Hey, You Might Be Right.
A note-to-self on dialectic dominance via self-exorcism.
Do you want everyone to respect you? To be known as brilliant and virtuous? To live with unshakeable confidence? To be a symbol of victory? If you’re anything like me, you do.
Our shared yearning for dominance, regard and triumph is entirely valid. In fact, it is a worthy, attainable pursuit. You can get it if you really want. As far as I’m concerned, there’s just one secret, one thing to it. It’s all you need. If you really want it, you can have it.
What if you could be an intellectual and moral authority on a wide breadth of topics? How about every topic? Want people to rush to you for advice and insight, gifts which you posses in abundance and deliver charitably and effortlessly? Want your phrenic opponents to both fear and adore you? I sure do.
I swear, there’s a way to make it happen. If you receive this insight and use it, you will become powerful. The power is intoxicating, you must use it virtuously. If you don’t, your capacities will decay and you will be worse for it.1 With great power comes great responsibility, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Anyhow, how does cross-continental acclaim sound? Do you want your favorite pieces of human anatomy to start chasing you around for a change? What if you could obliterate every didactic challenger with a deft and relaxed hand, at the moral benefit of your foe, your audience and yourself? You should want these things. I do.
The path is simple, do not get distracted. Trust that the secret is easily accessed. You already know it, in fact. Use it in the spirit of competition and healthy aggression, but temper your pride, it will only make things worse. Actually don’t temper your pride, it will melt away on its own. And it’s fun to keep a little of it around: just take a look at me.
Do you want to know the secret? Are you sure? Fuck it, it doesn’t matter. I can’t wait to tell you. Here:
The secret is “I don’t know.”
Start with “I don’t know.”
From now on, you are an idiot, like me. Your mind is totally empty. It doesn’t matter the topic or domain, whether your rivals show up in good faith or bad faith, with facts or alternative facts or speculation or prophecies. Seriously, you can’t lose. You only have one position, one thesis, a non-thesis really, and you don’t even have to defend it. It defends itself. It is the great Tao.
Your challengers will come armed with analyses, reasons, citations, superstitions, emotions, opinions, and powerful magic. Some of them will be educated, thoroughly so, others not so much. Some will be equipped with steaming rage, others will be compassionate and kind.2 Welcome them all. Bump gloves should they be up to it, but always permit your adversary the first swing.
When they state their claims, take them at face value. There is no need to counter, just capitulate. Let them pelt you, throw flurry after flurry, elucidate their entire thesis. There’s no need to interrupt. If you get agitated, no big deal. It’s okay. Let it be. Say, “I’m angry and I don’t know why, don’t mind me.” If they’re upset, validate it. “I may not understand why you’re angry, but I’m sure you have your reasons. Your anger makes a lot more sense than mine.” Let them finish.
When you finally get a chance to shoot, don’t blow it. There’s nothing to assert. Just inquire. There’s no need to be vindictive. You’re an idiot, you have no idea what you’re talking about. Just ask what you’re talking about. Literally, ask “exactly what are we talking about here?” It doesn’t matter the issue or where you land on the political spectrum. Just inquire to the basic terms. Be curious, as a matter of policy. The key phrase here is “help me understand.”
“Help me understand, what is the deep state? What’s an ice cap? What’s methane? What is a patriarchy? What is power? Help me understand, what is economics? What is capitalism? Who’s Mussolini? What’s voter fraud? Help me understand, what is a blockchain?” You don’t know. Really. You don’t. Even if you were an expert on the subject material, you probably wouldn’t be able to authoritatively define the full breadth of key terms. Your match might be able to, however. Who knows?!
Once you’ve got the key terms, it’s time to learn some facts. Comb back through your rival’s thesis and double-check the relevant data. You certainly don’t know it. Inquire earnestly and let your opponent edify you.
“What is the GDP per capita of Switzerland? Who coined the term ‘graphical user interface?’ Who was the Serbian Despot in 1459? Do they practice Quantitative Easing in Morocco? How many Smart Water bottles did TSA confiscate last year? How many Episcopalian blondes voted for Marine Le Pen? And what percentage of them reside in the city of Lyon? In what countries is it legal to keep a pet Bengal tiger? What is the age of consent in Shenzhen?”
Here lies an opportunity to wear down and exhaust your opponent. Don’t take it. Assume their sources are trustworthy. Don’t be an asshole about it. Be a moron: a friendly, upright, curious moron. If you catch them in a jam, apologize. That’s not your intention. You’re just interested in learning, because you don’t know shit. You don’t know the facts. You’re not even certain what would constitute relevant facts. You’ll take their word for it.
Now you’ve heard their argument and verified their definitions and particulars. The real work can begin. You’ve done your best to listen, now prove it, idiot: Repeat it all back to them. But first, ask permission.
“Can I try to repeat back to you exactly what you said to make sure I understand?” This move is a lovely pirouette kick, a guaranteed clean shot to the body. It’s potentially fatal for some opponents. If they take it standing and permit you to continue, do your absolute best.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is what I understood…”
Acknowledge all the great points, recite their evidence, and make a generous case for the points that don’t make sense to you. Where evidence is lacking, assume it exists. It’s easy. You can’t lose, just confirm that they made you smarter in some way. If they interrupt or correct you or revert on some points, awesome. Thank them.
Once you’re on the same page about what they believe and why, you might have a chance to poke around. But again, ask first. “Hey, I’m kind of new to this, but would you mind if I took a look around?” If they mind, don’t do it. If they’re cool with it, be careful. If you find a hole, presume it is your own blind spot. Say, “I must be missing something here.”
If they don’t manage to patch up the crack for you, suggest an alternative viewpoint, but tread lightly. If your opponent interjects and catches you in a partial bind, awesome! Just admit it, you don’t know enough to make a claim. You’re not confident in any of your criticisms. Say, “I guess I’d have to do a lot more research. I’m not informed on this particular point either. I can’t be certain. Your guess is as good as mine.”
There’s an off-chance here that, being a novice idiot and all, you get way ahead of yourself. Say you’re in a real clear jam, and you both know it. Your combatant catches your blindside. “Gotcha!” they’ll exclaim. Lovely. Now’s your opp. for the Socratic Suplex…
“Wait, actually, you’re right. I’m wrong. That makes a lot of sense.” Don’t even ride the punch, just eat the shot straight on. Take it as a wake up call.
Forgive yourself completely. You’re an idiot, after all. But keep an eye out for the fireworks; your flimsy chin will send them flying. They’ll come in for the takedown and wake up in the pin. But it’s not fair to end the fight here, it’s kind of a cheap shot, after all. It’s your low blows that set up the reversal.
Dismount, dust off your shoulders, and offer a hand up for another round.
With your sportsmanlike gesture, you’ll win the audience back over. You’ll earn yourself a little leeway, a pinch of playful showmanship. I know I said it’s imperative to fight fair, but hey, if you still got that vindictive bone in you, that cynical teen, it’s alright. You get one sadistic indulgence: It’s called non-negotiable optimism.
No matter the topic, no matter how dire, be it the climate, US elections, or Ukrainian refugees. No matter the alarm or despair or dismay it brings to the table, try this. It works. You get one, completely fucking asinine claim to knowledge:
“I know it will all work itself out. People much smarter than me are on top of it. Everything’s going to be okay.” There is nothing quite as slick and salacious as staunch, defiant hope.
You don’t know how things will progress. You just learned the key terms. The only thing you know is that it will all be fine in the end. This is the only thing you can know because it is the only thing you can possibly believe. Anything else would be suicide. You also know this because you’re an idiot and only idiots can believe something like this.
They’re going to press you on this, as they should. “How exactly is this [impending existential threat] going to be neutralized? What makes you so confident? How exactly will things unfold in a non-extinction-threatening way?” Just tell them the truth:
“I can’t be certain. As an idiot I’m completely ruled by my id and emotions. Being optimistic makes me feel good. At the end of the day, I can’t know much because I’m an idiot, but it sure feels good to not worry too much. But hey, you might be right, I’m probably wrong.” That’s a good one, too: “You might be right.” Use it liberally.
But wait, won’t they get sick of this? Won’t they suspect you’re a bad actor, some sort of masochistic performance artist or foul trickster? Maybe, maybe not. If they do feel particularly aggravated and go full tilt (despite all your compassionate witnessing ✨), let them call you out. “Well then,” they’ll say, “what the fuck is wrong with you? What do you believe for certain? Do you stand for anything? Understand anything? Know anything? Do you have anything to contribute here besides stupid, baseless hope? It doesn’t even seem like you have a perspective on this issue!” Mmm, time for the guillotine.
Now you can clean the floor with your opponent and he’ll actually thank you for it. This is your chance to state your vapid, final thesis, to affirm and amplify the grand non-assertion you’ve been plainly hinting at this whole time. The thing he’s suspected, but refused to believe was possible. The sooner you get a chance to do this, the better, but most of the time you’ll have to earn the inquiry. Understandably, not everybody is in a rush to hear your idiotic opinion. It’s up to your adversaries to set you up for the counter. If they inquire, you’re lucky. Be honored and deliver the knockout with humility and grace:
“Wait, as a matter of fact, you’re right. I have nothing to offer here. I don’t have an opinion. In fact, I’m not even even entitled to one. I don’t know how on earth I could possibly go about making an assertive claim to knowledge. I’m not even confident about what I ate for breakfast.”
You can whip out a few dollar words, too…
“Everything in this world is a complex multivariate equation arising from myriad factors both legible and opaque about which I’d have to study in immense detail for weeks, months, or years in order to formulate even a loose hypothesis. And I don’t even know what multivariate means. I have great regard for your opinion seeing as I’m incapable of developing one myself.”
Mean it, because it’s true. Do not insult their rage, their confidence or perspective. It will be tempting, but that’s because they’ll practically be begging for it. Instead, yield. They’ll plead for your defiance. Offer them none. “I’m sorry if you feel that I’ve wasted your time. I learned a lot from you, if it’s any consolation.” It’s true, you really did.
Yield. They will pass out on the mat and thank you. Your audience will be breathless, too.
When your opponents come to, they will say “I think we’re on the same page, we agree. Awesome!” They will recite a fresh new perspective, something dazzling, something you couldn’t have come up with yourself, something slightly less wrong, slightly closer to the truth. And they will say “Amazing! I did it all by myself!”
But deep down they will know it was your show, and they will be happy about it. The audience saw plainly what happened, after all. You will all know that you won the exchange by a landslide, and your rival will claim they were rooting for you the whole time. They will say they never had such an exhilarating defeat. You will get that sweet headrush of didactic domination, yet leave the scene smarter, with a clean conscience, knowing you nourished both yourself, your opponent and the whole arena.
You won, you really did. But the true victory was not the match you thought you were fighting. That event was just the postgame show, dessert. By the time your opponent showed up, the main event was over.
The true title fight happened moments before, against the ultimate adversary, a fearsome Goliath, the final boss: yourself. In the first moment of your self-prescribed idiocy, you overcame your inner genius, your analytical strongman, your 6-figure education and nuclear grade vocabulary. And thus you will overcome the world.
Go home. Your work is done and it will fade from memory. The honeyed relish of moral and intellectual victory is no longer a frequent and welcome guest: rather, it is a permanent resident of your being. There is no need to cling to your glory. You are glory.
Put down the mask of your diploma, your followers, your Lululemon polo shirts and premium podcast subscriptions. When you are content to be simple and meek, they will retweet your name with heart emojis across disparate digital echo chambers and cite you endlessly. Be a fool, the fool that you are. Swiftly, they will crown you king.
Then again, what the hell do I know?
Alas, you will be better for having tried and been corrupted in this vein than to remain in your current framework. Better a self-aware demagogue than a blind vindictive polymath, like me.