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All the Perl that's Practical to Extract and Report

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  • by pudge (1) on 2002.04.02 8:19 (#6548) Homepage Journal
    But *why* is it important to focus primarily on things you know you can change? Why is it bad to engage in things that are most likely futile? What are the costs, and at what point does the benefit outweigh those costs?

    Or to be more concrete: it seems to me that there are primarily two reasons for your "then just shut up" policy. One, because it is a waste of precious time; two, because it causes you, and the other parties, personal stress. Perhaps there are other factors, but the point is that those factors, and others, are mitigated by circumstances, which may include whom the other parties are, what the topic of discussion is.

    For instance, you may be talking with someone whom you know will disagree with you, but there is an opportunity to learn from each other, and you know that the discussion won't become clanging cymbals but will really be an exchange of ideas. Or, you might be discussing an issue that is of vital importance, and that you must continue the discussion because being quiet is the worst thing you can do (e.g., you might be the U.S. envoy to the Middle East).

    Or, it may be the case that you have no personal stake in the discussion and just enjoy the argument, and that this for you is entertaining as well as instructive, so you argue for an evening instead of watching TV or reading a book.

    In other words, I agree with you that most discussions are not worth it if the goal is to change someone's mind and that it doesn't happen immediately or soon thereafter, or if the discussion will cause you significant stress. But not all arguments have that as a goal, and not all of them will cause stress.

    Perhaps "futility" is a good measurement of whether or not the discussion is worth continuing, but "futility" must be measured according to the specific circumstances. I have had many long discussions where no opinions were changed, yet the discussions were in no way futile. One example that comes to mind was a long email/IRC discussion I had last election year with a friend of mine, who has an almost exactly opposite opinion from me about the Bush/Gore election and the events of Florida. But the discussion was intelligent and calm and rational and both of us came out with a much deeper understanding of the opposing opinions, the facts of the events, and the law. The discussion was far beyond "say what you mean and get out," lasting the entire length of the ordeal and longer, but it was by no measurement futile, because our primary goal was not to convince the other party, but to learn. And we did learn.

    Argument and debate is a useful tool when used properly, one that is enjoyable, one that increases wisdom and knowledge, one that generally grows a person. It's a shame that most arguments seem to descend into emotional name-calling and hurt feelings, and that argumentation gets a bad rap because of it. Of course, I am not nearly perfect in these regards, but I keep trying, because I believe that my efforts to engage in useful debate are not futile.