Here in the swampy days of summer, it's easy to forget that soon the presidential debate season will be upon us, whether we like it or not. Obama and Romney will square off in a series of bland auditoriums, probing each other's defenses, offering their respective arguments to the American public. Nobody knows how it'll go, but one thing's for certain: once the two men leave the stage, pundits (both the professional and armchair varieties) will rush to declare one of them the "winner."
Which means, of course, one will become the inevitable "loser."
No matter how perfect your debating skills, defeat (or at least a draw) is inevitable at some point. Whether you talk yourself into a corner, or your opponent offers a more compelling argument, or you spill hot coffee in your lap and cede the battlefield to run screaming from the room, you will someday lose an intellectual head-to-head.
Defeat might crush your ego to a fine paste. It may drive you to reach for the nearest bottle of something high-proof, or an antidepressant so powerful it'd make you burble "I'm cool with this, bro!" in the face of imminent nuclear Armageddon. Neither of those count as acceptable behaviors, because -- say it loud and proud -- defeat is inevitable. The only question is how you react to the defeat.
Some people do not react well. They kick things, which is more likely to injure the foot than the thing. They curse out their opponent, or at least mutter some profane unmentionable behind his or her back. They fume, stomp, yell, cry, and do everything in their power to become a tooth-grinding annoyance to anyone in the vicinity. (Hopefully the presidential debates won't stoop to this level. But you never know.)
In elementary school, we called these people sore losers. With the onset of maturity and a broader vocabulary, though, we can offer a more nuanced -- nay, wise -- term for these misguided individuals: total douchebags.
And such douchebags, having let emotion override their thinking, aren't conducting themselves in particularly intellectual fashion.
Theory Into Practice
In the context of losing a debate, Operation Do Not Be A Douchebag is rather simple to execute.
Imagine this scenario: you're attending a dinner party well-stocked with wine, food, and intellectuals with a burning need to push their opinion on the week's big political issue. The debate starts in earnest. For an hour you manage to hold your own, relying on a combination of statistics cribbed from The New York Times and a few ideas "borrowed" from a political blog you hope nobody else at the table reads on a regular basis.
Then your advantage starts to slip away. One of your opponents flanks you with a key fact, follows it a moment later with a vital statistic, and then administers the coup de grace (that's French for "you're doomed") with a theory from a famous thinker that, yes, actually puts whole thing in perspective--just not your perspective. You sit there, hemming and hawing, as that smug bastard across the table helps himself to a triumphant glass of rosé. How to deal with this stinging loss?
Option A: Growl, "I'm still right" and refuse to say anything for the rest of the night.
Option B: Scream, "Wrong!" and pound the table like a drum.
Option C: Toss the bread knife into a nearby wall and stare wordlessly at your dinner companions until they slink from the room in shame.
Option D: Raise your own glass, nod, concede with something vague and positive ("That's certainly a good point," or "There's a lot of merit in that position") and shift the conversation as quickly as possible onto a new track. Remember to smile and, if you're the competitive type who transforms every touch football game into a bone-crushing tackle-fest, not grit your teeth with rage.
If you enjoy things like actual company at dinner, Option D is likely the best.
The Inevitable Footnote
Sure, you lost the debate. Life is bleak. The soundtrack wails with mournful violins. I have one word for you: rematch. Boost your knowledge of whatever issue, bide your time, and then oh-so-subtly position yourself for Round Two. If your opponent is a true intellectual, they will accept the renewed challenge. Just don't strike out twice in a row.
Adapted from How to Become an Intellectual, a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a truly brainy thinker, published by Adams Media.
Follow Nick Kolakowski on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nkolakowski