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Meaningless Debates and Why They're Important

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By: Paul Andrews

Seven Super Bowl Championships, five Super Bowl MVPs, still competing and still winning, at the age of 43. Now, I have been a Tom Brady stan since the Year of the Flow (Brady fans will know which year I’m referring to), but those accolades have a certain ** ring ** to it, don’t they? His latest championship triumph seems to have silenced the NFL’s GOAT debate once and for all. However, there was another debate that was born in the game’s aftermath. Who is the greatest athlete of all time, the one GOAT that spans all sports and eras? Listen to the talking heads on any sports station and you’ll hear a variety of answers: Jordan, Brady, Russell, Tiger, just to name a few. But contrary to how debates usually unfold in the rapid fire hot take industry, there has been one take to rule them all. Listen closely and you’ll hear that such a debate is meaningless, that it’s an impossible comparison.

That may be the case. However, while meaningless on the surface, this sort of debate is anything but. The meaningless debate is essential to our social fabric and quite, well, meaningful. Disagreements over whether cereal is a soup (no), which direction toilet paper should be unrolled (over), and whether Harry should have ended up with Hermione (stop right there) are significant to our lives. Meaningless debates help refine our own thought patterns and tastes, teach us how to respectfully and hilariously disagree with one another, and in the process increase social bonding.

So what is a meaningless debate? Let’s debate it. Just kidding, I’m not a psycho who’s going to go all meta on this piece.

But truth be told, I’ve been involved in enough meaningless debates that one might reasonably think I am. I’ve been on the shores of apathy, where only a heated debate over whether sorbet is ever an appropriate take-out substitute to ice cream kept my passions intact. I’ve seen despair, and it is a world where one prefers Pizza Pizza to Pizza Hut in a choice of fast-food, franchise pizza. I’ve even debated how a man should relieve himself (there’s only one appropriate answer by the way). Are these examples of debates that are truly meaningless?

Of course there might be merit in reaching a conclusion to such disagreements. But what they have in common is what makes them meaningless. They are low-stakes to get involved in, and low-pressure once participating. There’s zero skin-in-the-game and almost no serious personal identification with either side. Unless you run a gelato and/or pizza shop, in which case lighten up will ya?

It is this lightened up attitude, this “whatever” mentality to such discussions that makes them significant. In debating whether you’d rather have a Ferrari or a Porsche, one observes their own feelings, thought processes, and tastes. Why is it that I just feel right in a Ferrari versus how I think I would feel in a Porsche? Is it because I have an unexamined fantasy to live like a casanova in the clubs of Milan? In a meaningless debate you’re examining why you think and feel a certain way. What more important task is there in life than to get to know one’s self?

In doing so, one learns about their tastes. Perhaps they’ll see the other side’s point of view and grow their preferences. Maybe one’s thought processes can adapt as well. A meaningless debate is like a playground for personal development, enriching both how one thinks and what one views favourably. Far from being meaningless, a disagreement over whether Ross and Rachel were really on a break could make someone a better person.

The low-stakes and low-pressure environment of a meaningless debate also improves how people communicate with one another. As someone who’s been in several shouting matches over a build-your-own-team of all-time NBA greats, I know how odd that sounds. But compare such a debate to any conflict over sex, politics, or religion. Will someone take their picks of NBA legends more personally than their deep beliefs in a higher power or religious order to their life? It’s not likely.

However, the heat from a very personal disagreement over sex, politics, or religion could be exhilarating and a great learning experience. Unfortunately, they often end up in hurt and misunderstanding. A meaningless debate offers a chance to have the same heat without the spice. It’s all of the same fun and intensity, minus the pain.

The ability to have a playful disagreement is an extremely important skill to learn, especially in today’s culture of increasing divisiveness. If we can disagree strongly with a close friend over something that doesn’t matter personally to either party, then perhaps respectful disagreements could be discussed over more sensitive topics. Meaningless debates give us experience in lowering the temperature by making one another laugh. Acknowledging the absurdity of a pointless disagreement, or how ridiculous you find your counterpart’s take is inherently funny. It’s arguably the premise for 90% of Seinfeld’s comedic appeal.

Now, nobody is immune to getting overly emotional a la George Costanza during a debate (you can stuff your sorrys in a sack, mister!). But experience in meaningless debate helps prevent one’s better angels from being taken over when a discussion is more significant. And if it’s possible to have more respectful communication with one another, then perhaps a very worrisome trend in society can be reversed.

It’s been twenty years since Robert Putnam explored America’s decline of community and social bonds in Bowling Alone. The trends he highlighted are of interest worldwide and have only gotten worse since then. Associational membership has declined, community centres are emptying, and everyday connections to people outside our innermost circles are increasingly rare. Could meaningless debate improve the bonds between people? I strongly believe so.

If we can make one another laugh by exposing our ludicrous takes, then social bonds can be formed and strengthened. We learn about one another and make oneself vulnerable, two behaviours that are central to forming bonds. There is a reason why pineapple on pizza is such a prominent dating icebreaker, after all. It’s also possible that pointless arguments demonstrate the common humanity between us. They expose two parties engaged in the same good faith, respectful debate over something that doesn’t matter at all. They’re in the same boat, doing the same thing, with the same goal. Isn’t that true of everyday life anyway?

Whether someone acknowledges that this is the result of their discussion over what the first layer of a seven-layer dip should be is irrelevant. In the process of determining that crucial foundation, they’ll have forged a social bond, learned how to respectfully disagree with one another, and refined their own thoughts and tastes. Unless they believe the first layer should be anything other than refried beans. In which case they can’t be trusted to cook a Hungry-Man (the microwave dinner, not a person) and should not be engaged with. Just sayin’.

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