One of the things law schools sear into students is the ability, and tendency, to argue. An early emphasis on being able to argue both sides of any case breeds people who argue just for the sake of argument. Shockingly, this behavior doesn’t evaporate when the dean hands you a diploma. And so we get a highly educated, highly paid, and often powerful class of people who argue not only both sides of a case, but over every detail and throughout every conversation. And so we get television shows and movies that glamorize these peoples’ ability to verbally eviscerate anyone at anytime. And soon this glamorization spreads to police procedurals and medical dramas, then to sitcoms. And then, we get to watch empty housewives who think they’re Sherlock Holmes, only wittier, argue about nothing, and doing so badly. And now, arguing is de rigueur throughout society.
The problem with adopting this practice is that you’re not Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes doesn’t exist. He’s witty and pointed and always right because Arthur Conan Doyle had the luxury of thinking about each word that would come out of his mouth. And then revising those words. And then revising them again. Until they were perfect. That doesn’t happen in real time.
Even the Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins of the world, who go up on stage and debate at length, seemingly without effort, can do so only after a lifetime of intense study and deep understanding of the subject at hand. If you put either one of those guys in a room where Richard Feynman or Neil De Grasse Tyson was holding court, their first response would not be to argue, even if what was being said was controversial. Their first response would be to listen. To digest what was being said, and what it meant. To think.
As the Sweet Science slowly stumbles to its death, we’ve replaced it with a new form of pugilism. But like boxing, nothing good can happen if you argue unprepared and out of form. At best, your opponent will also be unprepared and out of form, and you’ll both look like two guys, 100 pounds overweight and 10 years past their prime, that everyone tries to shout out of the ring. At worst, you’ll get your ass kicked.
So when someone says something, especially if it’s controversial or surprising, stop and think. Don’t react immediately. If you must react immediately, ask a question. Let it sink in. Then ask another question. If you’re going to launch into an argument, make sure you actually understand what position you’re arguing against.