We're pretty bad at arguing.
Look at last week's State of the Union address, or the entirety of Congress, or religious or political discussions at every family dinner. Americans treat arguments like fights to the death, pulling out all the stops to "win" – but what does winning even look like?
A great example is in the excellent 2005 movie "Thank You For Smoking," in which Aaron Eckhart plays someone who is paid to argue — Nick Naylor, a lobbyist for the tobacco industry.
At one point, Naylor is demonstrating to his son Joey how to argue by asking Joey to try to convince him, a chocolate-lover, that vanilla is the best flavor of ice cream. Naylor ends up winning the argument by calling his son un-American, but Joey is unconvinced, and tells his father he never argued for chocolate as the best flavor.
"I don't have to," Naylor responds. "I proved that you're wrong. And if you're wrong, I'm right."
Naylor goes even further, saying it was never the son he was trying to convince, but "them" — whoever's watching. The battle isn't fought for the person you're arguing with, but for an impartial observer.
Think about the way political debates go. Obama passes some law, or pursues policy that brings the unemployment rate down to the lowest it's been since before the recession. The response from the right is never a congratulations, or a pat on the back, but always an attack. That's how all politicians, Democractic and Republican alike, make their money — they're only elected and financed if they can convince people the other guy is screwing it all up.
This has created a ruthless political culture. We have people yelling at us from all directions about who's ruining America today, and we feel like the only option is to either turn into a crazy zealot or to check out of politics altogether. Not surprisingly, most people just choose to abstain from the whole thing.
Many of us are like that. We "don't watch the news" or "don't follow politics." This is lamented by the higher-ups in politics — they say us "young people" don't care about the state of our country, or our own future.
But that's totally untrue.
Take the Affordable Care Act, which is pretty much fully operational as of last month. It's been almost four years since the bill passed, and yet many of us — myself included — are in the dark about what that really means.
We don't have an opinion not because we don't care, but because we don't know.
The reason we don't know is not because there isn't information. There are hundreds of columns and YouTube videos "explaining" Obamacare, but all of them are yelling at us just like the talking heads on MSNBC and Fox News. They aren't explaining, they're talking about death panels and illegal immigrants and millions of kids dying of inadequate healthcare.
Maybe us "young people" aren't obsessed with politics because we care more about being friendly and accepting of our neighbors than joining the gladiatorial fights on CNN. Staying out of these arguments can save our friendships and families. Maybe we're just doing our best to remember the "United" part of the U.S.A.
So we're in a bind, but not a new one. And like most age-old problems, there's an age-old answer. 2,300 years old, actually.
Socrates (the ancient Greek philosopher) really knew how to argue. He wasn't trying to win some argument and high five his toga-wearing friends. He was trying to find the truth. As such, he used what we now call the "Socratic Method" of learning — he just asked questions to figure out what the truth was.
This was the strategy of Phil Neisser and Jacob Hess when they wrote "You're Not as Crazy as I Thought," a book about the national political divide and how to argue without making enemies. They have one piece of advice — really try to figure out what the other person thinks and believes. Don't try to convince them, try to understand.
While this may not make enough controversy to sell ads on Fox News and Huffington Post, it can work in our everyday lives. Be it in discussions about politics or just conversations about favorite movies or music, being curious is probably a better strategy than being aggressive.
Maybe then we can start learning from our arguments.
Evan Ford is a junior in philosophy. He can be reached at email@example.com.