A man walks into a heated argument. He adds fire to the scene. In almost any scenario imaginable, the more heads inside the room, the more the discussions tend to veer off the consensus. An additional person will almost always add entropy to a social dynamic, taking the interaction a bit further away from peaceful order. It’s never the other way around, unless you’re maybe in a church.
To play devil’s advocate. To be a polemicist. Contrarianism. There are many phrases and terms in the English language that depicts the extremes of this behaviour. Throughout my years of social interactions, I have noticed it not just as a common occurrence, but as a behaviour that is woven into the very fabric of human nature. Sometimes, it even feels intuitively right to object towards the idea of others.
This peculiar notion greatly intrigued me, because it’s not uncommon that I find myself guilty in the shoes of the contrarian. Sometimes I just can’t help it. As much as I like to avoid social conflict, projecting a contradicting opinion— even if the activity risks emotional stirring — seems like the only right thing to do at times. Roused by this unsettling phenomenon, I did some digging up on the Internet playground. I’ll share some of the gems I found with you guys today.
It’s part of our evolution
All human beings strive for superiority, it’s virtually written in our biological code. This phenomenon can be seen throughout the vast expanse of nature. An animal’s alpha male sits at the top of the pack’s social ladder. Being superior increases the odds of winning the approval of top females, which subsequently leads to their hereditary code being sustained in the gene pool, and the hopeful success that their species outlives evolution.
Our early human ancestors probably took into carnage to demonstrate their superiority — resulting in a bloodbath, but also an alpha that came out on top. We have since progressed from the more physical spectacles into a more intellectual warfare.
These kinds of battles can get quite complicated, involving diplomatic alliances, well-devised short-term and long-term strategies, and intelligent communication. In small scale, however, they are components of our daily life in more ways than we appreciate them. Arguments are an essential part of life.
But why exactly do we find ourselves mysteriously attracted to arguments?
There are probably a thousand reasons as to why we love debate so much. Because my hands would literally fall off my deltoids if I were to mention each one, here are some ideas that immediately arrive at the top of my head.
It’s easy to disagree with someone
Objecting to someone’s opinion does not require a substantial amount of effort or invested capital. Unlike the high price we have to pay when we involve ourselves into physical battles, disagreeing does not put us at risk of inherent harm. The internet has especially made this a lot easier because we get to object without having to face the social consequences that usually come with a public showing of incivility.
Different people have access to different facts, are exposed to different sources, and have had different personal experiences. These can lead people to possess wildly differing world views, which forms the ideal framework for an argument.
A language’s limitation means that different people can perceive definitions in different ways. Language is after all, an art, which is meant to be subjective, and subjectivity is a perfect recipe for debate. My perception of the word ‘chair’ can be wildly different with yours, just as my understanding of the word ‘God’ can contradict yours if we take religious context into account.
Depending on one’s upbringing and environment, people can value and care about completely different things. Take the idea of ‘veganism’, for example, which has stirred an endless line of public dispute over the last decade. If we can learn anything from this trend, it’s that as its popularity grows, people’s views become more segregated. This is a prime example of a feud on the basis of something as simple as a differing value.
Hatred to someone
Some people always disagree with others simply because they hate them. In certain instances where enmity becomes the primary motivation of disagreements, people may simply resort to ad hominem attacks as a way to vent off some of their suppressed emotions.
Defending one’s self worth
This is by far the most common narrative here. Some people grow up believing that knowing less about a subject makes them less worthy. These people care more about proving that they are not clueless about what’s going on than the very topic they are arguing about. In other words, they only care about being right.
This can also be seen in a phenomenon called ‘education inferiority’, in which someone inherently believes that their education track record determines their social rank. The people on the lower end of this spectrum naturally feel more inferior to their more educated counterparts.
This narrative trespasses many other areas of life, such as defending one’s beliefs, especially with individuals who innately believe that their beliefs determine who they are as a person. People can easily lose their rationale when arguing against something they strongly disbelieve.
Without it, conversations would be straight up boring
Can you imagine a group conversation where everyone affirms every single point and argument the speaker makes? The exchanges would be so predictable and unanimously one dimensional that the dialogue would just not sustain. We usually refer to these kinds of ‘conversations’ as broadcasts.
So what does all this mean?
Not all acts of disagreements are necessarily bad. The kind of arguments we usually associate with are bitter and acrimonious because that’s what the conventional definition suggests. However, most of the arguments we encounter on a daily basis are natural byproducts of social interactions, completely unmotivated by maleficence.
Through a more pessimistic lens, the prevalent and worrying condition in society seem to speak of the growing popularity of bad-natured disputes, especially when it comes to the eternal battle for social approval.
In a world that relies more than ever on social standing, reputation becomes the currency. Each social interaction becomes a high-stakes poker match to earn valuable social dollars; a game to strengthen one’s reputable wealth. The individual who ends up with the most social dollars is of course regarded as the head honcho, becoming the ‘public figure’ even when their values and principles say otherwise.
The current approach for reaching this glorified state of social prowess is by setting yourself off of the crowd. Again, the same narrative is at play here. Arguing, or simply rejecting the consensus of the forum, is the easiest way to polarise oneself.
What can we do?
Embrace them. Remember not all arguments are ill-natured. They appear naturally in the spirit of camaraderie and convivial banter. Try to recall the last conversation you had with your mate, it was probably much like a roller coaster ride, filled with moments of great accord, but also with the friendly exchanges of (probably contrasting) ideas. And yet it was all only for the sport of it, that’s why conversations are so interesting.
For chronic contrarians like the few of us, the most simple and straightforward advice I can tell you is to swallow your ego. Heated arguments usually get and stay heated because the stakes have become too high for one party to back down. Nobody wants to surrender because that would socially signal a ‘loss’, which can give the illusion of weakness and is therefore bad for reputation.
In a similar framework, large corporations risk becoming too rigid and inelastic as a side effect of their fear of ‘fucking up’. For us however, it’s easier to swallow our pride and admit an illusory defeat. After all, the opinion of others do not objectively define who you are as a person, so you shouldn’t really care for them. It’s definitely a difficult position to transition into, but it’s the wiser choice in the long run. Plus, the group will be thankful for your sagacity.
It all starts with you. If you adopt an accepting, understanding, and adopting mindset, you’ll be less moved by public judgements. By being comfortable in your own skin, you essentially remove the possibility that something as minute as an argument can affect you.