What is the point of argument?

Colin Powell, the American military leader and former Secretary of Defense, once said the following: “Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everyone can understand.”

In an argument, opponents try to belittle each other. They sling stones across the podium, hoping to draw blood. This is a strategy used most often in congressional debates, talk radio shows, Internet news story comment forums and, most appropriately, the schoolyard.

A debate, however, differs in its essence from an argument, because it does not place the greatest points on making the opponent look foolish. Great debaters polish their own points. They stand on verbal platform shoes, towering over their opponents with self-affirming evidence and claims that ring of truth.

And an audience (which could be anything from watches at a presidential debate, to bystanders on the basketball court, to the other people standing in line at the Shopko checkout counter) appreciates a good debater when they see one. They naturally want to side with the person who is more positive, who is beaming with self-worth, and who doesn’t stoop to the base level of mere argument.

Somewhere, someone wrote it down that winning an argument means proving your opponent’s claims wrong. Winning means giving the other guy an even bigger black eye than the one you’re sporting.

Don’t agree? You’ve heard all the arguments: Nice guys finish last. It’s a zero-sum world — what you get, I don’t get. Scream at the waiter to get what you want, then send it back and ask to complain about them to their manager — you’re just demanding excellence, and that’s OK. Threaten the teacher with administrative come-downs if they don’t change your child’s grade, because your beautiful little Angelina or Stockton or Braxtopher is a special child and never does anything wrong.

Aside from being a major drag on the human race, people of this mindset are showing a lack of education. Screaming for what you want is the worst way to get it, although it works far too often to change the habit.

In a debate, this method of goal-achievement screams of inefficiency: Why spend time talking about all the things they just said, when you could be spending time on your own information?

The next time you find yourself in a debate over issue religious, political, social or even as small as whose dog just pooped on the lawn, take a breath and remember this advice: A great debater makes his/her own point seem obviously right, and doesn’t need to waste time making the opponent’s point seem wrong.

The famous British prime minister Margaret Thatcher once said the following on the subject of political debate: “I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.”

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