On Ribbonfarm's Portal and Flags

Published: 2022-07-11

People who spend their time debating others online are throwing their precious hours of human existence into a pit they'll never retrieve them from. It's the most useless act someone can partake in, even more so than playing video games or watching Rick and Morty.

No one is going to change their mind on abortion, gun-control, or any other hot button topic because of a response written by User07373 on FaceBook or Twitter. I'm sorry, but it's just not going to happen.

Sadly, the same thing can be said about real life interactions as well, though just not as strongly. If you have a 1% chance of winning someone over online from a debate, you might have a 7% chance of winning someone over in real-life. It's not much, but it's honest work I guess.

The reason it's so hard to win people over is because the issues are so complex and nothing is black and white. Another reason, though, is that most people approach complex debates in a horrible way. Ribbonfarm, a popular blog on the "constructions in magical thinking", writes this:

The point of complex debates is not to prove your side right and the other wrong. Smart people make this mistake most often, and end up losing before they ever get started. The point of complex debate is always seduction: winning-over rather than winning. You do this not through logic or even novel insight, but by demonstrating a more fertile way of thinking. One that promises to throw up an indefinitely extended stream of surprises within an ever-widening scope.

In other words, someone doesn't win a debate by having an absurd amount of evidence and reason, but rather painting a beautiful picture of a new way of thinking. Or as Ribbonfarm puts it, "turning it into a portal to a hidden universe of thought."

The opposite action to opening a portal is planting a flag, which most people do so on top of a pile of circumstantial evidence, weak reasoning, and ever-complicating opinions and facts.

So how does one start to paint this ever-beautiful picture? By letting go of winning:

All it takes is giving up the desire to “win” and the innate openness to experience that allows you to signal a readiness for adventure without even being conscious of it.

The scary thing with this approach is that it requires someone to give up power and control. That becomes the real thing you're "debating against."