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Mind Macros 54: Argument is war, thinking in metaphors, and mistakes being a prerequisite for success
"The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well." — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.
Food for Thought
I. Argument is war
"To give some idea of what it could mean for a concept to be metaphorical and for such a concept to structure an everyday activity, let us start with the concept ARGUMENT and the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. This metaphor is reflected in our everyday language by a wide variety of expressions:
Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
You disagree? Okay, shoot!
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
He shot down all of my arguments.
"It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war. Though there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle, and the structure of an argument—attack, defense, counterattack, etc.—reflects this. It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing.
"This is an example of what it means for a metaphorical concept, namely, ARGUMENT IS WAR, to structure (at least in part) what we do and how we understand what we are doing when we argue. The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. It is not that arguments are a subspecies of war. Arguments and wars are different kinds of things—verbal discourse and armed conflict—and the actions performed are different kinds of actions. But ARGUMENT is partially structured, understood, performed, and talked about in terms of WAR. The concept is metaphorically structured, the activity is metaphorically structured, and, consequently, the language is metaphorically structured." — From Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.
Using the war metaphor frames how we should approach arguments and what the exchange should achieve. The objective is to destroy our opponents, tear down their defenses and force them to succumb to our superior intellect. By using such a framework, people will focus more on winning an argument than on being factually accurate. Somehow changing our minds has become conflated with admitting weakness, a blow many egos struggle to take.
Imagine if everything you believed as a teenager was recorded and available to anyone at any time. For heavy social media users under 35, this isn’t an episode of Black Mirror but a daily reality they must contend with. Worse still, archival websites ensure that even if you delete a post, a permanent record of your transgressions remain. One of my favorite online writers, Gurwinder Bhogal, explains further:
"Once an opinion has been uttered in public, however poorly thought out, people feel the need to defend it. Otherwise, they will look weak if they change their minds, or so their ego tells them. People can't bare to be wrong, they want to be right. And now there is a public record of everything they've ever said, or done. So they can't grow or develop because of their past posts online."
Online profiles may be seen as a net negative, but the platforms they exist on have revealed much about human nature. As part of a testimony to the United States Congress about the harms of social media, the following statistics were revealed:
“With over a billion hours on YouTube watched daily, 70% of those billion hours are from the recommendation system. The most recommended keywords in recommended videos were: get schooled, shreds, debunks, dismantles, debates, rips confronts, destroys, hates, demolishes, obliterates."
A content creator will take a section from an argument between intellectuals, politicians, or anyone else of interest and title the video "person A destroys person B," or "person B obliterates person A." This sensationalization of media is not novel but reinforces the analogy of arguments being war.
The effects of these metaphors are not localized to the internet but bleed over into the real world. Take the example of politics; when any political figure is gunning for office, they argue against their adversaries to sway voters. Not long after debates have concluded, floods of clips using the keywords above, 'destroys,' 'obliterates,' and 'demolishes,' will be trending online. These clips will be viewed millions more than the actual event on short-form video platforms that exclude all context. Not only will our future political elections be increasingly influenced by such media, but politicians will optimize debates for getting the 'obliterates' tag applied to a section of their argument. Rather than factual debates, optimizing for trending content will be the default marketing strategy for politicians.
II. Mistakes are a prerequisite for success
"So embedded is the link between mistakes and stupidity in American culture that it can be shocking to learn that not all cultures share the same phobia about them. In the 1970s, psychologists Harold Stevenson and James Stigler became interested in the math gap in performance between Asian and American schoolchildren: By the fifth grade, the lowest-scoring Japanese classroom was outperforming the highest-scoring American classroom. To find out why, Stevenson and Stigler spent the next decade comparing elementary classrooms in the U.S., China, and Japan. Their epiphany occurred as they watched a Japanese boy struggle with the assignment of drawing cubes in three dimensions on the blackboard. The boy kept at it for forty-five minutes, making repeated mistakes, as Stevenson and Stigler became increasingly anxious and embarrassed for him. Yet the boy himself was utterly unselfconscious, and the American observers wondered why they felt worse than he did. 'Our culture exacts a great cost psychologically for making a mistake,' Stigler recalled, 'whereas in Japan, it doesn't seem to be that way. In Japan, mistakes, error, confusion [are] all just a natural part of the learning process.' (The boy eventually mastered the problem, to the cheers of his classmates.) The researchers also found that American parents, teachers, and children were far more likely than their Japanese and Chinese counterparts to believe that mathematical ability is innate; if you have it, you don't have to work hard, and if you don't have it, there's no point in trying. In contrast, most Asians regard math success, like achievement in any other domain, as a matter of persistence and plain hard work. Of course you will make mistakes as you go along; that's how you learn and improve. It doesn't mean you are stupid.
"Making mistakes is central to the education of budding scientists and artists of all kinds, who must have the freedom to experiment, try this idea, flop, try another idea, take a risk, be willing to get the wrong answer. One classic example, once taught to American schoolchildren and still on many inspirational Web sites in various versions, is Thomas Edison's reply to his assistant (or to a reporter), who was lamenting Edison's ten thousand experimental failures in his effort to create the first incandescent light bulb. 'I have not failed,' he told the assistant (or reporter). 'I successfully discovered 10,000 elements that don't work.' Most American children, however, are denied the freedom to noodle around, experiment, and be wrong in ten ways, let alone ten thousand. The focus on constant testing, which grew out of the reasonable desire to measure and standardize children's accomplishments, has intensified their fear of failure. It is certainly important for children to learn to succeed; but it is just as important for them to learn not to fear failure. When children or adults fear failure, they fear risk. They can't afford to be wrong." — From Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.
In much of the East, failure is a metaphor for growth, knowledge, and achievement. While in the West, failure is seen as a character flaw, something to be ashamed of and embarrassed about.
We suffer from a ‘tyranny of positivity’ because of our cultural beliefs about the self, according to author Susan Cain in her book Bittersweet. We judge ourselves in black-and-white terms, as winners or losers, or our efforts as successful or unsuccessful. Even the definition of the word 'loser' has morphed into taking on an alternative meaning:
“This word—loser—had been part of the English language for hundreds of years, but now it carried new meaning. In the sixteenth century, it simply meant ‘one who suffers loss.’ But by nineteenth-century America, according to [Scott] Sandage, the ‘loser’ acquired a stink. It became something you were, while others were not. It came to mean, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, a ‘hapless person, one who habitually fails to win.’”
An anecdote from Cain's life illustrates her definition of the 'tyranny of positivity':
“Recently, I looked through some photos from my teen years. There I was, smiling broadly at senior prom and college holiday parties. Yet I remember my state of mind at the moment those photos were taken: sometimes as merry as my pose suggested, but often the smile was a façade. And you might think this is just the way adolescents are. But once I had a boyfriend who grew up in Eastern Europe, and he showed me his photo album from his teen years. I was shocked to see him, his friends, and his high school girlfriend posing, on page after page, with pouts and frowns. For them, that was cool.
Americans, it turns out, smile more than any other society on earth. In Japan, India, Iran, Argentina, South Korea, and the Maldives, smiling is viewed as dishonest, foolish, or both, according to a study by Polish psychologist Kuba Krys. Many societies believe that expressing happiness invites bad luck and is a sign of selfishness, shallowness, and an uninteresting, even sinister, mind. When McDonald’s opened its first franchise in Russia, local workers were bemused by its ethos of employee cheeriness, according to the radio show and podcast Invisibilia. What is this American smile? they asked. ‘We are all serious about life, because life is struggle,’ as one employee put it. ‘We were always a little bit afraid of America’s smile.’”
Quotes to Ponder
I. Lao Tzu on confidence in the self:
"When you are content to be simply yourself and don't compare or compete, everyone will respect you."
II. Ralph Waldo Emerson on the purpose of life:
"The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well."
Thank you for reading,