Cliché-upending aside, I do believe in the title. “The chain breaks at its weakest” is used to remind warriors, soldiers, strategists and businessmen alike to always attack their enemies at the weakest. It is the quickest and most pragmatic way to break through the opponent’s defence formation and ensure their submission, humiliation or retreat.
Re-phrasing the title, I assert that the (human) chain breaks at its strongest. Strategists and warriors have known this for long too. Structures like armies, organizations and even countries are logically modularised, and would stop functioning if any part of their daily process breaks down. The opposite is true for the humans in and around those structures. As long as we have strong people to rally around, someone who’s still fighting*, we will stand our ground*. So enemies try to attack and capture the leaders first, to weaken the morale. This obsession with leaders as a crutch for individual weakness is also perhaps why authoritarian regimes worm their way into our countries.
The crucial difference however, is that in war, once you defeat an enemy, you don’t have to live with them. Once you rout their army, your home is safe and you go back to live with your countrymen when your duty is done. If you are grabbing their lands though, then all pretence of civility melts away anyway, and democracy/rationality gives way to a “might is right” mind-set where anything I say is moot and anything the authority says is truth. However, today, such conflicts are rare and in isolated regions (no small feat of humanity).
The problem starts when the “war” metaphor extends through to all areas of public life, bleeding into civilian discourse and society**. Soldiers and war- veterans are often used as a crutch when facts and reason are against you. Defence budgets are raised by large margins year by year while health and education are neglected. Even in public debates and discussions, that language and consequently that mind-set have become entrenched^. As Orwell explained pretty well, language determines how we think^^. And thus, with permeation of this war-like perpetually defensive mind-set into the public consciousness, many of us have become hateful and embittered. If I take names of any particular ideologies or groups then immediately their defendants would be up-in-arms* about it.
The key point consequently, is that “the chain breaks at its strongest” extends to all of a person’s dearly held ideas, opinions and ideologies too. It applies to the chain of ideas that make up a person’s world-view. And if you merely show the weakness of their most basic and outward concepts, they will cling even closer to the few core concepts they hold dear. Even if they themselves might not have scrutinized those core values rigorously. Even if you defeat* someone in such a way, they probably wouldn’t change. Because they didn’t give permission to you to do this to them. This is the tricky part, because out-rightly asking for such permission might lead to denial. It might have to be coaxed, in a non-threatening manner, and you will have to put in that effort if you really think that person would be better off not thinking like they think now. You will have to challenge yourself and strain your cognitive limits to actually change a person to their core. And it usually cannot be done in one go. It is often a slower process.But let’s say that you are a selfish person. You don’t care if the other person gets hurt. You are the “facts don’t care about feelings!” type. There is a massive danger to you too, down this particular path of thinking and arguing. You will become lazy and weak in your own thoughts if you only attack the weakest arguments to get brownie points and take a bow. You might stop growing when you don’t have to learn, because to learn you first have to say “I really don’t know.” And in today's world, stagnation would ensure that you are left behind in the dust.
If you want to truly win an argument and not lose the person, you have to define what your motives for winning are. If you just want to humiliate them in defeat and throw them out and if you actually have the capability to make sure you never have to interact with them in any way again, then sure. Go ahead and mock their weakest ideas, and delegitimize their entire world-view if needed. Use that supposed weakness as a method to throw doubt on everything they say. To deny everything else that supports their views. Then declare yourself the winner and strut off to victory*. However if there is the tiniest chance that you will still face that person tomorrow, that they will still be a part of your professional, private or public life, then merely winning* as easily as possible is a foolish thing to do. The goal then while arguing, should be to find out the truth or the closest simulation to it that we can comprehend (the useful truth), even if that means both of us end up losing to a simple Google search. One person’s ‘opinion’ is ‘prejudice’ to another person. I am proposing that it is not always the case that one is right and the other is wrong, because often, both the sides are not looking at the whole picture. Although doing that might still support one side, in which case it gets a bit more complicated. Then, admitting that we do not know, that our model is incorrect or incomplete, is often the right thing to do.
Daniel Cohen explains that the better you get at arguing truthfully, the more you will lose^ . We often do not know enough and we do not put our own ideas through the intellectual ringer before trumpeting them throughout the world. Often because thinking is difficult. It takes effort, and even then you might end up being wrong very easily! (people debugging their own code would understand.) If I am open to discussion, I must be willing to change my mind, even if my pre-conditioning (whether social or biological) screams that it is wrong to give something up (an opinion) held so dearly in my heart. Even if someone else has to convince me that I must change my mind first. (This isn’t cyclic reasoning, think about that.) But that is the price every individual must pay if they are attempting to become ‘rational’***.
*Another war/fight associated term. See how natural the word or phrase sounds?
** Ideas, words and structures crossing disciplines and walks of life without a properly defined bridge is a very dangerous thing in itself and a topic that demands a post of itself. In physical chemistry, spontaneous processes can actually be extremely slow, they just happen on their own. An ordinary English speaker wouldn’t understand this if a chemist didn’t define it properly first, and could cause a lot of confusion if Physical Chemistry was actually interesting enough to be noticed by people other than its scholars. Another example that Indians would remember is news anchors saying during demonetization that the new Rs. 2000 currency note would have “NGC” or Nano GPS Chips which could send tracking signals without a power source from up to 120 feet underground, when they obviously did not comprehend the technical impossibility of something like that. Although it is their job to dig through to the truth. Beware, I’m not focussing on fake news, but rather not knowing what they’re talking about even when they don’t know anything because to them, lying with 100% confidence is better than losing, and acknowledging that you just don’t know.
*** rational does not mean cold-hearted or emotionless. Rationality also includes taking emotion into account while considering the world around you and yourself. Many people are ruled by emotions most of the time, and disregarding emotion as un-important is actually an irrational thing to do. However, letting it be the deciding factor in your own judgements is irrational too.
Tl;dr : Before attacking another person’s ideas or words, we must make sure that we are not doing so just to shield our own ideas from scrutiny. We should make sure that we don’t fool ourselves into complacency by just destroying the weakest person/point in an argument and pretending that we have won in the long run, that we have obtained victory over that entire viewpoint. If we don’t find a compelling rational reason and a functional non-destructive method to argue against someone who is not an absolutely evil person, we should shut the hell up and move on.