Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Why People Argue About Things That Don’t Matter

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 16, 2011

People spend a seemingly absurd amount of time arguing about things that don’t matter: PC vs Mac, Edward vs Jacob, Coke vs Pepsi, the list goes on. These subjects are all either pointless or very close to it, and yet people spend inordinate amounts of time on them. Why?

The first reason is that, for many people, arguing is fun. Not everyone likes to argue, and those who do don’t always want to, but there are many occasions in which a good strong debate is a deeply satisfying experience. A lot of the time, the debate topic doesn’t matter so much as the debate itself. Still, it seems that it would be more fulfilling to debate a topic more consequential than which fictional character is cooler or which soft drink is better. However, there is a strong barrier surrounding most really good debate topics that render them off-limits: they are part of people’s identity.

There are many social situations in which it is acceptable to loudly disagree over which operating system is better, but taboo to discuss political issues. The reason for this is that many people have strong opinions about operating systems, but few consider those opinions to be important pieces of their identity. Say that gay marriage is wrong or that marijuana should be legalized, and some people will get offended. Say that a person is wrong for having a certain opinion on gay marriage or drug legalization, and that person will very likely feel personally threatened. But say that someone likes the wrong operating system and few people will mind.

Arguing about pointless topics is pointless, but it still can be fun. Many people enjoy a good debate but don’t want to risk provoking offense; the solution is to avoid serious topics and instead argue about things that don’t matter.

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6 Responses to “Why People Argue About Things That Don’t Matter”

  1. phynnboi said

    I was first exposed to this perspective in intro phil in college. It followed the observation that political (particularly nationalistic) and religious beliefs are typically indoctrinated into children by their parents. I’ve found it to be true, especially of religious beliefs, where very few people gravitate far from how they were raised: I’ve seen lots of Christians who were raised in one denomination switch to another in adulthood (unless they were raised Catholic), but far fewer people make a permanent switch from Christianity to something totally different, like Hinduism or Shintoism.

    I would like to point out a subtlety in wording here:

    Say that a person is wrong for having a certain opinion on gay marriage or drug legalization, and that person will very likely feel personally threatened. But say that someone likes the wrong operating system and few people will mind.

    Saying someone is something is a statement about their identity. I know that “you are wrong” is shorthand for “the assertion you are making is wrong,” and so does everyone else, but the words themselves say that the person, not merely their assertion, is wrong. Contrast with your second quoted statement, “you like the wrong operating system,” that’s far less personally threatening wording: It’s a statement more about the operating system than the person. While people rationally understand the longhand that the shorthand stands for, I have to wonder if, on a deeper, more primal level, they don’t take the words at face value, and thus behave as if they’re being personally attacked.

    Check out #5 on this list:

    http://www.cracked.com/article_18823_5-insane-ways-words-can-control-your-mind.html

    • I definitely see your point. Saying “you are wrong for liking that operating system” would be more insulting than saying “you like the wrong operating system” but still less insulting than saying “you are wrong for being a Christian.”

  2. phynnboi said

    Bah. Still didn’t take my quote tags. 😡

  3. Linda said

    One of the big considerations is how an opinion reflects our deeply held values. We don’t generally have guiding principles about computer operating systems, but we do about marriage or drugs. It’s more than just whether a topic is part of our identity because of inculcation. Debating over values, principles, or beliefs challenges us to reflect on how we make sense of our lives. Of course, we’re going to defend that as much as possible because otherwise we may end up invalidating something we had held strongly as a personal truth, which then might invalidate our life choices.

  4. lrflew said

    Politics, sports, and religion are just excuses to argue.

  5. Brian said

    I’m sick and tired of lids on coffee! If you don’t want to spill your coffee, you shouldn’t be driving with it!

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