow out because of a lack of time or energy, or concede defeat. Don’t patronize your opponent who destroyed your arguments. 


  1. Even in a debate, I disagree with this point. Sometimes it is best to "agree to disagree". Of course, it must be done politely, but arguments must end somewhere. On the other hand, while condescension, and its cognate "patronisation", are unattractive, this tactic of calling everything non-argumentative which undermines our position as "patronising" is equally ridiculous.
    It's as equally patronising to say "you're patronising" in these circumstances, as it is saying: "I am using a hallowed, stiff-upper lip phrase to say how immoral and hypocritical and pompous you are and what an ethically-superior and stoic victim I am". Well, tosh!

  2. The line "disagree on first principles" covered this case, where an argument ends with two sides "agreeing to disagree" because they differ on several fundamental assumptions.


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