We are living in a complicated time, perhaps not physically but indeed emotionally and societally. Definitions are ever-changing, opinions are always on display in all manner of public forums, and it would seem that outrage is on the rise. The gigantic information highway sitting snugly in our pocket, or beside us on the couch has eliminated the late dinner disagreements on which actor starred in a 1970’s movie, which pitcher threw the first no-hitter, and how many publishers rejected Stephen King’s first novel – 30 it was the random fact of the day yesterday. 

If you want to avoid heated arguments never discuss religion, politics, or whether the toilet paper roll should go over or under

– Weird Al 

This is not an article about politics, or religion, or gender, or toilet paper. I’m not interested in having those discussions publicly because I don’t believe I have spent enough time personally reflecting on them and any opinion I would have would be, in the words of Mark Twain, “gotten second-hand and without examination.” 

I am however interested in discussing arguments, the act of disagreeing without becoming enraged at the other party and being willing to examine and reflect the opposite viewpoint as it relates to your own. Having access to millions of pieces of information in the form of the internet has made us eternal ‘fact-checkers,’ hammering out a few letters on a touch screen and moments later we have the information in hand. It is a wonderful and terrible thing. We have all this information, but we’ve also outsourced all of our thinking to external parties. When a topic or disagreement pops up that we are unsure of we hop on the information highway, find someone who has similar viewpoints to what we believe are our own and we now know exactly how we think. 

The person or group that we choose to get our information from is likely famous or prominent in that space, after all, to stand out from the masses online you have to be. The popularity also comes with a divide in opinion, people both love and hate your work in equal parts and because it’s such a vast place there are a lot of people. You, the information seeker, now have a decision to make, who to ally yourself with, in this war of opinions and once you make your choice, it’s for life. You are expected to live and die by that opinion, fight vehemently for it at all times and become outraged at anyone who disagrees because how could they! At least that’s the narrative being shoved your way. 

And it’s complete bullshit. 

We should be celebrating the opportunity to have a discussion with someone who disagrees, it’s a chance to have the validity of our argument examined and probed for weakness and perhaps if it’s too porous taken down altogether, and that’s fine! 

When I first started martial arts at the ripe old age of 18, I had just received the first real beating of my life and was painfully aware of how ill-prepared I was to defend myself. The first gym I joined was a traditional Korean-style dojang – training hall – that looked like it had been plucked from the 1970s and transplanted into 2000s Sault Ste Marie. We started the first class by bowing in, stretching then practicing Katas – movement forms – for the better part of an hour. We did the same thing on the second day, and third, and fourth, and fifth. You get the idea. After a month I was no better prepared at defending myself than on that first day, but I also had no idea because I hadn’t been tested either. Personally, that was a huge problem, what if I ended up getting in another street fight? Getting beat up twice in short succession would be really tough on an 18-year-old ego.

So I left. I found somewhere with a more experiential learning style. Where I improved my proficiency by competing in a safe-ish version of combat.

I think about combat as a language, different styles of fighting are different ways of speaking, and when you compete in them, you have a discussion, or argument depending on the form of competition or training. When I step on the mat to roll in jiu-jitsu I want my partner to disagree with me, I want them to oppose with every fibre in their body and to try as hard a possible to prove me wrong. I want them to have bad intentions and try to embarrass me. I’m going to do the same.

We do this through a series of physical moves, each attempting to predict what the other will do. If their argument is stronger than mine, they will achieve a set of advantages, leaving me with fewer and fewer options until, eventually,  they win. 

Then we’ll go again. I get a chance to argue my case to see if maybe it was a lucky exchange or I was unfocused. I can change parts of the argument slightly to see if it creates a better reaction, better solidifies my point or if the same outcome prevails. This process will continue several times a practice, hundreds of times a month and thousands a year. In some instances, my arguments will be dominant, and I can double down on them, in other situations they may fail over and over again, and I will be forced to abandon them or retreat and completely rework the ideas or even adopt the arguments of my partner because they have been shown to be superior time and time again. 

We will hurtle ourselves into the exchange with ferocity but remain as emotionless as possible and afterward embrace and thank each other.  Those two ideas are fundamental to progress. I must remain calm despite the hostility. Emotional reactions make it difficult to think and react quickly and efficiently, and the result is floundering and a poor representation of my thoughts. Afterward, I must be grateful because they have chosen to expose themselves in the same manner, to be equally vulnerable and challenging. Without my partner, I would never know if my ideas were legitimate, if they would hold up in a real-life situation. 

“A man who sees the world at 50 the same as at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life”

– Muhammad Ai

We should aim for the same level of openness in all of our exchanges, having someone disagree is not a personal assault on character but an opportunity to refine your argument. Notice where it fails, where it holds firm, go back and spend real time thinking about the idea, exploring both sides in your mind. Needle for areas you can exploit and improve your understanding of why those areas still have merit and never be afraid to have your opinion changed. Changing our mind is a natural human right, it’s a display of strength, not weakness.

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