But the Fighter Still Remains: The Purpose of This Discussion and Others

"In all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane"
~Oscar Wilde

What is the purpose of discussion, of argument, of this little discussion? How do minds change, and when, and why?

Oscar Wilde may have been the funniest man in recorded history. With the admirable quote above, he makes light of one of humanity's stupidest propensities. The sober truth behind that little witticism is part of why I avoid talking politics online, of why my strong opinions don't come out of their passive-aggressive wraps more often, of why the first hints of debate can leave me shuddering to the core. I am conflict-averse by nature, and that has been powerfully reinforced by various experiences.

Working off my perhaps over-emphatic statement last week that "Minds develop, but they don't often change", Masha took the conversation on a detour from discussion about art and beauty to discussion about discussion. "Minds change," Masha says, "often and for good reason"—a flat contradiction of my own assertion, though I suspect our opinions don't diverge as much as might appear.

Mr. Pond elected to sit out this week, not because of the topic but because of other busyness, so it's just Masha and I in the ring for now.

There are at least two reasons why Masha and I chose clashing terminology. One is that I was simply more specific: minds develop rather than changing outright. More on this later, because I think it directly relates to the purpose of discussion. Two, we differ in emotional response to the idea of argument, probably for several reasons, but mostly because of personality variance.

So Masha asks us: what is the purpose "of discussion, of argument, of this little discussion?" Actually, those are three very different questions, requiring three very different answers:

1) The purpose of discussion is the exchange of ideas, which provides opportunity for mental growth and shared understanding.

2) The purpose of argument is to contrast opposing ideas, usually with the goal of finding a winner.

3) The purpose of this little discussion—at least, in my own opinion—is to exchange ideas generally relating to art and artistry, myth and beauty, in order to develop our own minds and gain common understanding even if we do not achieve agreement.

Masha goes on to ask "How do minds change, and when, and why?" They develop, I say. It is a rare thing for a mature mind to make a sudden reversal, and when it happens, it is generally due to new information. Old questions and new information gave me my own biggest mental shift, from armchair Calvinist theologian to Catholic—but I consider even that a development rather than a change. It happened in a matter of weeks and stunned me and everyone I knew, but my mind was much more prepared for that shift than anyone realized, including myself.

Most of the time, minds develop along a curving path, influenced by numerous factors: logic, emotion, imagination, experience, resonance, influx of ideas and the mode of their expression, and even personality-based thought processes. Discussion is one way of guiding the mind; reading is another, teaching yet another.

But whether we call it development or use the umbrella term change—we'll go with the latter for the moment—minds change when they're open to a new possibility and a convincing one comes along. Discussion can aid this. Argument, real argument, rarely does; it tends to reinforce already-held opinions. This is why debate around hot-button political issues polarizes instead of inspiring consensus; the more you can portray your sparring partner as the other team, as them, as the enemy, as crazy and/or evil, the more you rally your own—and the more you earn the hatred of the opposition. Each side feeds off the other's vitriol.

"Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest"
~Paul Simon

I don't have words for how much I hate this. Unfortunately, I don't have the answer to it, either. Throughout history, it's generally meant war. Nowadays in the West, at least it's usually just verbal bullying, though that's bad enough.

Conflict horrifies me; it always has, and I suppose it always will. But this blogalectic is not often truly confrontational. The three of us began with some diverging ideas which I believe we still hold, but we go on growing in our own thought and in understanding and respect for each other. None of us, I think, holds any hard feelings, and in this world of bloodshed, that's reason enough for gladness.


  1. Since I'm terribly conflict averse, I'm just going to agree with everything you said. :)

    Actually, there are a few points in which I disagree with what you said or have a different nuanced view of some particular point. But I'll need more time to think on them. Maybe I'll change my mind... ;)

    1. Hahaha!

      Well, if you come up with a way to express the disagreement or different nuanced view, I'm sure I'll be able to read it without getting entirely freaked out. And maybe even respond. This isn't the most nuanced post I've ever written, so there's definitely room for some of that. :)


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