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.