Why bother arguing?

4 min read

A good friend of mine jokingly asked me this last week.

They were thinking my tendency to do this.

The driving force behind this behaviour is the theory of network science. This interactive simulation explains how it works. It takes a while to read that, but I promise it's worthwhile. There's more useful info in there than the rest of this article, certainly.

The gist of it is - our thoughts and opinions are shaped not by any objective truth, rather by the weighted average of the opinion of the people we like and trust. The more we like and trust someone, the greater the influence. Of course, it's not just friends/family/acquaintances. We could trust newspapers like NYT/WSJ, institutions like our government or people we don't know personally like Alex Jones, Arnab Goswami etc.

If someone suddenly finds that many of those they like and trust are expressing an opinion, say skepticism about the earth being round, they're much more likely to change their opinion about this.

At that point, the behaviour of the rest of their friends matters. If those friends stay silent because they have better things to do, this person will likely be further entrenched in the flat-earth movement. They will start propagating this idea further. The flat-earth beliefs spread through the population like a virus.

For many, seeing people believe the earth is flat is hilarious. But the same mechanism is how other idiotic and harmful ideas spread, including the anti-vax and 5G conspiracies. It's hard to laugh in the face of measles outbreaks and 5G towers being destroyed.

I don't fault such people for believing those they like and trust. They're just doing what humans have done since the invention of language. If it's anyone's fault, it's the people who know better but don't express their opinion, either because they want to avoid conflict or because they can't be bothered. We should speak, or we shouldn't complain when our kids catch measles, or we lose internet connectivity.

I speak so I do my small part in changing people's opinions.

Am I doing it right?

No, I don't.

I argue with people on every topic, rather than limiting myself to just important ones. I argue with friends and family about discrimination suffered by other folks, against rising Islamophobia in India, in favour of higher taxation to reduce inequality. All of these are worthwhile. But I also argue about trivial BS that doesn't make a difference. I'm so primed to continue debating that I don't stop and ask if it's worthwhile to have the conversation. I've been trying to improve here but I still exhibit this behaviour on while arguing with strangers online.

But it's not just in choice of topics where I get it wrong. It's also the tone and manner in how I engage with people who have different opinions. I'm too combative and at times, patronising. I don't show enough kindness to people with different opinions. In the heat of the moment I forget that people only listen to those they like and trust. Without kindness, they're hearing what I'm saying but not listening.

The first step to fixing a problem is first admitting that there is a problem. I'm not engaging with people in the right way, and I need to fix that.

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.


I'm not wise, but at least I can see that I need to change myself.

Will I continue speaking out?

Assuming I fix the way I talk to people who disagree, assuming that I stop starting arguments over petty things, will I continue to engage with people over big, important issues? I hope so, but possibly not.

When I speak to people with different views, often I end up burning bridges. The cost is clear, sometimes painfully so. The upside, potentially changing people's minds about this, often happens silently, if at all. I rarely get told if it happens.

When I can see only the downside and not the upside, I could get demoralised and quit. What's the point of fact checking every group forward on WhatsApp when it appears to change nothing? What's the point of writing posts and comments on Facebook when it seems like it makes no difference? Or showing up to protests when it feels like it has no effect?

When I see people I know stay silent because they're not affected, it makes me less likely to speak. After all, folks are only convinced to change their mind when they see many people speaking out, not when they see one person talking shrilly and excessively. My efforts would be futile.

Worse, I might grow selfish and realise that my life would probably be easier if I kept the peace with everyone by not challenging their views, however harmful or bigoted. I am lucky enough to lead a privileged life, one that's not likely to be improved directly by more social equality or less bigotry, so I might just pass on fighting for that. I hope not though.

I hope as a society we continue improving. I hope we say no to bigotry, reduce inequality and take on the important challenges like climate change. I hope that everyone, me included, who believes these things stands up and speaks for them. I hope.

Thanks to Kushagra Sinha for asking me the question that prompted this post.

Thanks to Nicky Case for creating the simulation on network science. It has influenced my thinking a lot.