True Argument is Never About Winning

Nothing can change unless we can have a civil conversation.

—Grace Shoshana Lane

Those who know only their side of an argument know little of that.

—John Stuart Mill


     Awhile back, I received an email from an acquaintance in serious trouble.

Hello Barry,

Just hoping this email has reached you well, I’m sorry for this emergency and for not informing you about my urgent trip to Manila, Philippines but I just have to let you know my present predicament.

Everything was fine until I was attacked on my way back to the hotel, I wasn’t hurt but I lost my money, bank cards, mobile phone and my bag in the course of this attack. I immediately contacted my bank in other to block my cards and i also made a report at the nearest police station.

I’ve been to the embassy and they are helping me with my documentation so i can y out but I’m urgently in need of some money to pay for my hotel bills and my ight ticket home. I will de nitely REFUND you as soon as i get back home.

Kindly let me know if you would be able to help me out so I can forward you the details required for you to get the funds to me.

Waiting to hear back from you.

Thanks, Janet

Most of the time, I ignore such emails for what they are, attempts to steal money from innocent people who believe in the fake story—a con job. But this day, I was in a strange, playful mood, and I decided I would see what would happen if I pretended to believe in the story. I wrote back the following email:

Wow, Janet,

What terrible luck. I don’t usually give money to people but your story was so compelling I feel I need to give something. There are so many great people in the world but you are one of the best I know. You are so kind and giving and would give your shirt to a stranger. How much do you need?


     Five minutes later, I received this reply.


I am glad you responded. I am really freaked out here. As soon as I am back home tomor- row, I would definitely refund the money. All I need now is $1,900.00 USD but i will really ap- preciate any amount you can afford to loan me for now. I will like you to have it sent through western union to my information below.

Receiver’s Name: JANET xxxxxxxxx
Location: xxxxx xxxxxxx, Manila City, 1008 Philippines

As soon as it is done, kindly get back to me with the con rmation number and all the western union details given to you including the amount sent.

Let me know how soon you can get this done.

Respond soon. Janet

      I wrote back again, this time getting a bit imaginative.

This is an amazing coincidence, Janet.

My brother, Isaac, works for the U.S. State Department in Manila City. I have e-mailed him and he says he can deliver you the money in cash and in person. Give me your exact ad- dress and a time for the cash delivery.


Thanks for your effort, but at the moment i cannot leave where i am. I want the money trans- ferred to me here via western union. Let me know how soon you can get that done.


Not to worry, Janet.

I have forwarded this note to the authorities at the embassy, and they are tracing the IP ad- dress as we speak.

Rest assured someone will be at your door within the next hour or so with the money. Please show them your identi cation.


    A few minutes later came the final response.


I wrote back:

Life is too short. We are here for such a brief moment. Don’t steal.

No reply.


After this exchange, I had a strange sense of accomplishment and also a feeling of failure and sadness. I had fooled the fooler, tricked the trickster. But to do so, I had lied. Was this really a victory or some pointless exercise? My preacher self felt that I was leading the fraudster to see the folly of his ways. My lesser self was just playing around, not much better than the fraudster. Do two wrongs ever make a right?

Lawyer Alan Dershowitz says that if you truly win an argument you don’t win: both sides win because both sides are led to a greater truth. He also says you can’t argue with knuckleheads or ideologues who refuse to see anything but their own point of view or with people who are basically deceitful in their intent. It strikes me that much of what we call debate on television is knuckleheads yelling at each other, and what we call debate competition in high school and college is simply a more refined version of the same game. Like the perpetrator of a fraud, a person who argues, no matter how rationally, practices some form of deceit if the argument doesn’t seek a deeper understanding of a shared reality. An ideologue is the enemy of democracy because, like the fraudster, he only pretends to listen while always pursuing his own personal gains. He perceives argument as a con game to win and not an inquiry into what is true for all.

As we engage in spirited debate on Facebook during this election season it is important to remember that Democracy depends on people who can listen with their hearts and minds and who genuinely seek common ground.  Arguing is a life skill on which depends the future of civilization. Like the protagonist of a dystopian novel living in a post-information age where people grasp for simplistic answers to complex problems, language arts teachers have the power to elevate the discourse and tune students’ minds to complexity. Argument, then, becomes an inquiry into what is real, a search for Truth,  not just an attempt to win.

(adapted for the book After THE END: Teaching and Learning creative Revision, Heinemann 2016)

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