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I hate arguing, real or otherwise. I am a consensus-builder, a peace-maker and a finder of common ground. This is not because I was scarred by a combative family as a child, or subject at any point to abusive or explosive anger; it’s really just a matter of temperament. I undoubtedly err on the side of remaining silent when something should be said (you’ve decided against immunizing your baby?!) but in general, being conciliatory  has helped me to make friends, succeed in the workplace, resolve conflict, and keep strong family ties. It may be a character flaw of the highest order, but unless I am advocating for someone weaker, it is always more important to me to be liked than to be right.

If you tell me that you believe in the superiority of Velveeta over Camembert, I will twist myself into a pretzel finding something good to say about Velveeta (it does melt nicely) before I’ll fight with you. When the stakes are higher than the relative merits of cheeses, I will still try to find common ground. I happen to be married to someone of a different political flavor, and while I have certainly not been “converted,” I believe that I have gained valuable insight and tolerance by discussing everything from Iraq to public schools with a conservative. The minute I become doctrinaire, smug or angry, I lose the capacity to listen and understand. It isn’t “caving;”  it’s maintaining civility and refraining from dehumanizing someone because of his opinions. It is not, in my opinion, possible to win anyone’s heart or mind while judging and castigating him, and on the off-chance that I may influence his beliefs, I work incredibly hard at discussing, rather than arguing.

When it’s the real thing, arguing is tense, harrowing, and fraught with peril. Being a person without much of a temper, I have never understood the whole idea of saying nasty things “in anger;” I have, all my life, been convinced that every argument signaled the end of the relevant relationship, even if the other person was my own mother. (As of this morning, you’ll be pleased to know, my  mother and her fierce temper are both still with me). Much as I dislike it, however, I have to give the genuine argument its place in the psychological pantheon. In people of adequate sanity it often serves as a sign that there is an issue requiring resolution, particularly if the same conflict resurfaces repeatedly. It also gives people an opportunity to say things that need to be said, and to hear “the other side.” It can be cleansing, and serve as a wake-up call of white-hot intensity. I still hate it, it still feels cataclysmic, destructive and war-like to me every time, but a legitimate, passionate argument of substance has a purpose.

What I do not credit with a shred of value is arguing “for the sake of arguing.” I know that many folks delight in a good debate, or in provoking “healthy disagreement,” and that is their perfect right. I will be in the corner with my book. If I say “I love ‘Glee'” and  you say “I don’t get it – I tried to watch it but it’s the stupidest thing I ever saw,” where do we go from there? If I say “I’m thinking about trying that new Italian restaurant” and you say “I have no interest in that” you are probably being honest (or a thoroughgoing pain in the ass) but you are also foreclosing any further conversation, and chipping away at any sense of fellowship or mutual sympathy. Why is it not easier to say “hmm” or “tell me why?” rather than shutting the conversation down with the finality of a dead-end? I think, in these situations (both real) that the intention was that I would spar back a little, say why I liked “Glee,” or that I read a great review of the restaurant. I think I was supposed to have been provoked a little, and prodded into defending my position; in both cases I gave up. Life is too short.

I am equally put off by the whole “Devil’s Advocate” thing. I can make out a remote, legitimate purpose in terms of checking an idea for holes.  If one is proposing the roll out of a product intended to change the consumer landscape, it may well be prudent to challenge everything from design to marketing strategy before risking shareholder wrath and public humiliation. If, on the other hand, I declare my personal belief that chocolate chip cookies are the safest thing to bake for a crowd, I do not want to hear “why do you assume everyone likes chocolate chip cookies?” You can tell me to leave out the nuts because of allergies, or suggest that I make two kinds for the sake of variety, but responding negatively with no real solution, just for “fun,” is incredibly annoying.  I don’t want to be rigorously challenged, made to probe more deeply or to have my consciousness raised unless it’s really important. There is, again, that problem of response. Am I meant to say “you’re right; I’m wrong. I have made a terrible, indefensible choice based on false assumptions, and will repair at once to the kitchen to find a better idea?” How about “everyone likes chocolate chip cookies; I’ll show you my data.”

So there’s a line somewhere, and on one side are the controversies necessary to keep our relationships and our government transparent and functional. There are the questions that have to be asked, the assumptions that must be challenged, and the opinions and beliefs that are central to each individual’s sense of justice and morality. If we wish to live meaningful lives, the right to raise, and to refute critical issues must be sacred, and we must all have skins thick enough to withstand criticism and questioning. On the other side of the line are personal preferences, plans and ideas susceptible to many differing and valid viewpoints. There is rarely any need to take up arms over these non-issues, and active inquiry, interest and openness often leads to stronger relationships. My opinion is no more valuable than anyone else’s, and I value common ground more than asserting my individual preferences. I have argued with, and ultimately lost a friend over his insistence that the Holocaust never happened, but I would not spend five minutes sparring with anyone over her taste in sports teams, movies or books.

There is no real answer here (although, if you are inclined to play Devil’s Advocate you may point out that I have stirred the nests of several hornets in this post), only questions about temperament and its intersection with socialization. Am I all touchy-feely and prone to singing “Kumbaya” because I’m sensitive, or because I’m sensitive and raised, as a woman, to be conciliatory and pleasing? Would my self-confidence grow if I challenged everyone on everything, or would I simply be alone more often? Is honest bluntness a public service, or a form of passive-aggressive nastiness masquerading as virtue? Are the only really valuable posts on Open Salon those that focus on controversial issues and incite heated debate, or is there just as much merit in my perpetual navel-gazing? There is no real answer here.


About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

13 responses »

  1. You think WAY too much (but man I wish I could write like you)– healthy debate is good; only from an exchange of ideas can truth prevail….

    I understand and empathize with your position, but of course, I am not like you…. as difficult of a job as it is I believe that my job here on earth is to speak openly and honestly, and (I am sorry for this) frequently.

    I just thank you and others for listening…… and encourage others like me to speak up even if I disagree….via la difference!!

    • imagineannie

      You aren’t like me; that’s why you are such a good advocate and I am not. You keep people honest and on their toes.

      Is it really possible to think too much? 😉

  2. I remember, when I was very young, relaxing and listening to my father and grandfather having calm discussions “for the sake of argument.” Both were journalists and seemed to really enjoy taking different sides to present a strong argument.

    My father is famous in our family for having ended many a disagreement with the words: “There’s no sense in arguing about a fact.”

    It’s interesting to note that you were “raised, as a woman, to be conciliatory and pleasing” by a mother with a “fierce temper”.

    I was raised by mother who was “conciliatory and pleasing” (and expected to grow up to be a carbon copy), but I have a temper.

    And…I have plenty of friends, too. They just *like* me, I guess.

    • imagineannie

      Ah, I am not critical of genuine temper as much as with playing with people, prodding and poking them to get a reaction. I see temper as a human response/impulse and the other thing as calculated, manipulative thing. I like lots of people with tempers (and I am related to MANY) but I get weary of those who I feel are baiting me to see if they can make something happen, or as some kind of philosophcal exercise.

  3. Ann,

    Dad-ism: (totally unappreciated until well after I could tell him how smart he was) “When you look around and the whole world is F—ed up, maybe its time to step back and take another look at yourself.”

    It wasnt until I was 40 that I realized that unlimited patience was a very bad thing.

    Don’t change a thing girl, you are clearly on the winning side of the equation.

    • imagineannie

      That is a great Dad-ism. It has many applications in my life, although I will have to chant it, silently, to myself when I deal with the relevant people.

      I do, of course, feel angry (and respond) when warranted. I can get pretty het up about someone hurting or frightening a child or an animal, or destroying the Gulf Coast. It’s the “arguendo” arguing that just makes me tired…..

  4. I’m glad that my lawyer thinks that it’s more important to be right than be liked, btw.

    I’m glad, too, that you are a writer.

    • Back, yet again, to add that my lawyer is a writer and a musician, too. Check him out.

      • imagineannie

        I will check him out!

      • Well, and feel free to delete that, too. I realized after I posted it that you (and he) may not want his web site broadcasted here. He was the “poet laureate of Portsmouth, NH” one year…(that’s the town just before Kittery, ME, y’know…pretty cool. I lived there for several years).

  5. I’m guessing you didn’t try out for the debate team in high school, eh? Uh oh, warning: long post ahead.

    So much of what you describe as “argument” is not what I associate with the word. You describe situations I would call fights (stupid shouting matches where tempers are involved and if the people are in a relationship, apologies are usually required later) or short disagreements on matters of taste. We have to take as a starting point that there is no arguing on matters of taste–chocolate v. strawberry, completely unexplainable– OR matters of fact. Though most arguments do involve some questioning of the facts of the other side (sources, methodology). I was taught, however, that matters that ARE debatable or arguable are very much worth my time and energy. Further, in order to prepare my mind for engaging in worthwhile debatable issues, it’s useful to practice on less important issues–seeing if I can hold my own against another mind.

    I got this from my dad, who loved to argue (not from my mom, who had a temper that I really hated to be around sometimes. My dad also hated my mom’s temper, which he sometimes took to be a sign that she was frustrated by poorly exercised debating skills.) My dad thought that a flaring temper was a sure sign of feeling defeated in an argument. I didn’t always agree, but I saw his point.

    When I proposed something I knew my dad might not agree with (“Let me go on a 3-day canoing trip” or whatever) he would tell me “make your case”–that is, “persuade me through skilled argument.” He would loathe me trying to persuade him through silly means, like buttering him up with compliments, or pouting or threatening some dire consequence (“let me go or I won’t speak to you for two weeks!”), but if I could marshall my facts and arrange them in a decent argument, I had a chance, and more than that, I could earn my dad’s approval. (Not his love–that was absolutely never in doubt, but because it was unconditional, it was taken for granted–I wanted to EARN his approval.)

    But you write about people who seem to enjoy *goading* you into an argument about some pointless thing. I think I know what you mean (and I too am often a pleaser and smoother-over.) BUT I like to take those moments as an opportunity to sharpen both our debating skills. Take your example of the person who asks you “Why do you assume everyone wants chocolate chip cookies?” You seem to assume he wants/expects to hear in response “You’re right, I’m wrong, I’m sorry” or “You’re crazy, I’m right and I know EVERYone likes chocolate chip cookies, here’s my data.” Maybe he and you would both get something out of what I would call an argument, where you respond: “It’s you, in fact, making an assumption about my reasoning. I am not assuming everyone likes c.c. cookies. I am choosing to make them since I know I don’t have the time or inclination to make more than one kind, and of the kinds I could make, it’s my experience that more people like c.c. cookies than any other single kind I could make.” Is that a dumb exchange? Maybe. But maybe you’re quashing that urge in him to make assumptions (by pointing out his incorrect assumption) and to make sweeping generalizations (like EVERYONE). Maybe he’ll continue to be an asshole, but maybe if he has numerous exchanges like that, he’ll learn to be more careful in his goading, or even stop goading people on things like that. If I had such an exchange, even if it didn’t change him one bit, I’d be satisfied at my decent exercise of my argumentation skills. When I’m (sometimes) in that situation and I DON’T reply, it eats me up later. Usually I don’t reply confrontationally because of the inequality between our statuses or because of the environment or occasion, but I almost always wish I had.

    Clearly, “argue” is a slippery word. For some it means “bicker” or “verbal fight,” for others it means “debate” or “persuade through a verbal exchange of logic.” It could even mean merely to express disagreement (like in your Italian restaurant example–although if it’s a mere shutting-down reply, that’s pretty far from “argument” in my book). Bickering and verbal abuse is ugly and unproductive. True debate is stretching and ennobling. 99.9% of the comment exchanges in online fora are either not true argument or is argument of the weakest kind–do not take it for the real thing, even if it parades as such.

    There was a story recently on NPR about the extraordinary incivility of online exchanges–why anonymity makes it so much worse, and how many media websites are trying to rein it in–but true argument, even on fairly insignificant issues, is a kind of exercise of the mind that I find invigorating.

    I realize this is already WAY too long, but check out the podcast called “NPR: Intelligence Squared” for some excellent Cambridge-style debates. Though they are civil, they are not trivial but impassioned and fascinating. The two sides often call each other out. I love them, and would like to know what you think of them.

    Thanks to anyone who actually read this long comment!

  6. Ann,

    Amy has proven to you beyond doubt that indeed you did not overthink the subject.

    21 years in a marrige with only 1 “argument” proved to me that method is totally unhealthy and unnatural. 10 years into another I have a whole new set of skills that as Amy says get “sharpened” frequently. While arguendo is tiring, helping someone you love to grow out of it is priceless. It when you really dont like them and couldnt care less that it is maddening.

  7. Pingback: If you feel like clearing some of the fluff from your brain, start reading this blog. | CrackerBoy

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