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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Why I Don't Argue With People

When I was a young man I learned a very valuable lesson. I haven't been able to apply this lesson in the intervening years nearly as often as I should. This is not the fault of the lesson, it's my fault.

I learned that you shouldn't argue with people. Ever. About anything.

Sure. There may be a few exceptions. If life and limb are at stake or huge moral damage is about to be done, fine. Go ahead and argue. These kinds of situations can arise but it's worth thinking about how frequently they actually do come up. Also, you might want to think about the usefulness of debating under these extreme circumstances as opposed to running, calling the cops or looking around for a baseball bat.

That leaves the other 99.9999% of all arguments: Is Hillary Clinton an agent of Satan? Should the Yankees move to New Jersey? Is Putin a true democrat? Is global warming due to carbon dioxide or to hot air? Are Zionists Jews? How many Palestinians are on Facebook? Is the Church of the Latter Day Saints bigger or smaller than Safeway? Does Purgatory really really exist? Is the Apple Corporation run by a secret Masonic conspiracy?

Many years ago I was in a small Greek city. It was early Spring and the great Aegean sun was already gaining the upper hand. The fogs and the cold inland breezes that come down off of the mountains were retreating higher and higher into the snowfields. The small meadows in the valleys were gleaming green, the mud was starting to dry in the roads and people began, very slowly and judiciously, to unwrap the shawls and black cloaks that had warmed them in the preceding season.

I had come to town from the countryside to do some shopping. The usual vegetables and cheeses that were not easily found in the villages, some razor blades, a newspaper, some envelopes. One doesn't need a lot.

I was on my way back to the bus station when it occurred to me that I needed some suntan lotion. And at just that moment I saw a shop with a shelf facing the street filled with plastic bottles that looked right. Sure enough, suntan lotion. They were European brand-name products, a bit faded, undoubtedly left over from last summer, but who cared.

The proprietor was sitting at a small table just inside the shop door. As soon as he saw me looking at his bottles he got up and came out with a big smile.

Stavros: "Hello! How are you?" (in English)

Y: "I am well, thank you. And yourself, how are you?" (in Greek)

S: "Ah! You speak Greek!"

Y: "I am just learning."

S: "Nonsense! You speak Greek very well!"

Y: "Thank you, you are too kind. Tell me, these lotions . . . I see you have numbers 2, 3, 4 and 5 - but my skin is quite white after the winter. Do you have any higher numbers? That are stronger protection against the sun? 10 or so?"

S: "My friend, please! You don't understand at all! Those numbers have no such significance - protection and such. Not at all! Those numbers are simply for us retailers to be able to identify the product. When I call my supplier I just say: 'Bring me ten 3's and five 4's.' That is all that it means, you see. Nothing else!"

This was the great moment. And, of course, the Greeks have a word for it: ἐπιφάνεια or epiphany. A mighty revelation was put before me, a veil was torn from in front of my eyes and the lesson was revealed to me right there in front of that shop.

Arguing with this guy, explaining that he was in the wrong on this small point, was futile. Not just futile, but going against the grain of the entire texture of human existence. To start a discussion about sun block at that moment would have instantly dragged up all the discord of the last 1500 years of Greek history. The Western Powers would once again betray the innocent and abandon the loyal, the Eastern Powers would resume their eternal attack on freedom and true faith. Blood pressures would rise and smiles would vanish. A conspiracy would be joined, a bad rumor would spring up and the sun would go behind a black cloud.

Debate is useless. Pointing out to people that they are wrong, that they have a mistaken opinion, is folly. What is to be gained? Are you going to feel better? To shine in the light of your own superior understanding? Says who? Are you educating the world? What are you, some kind of smoldering Prometheus, lugging your dubious light around, looking for takers? You're right, you're right, you're right - except you're wrong.

And I saw this, all laid out as neat as you please.

Y: "Of course. I'll take a 5."


Kung said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kung said...

Haha, sorry, I deleted my own comment because I couldn't edit it. Anyway, I love this story.

have a nice day