The Art of Debate: Knowing When to Walk Away
Recognizing when Enough is Enough
As someone recently pointed out to me, debate is more of an art form than a science. It is almost impossible to predict what will come out of nowhere, what your opponent will say, or what the reaction to the points you bring up will be. Debates over sensitive topics often become heated quickly. Unfortunately, the common consensus for impromptu or informal debates dictates that the person who walks away from the conversation first is viewed as the "loser". This couldn't be further from the truth.
It's difficult to know when the conversation has reached a conclusion. It's common to want the "last word". When your opponent resorts to ad hominem attacks instead of actually responding to your logical or reasoned answers, it's hard to take the high road. Tempers often flare and frustration abounds on both sides, especially if other people are involved in the debating process as well. Often the most reasoned of debaters are almost forced to lower their standards and respond in-kind, which cheapens the debate process and limits the effectiveness of the conversation as a whole.
Winners and Losers:
The unfortunate reality is that unless you're in a formal debate with a set structure and a moderator with a voting mechanism in place, there is rarely, if ever, going to be a clearly defined "winner" or "loser". Even the most experienced debaters encounter a debate phenomenon that is common across the board. Both parties deliver their best arguments and counter-arguments, ask questions and deliver their closing arguments. Then both parties walk away believing that they have "won" the discussion - even though both people realistically can't both be right.
When debating informally, the lines of distinction are even more blurry. The fact of the matter is, no matter how rational, logical or consistent you and your arguments were, the other person simply isn't likely to concede that you won, regardless of what was said. Each person feels that they won, and other people involved or watching will typically favor the person they already sided with in the beginning. Clear champions are rare.
Set the Bar Higher:
Instead of entering a discussion or debate with the intention of completely trouncing your (often unwitting) opponent, decide that your goal is to deliver the best possible arguments to defend your position, and keep a high standard for your responses and your emotions. Decide to not get caught up in trading insults, and refuse to sink to the level of your opponent - no matter how they treat you. Don't let your emotions come in to play. When debating, it's necessary to develop a thicker skin in the face of the common tactics employed by trolls or others just out to "get your goat".
If you start to feel your resolve cracking around the edges, it's time to stop. If that means your opponent claims victory, so be it. Chances are high that they're going to claim victory anyway - no matter what you do or say to the contrary.
Reevaluate the Point:
Informal debates are rarely defined and are often impromptu and disorganized. Seeing the big picture goes a long way when determining what your best course of action should be. How your opponent sees you or your arguments ultimately is of little importance. How you view yourself, however, is the more important factor that needs to be considered.
If you're going into a discussion with the intent of a clear, decisive victory, you're likely to be continually disappointed. I've never personally had a debate with someone who concedes that my arguments were more valid and rational and declared me the "winner". I don't go into debates with the purpose of deconverting my opponents, or to completely demoralize their often-irrational beliefs. I go into debates to get an alternative position out in the open, and to plant the seeds of alternative views in another person's mind. What they do with those seeds is ultimately up to them. Meanwhile, I can leave as necessary and feel good about how I've behaved, and what I've said. I take pride in how calm and rational I can be in the face of emotional outbursts. Sometimes my frustration gets the better of me, and I'm hardly perfect, but those experiences are simply steps along the path to growth and are valuable learning tools so I know what to not do next time.
Since I debate for fun as well as part of my job, my general rule of thumb is to walk away when it's no longer fun or interesting - or when it's clear that the person I'm talking to is unwilling to recognize any of their own fallacies, and is not willing to debate or discuss the issue honestly. If I'm not getting anything out of the discussion and it turns into two people just trading verbal barbs, it's time to go. I can refocus my attention on more important matters.
It never hurts to be honest and tell your opponent that you have better things to do than contribute further in this discussion. If you're reached a dead end, it's okay to say so. That's the time to walk away with your head held high and pride in your accomplishments - even if you're the only one who sees them.