Disagree With Me — Please!

Mahatma Gandhi and Jinnah in a heated conversa...
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If there’s a trend in the larger culture that dismays me it’s the dicing of discourse into niches of head-nodding agreement — “where never is heard a discouraging word.”

Or screaming, red-faced, poster-waving, tear-gassed rage from the OWS crowd or online insanity where anonymity, as The Guardian recently put it, has released the handbrake of civility.

This is nuts.

The whole point of living in a larger society is interacting with others, even (especially!) people whose economic and political values horrify us — whether that means we support a woman’s right to abortion, to name only one example, or remain fiercely opposed to it. Without the back-and-forth, give-and-take of argumentation and debate, what can we possibly learn about how others think?

Or alter their beliefs? Or they ours?

I don’t mean childish and self-indulgent name-calling, insults or ad hominem attacks, which, here in Washington has so eroded our respect for elected officials that Congress’ approval rating is now at an impossible low — of 9 percent.

I grew up in a family of table-thumpers. Raised voices were the norm. We live for a ferocious intellectual argument, and take this style so for granted that it takes fresh eyes and ears to point out how frightening and odd it can appear to others; at our rehearsal dinner the night before our wedding in September we were talking about…who knows what?

It sure wasn’t what some might have expected, an evening of romantic and loving memories, just the usual blablabla of firmly-held opinions being lobbed across the tablecloth like conversational grenades. It takes a tough hide and strong ego to withstand most of what passes for dinner-table conversation in my family of origin.

Which also leaves me really impatient with people who utterly refuse to hear — even acknowledge — the ideas of those they disagree with. I still subscribe to the New York Post, (right-wing) because even when I don’t like what they’re saying,  they’re also speaking for many others who feel the same way.

The whole point of my work, this blog, my articles and my books, is to stimulate discussion.

Not just polite agreement.

The floor’s open!

19 thoughts on “Disagree With Me — Please!

  1. There is nothing that is more thrilling or sexy even…than someone who will have a passionate discussion bordering on argument! I can influence and persuade many people, but the first one who disagrees with me, has my full attention!

  2. I think it depends a lot on your family style. It takes confidence (ego?) to stake your ground and hotly defend it. Some people hate arguing because it involves what appears to be serious conflict. I love having a great intellectual debate and miss them!

  3. Maybe we’re just picking our battles. Not everything is worth arguing. My family is full of table thumpers too but we’re also a family with major stress-induced health problems (blood pressure, depression, etc.) Sometimes I think we’re arguing ourselves to death. I have taken up yoga in attempts to live longer.

    1. I agree!

      I think some things are totally not worth the energy or drama. I let a lot more stuff slide now than I used to. At my age (sad but true) I have to be more thoughtful about heart attack — which gives me a terrific reason to simply withdraw from what I feel are truly toxic confrontations. In the old days, I would have slugged it out. No more.

  4. It’s helluva hard to agree to (passionately) disagree I must say. I have a few friends with whom I can do this with but I will agree that it takes a lot of self confidence, gumption and consideration to do it civilly.

    I grew up in a family of yellers, but that’s an old school working class Asian thing. If you were soft spoken, you just weren’t heard! 😀

    1. I think it’s very much, as you say, a matter of style…so NO insults or “how stupid can you be?!” etc. My granny, who I recently blogged about, had very strong opinions so I learned at 15 or so to defend my beliefs and principles or see them slagged.

      I think this is actually a really important life skill; I’ve had to argue HARD in the face of some truly contentious comments, including from one of the publishers — “Guns? Really? Ugh!” said one, to my face — for both of my books. If you never learn how to stand up for yourself in the face of serious doubt, how will you?

  5. During my career with Borders, I noticed a disturbing trend. Back in the day when the company was young, growing and had excellent leadership, healthy discourse and opposing points of view were encouraged. As the years wore on and the leadership became dysfunctional, head nodding became the accepted and approved method. It was part of the reason that the company failed. Good topic and post. Happy Holidays!

  6. Thanks!

    So true…I see this sort of fawning all over the place and all it does is reify lousy decisions and weak egos. The people I respect most, personally and professionally, are always open to hearing another point of view respectfully.

  7. I grew up in a family where dissent was impossible – the least deviation from my parents’ views was considered betrayal, a failure of love. I found this (and can still find it!) horribly claustrophobic, although I have grown up hugely polite in a way I can’t quite shake off. But I became an academic in part because it gave me such access to a forum of (polite and organised) debate. Tackle the issue and not each other, is good advice I read somewhere. In academia, for the most part, people understand this rule. In families who are used to arguing with one another, it’s probably taken for granted. But in all other places, it helps to have some rules and parameters to make people feel safe and respected – otherwise they are too insecure and defensive to truly hear a different point of view.

    1. All excellent points — and thanks!

      I take it far too for granted that everyone has the thick skin and big-enough ego I and my family have so I routinely argue my points with some passion or ferocity — and end up being told I am intimidating. I would do very poorly in academia! But I do think, (not that I’m right) that if you really believe in X you’ll defend it! It’s my way of testing how deeply held your convictions are, and if they’re not, why not?

      I and my husband (and my family) all work in fields where it’s absolutely normal to have to: 1) develop a strong point of view; 2) sell it to others, often skeptical of it; 3) be prepared for arguments and objections to same which proves that 4) you DO care enough to defend it and know the topic well enough to be persuasive. So people unable to do any of these things leave me a little…puzzled.

  8. I was lucky at school to have an English teacher who encouraged us to discuss books, and to debate topics in the news. My family is a bit hit and miss, but we have our moments. The only thing I find hard to deal with is people who become very strident very quickly. And take offence if you are willing to argue something as devils advocate. It improves your reasoning if you can do so, I believe. We should encourage more questions in our young, and if the question is difficult, perhaps it needs our direct thought to give an answer.

    1. I agree about people who can’t remain civil — yet disagree. To me it’s a sign of sophistication to instinctively know that others don’t think exactly as you do and being willing to hear them. I think many people are poorly educated and think that shouting someone down is the way to go.

      In journalism and publishing, my worlds, it’s completely essential to be open to others’ ideas or you will never ever get anywhere. Every word I write for pay goes past multiple gatekeepers, each of whom may have a differing opinion of what I think is “right.” People unwilling or unable to listen to others ideas are foolish.

  9. Speaking from a Machiavellian Hippie point of view, this failure of the culture to encourage and empower civilized disagreement has given conniving people such as myself a new weapon to use against the masses, and one for which they are completely unprepared.

    I hang around Twitter waiting for the Occupy haters to come out and start with their, “Get a job, you smelly hippie” snarking, and then I engage with them. All of them. Fearlessly. Sometimes I’m nasty and sometimes I’m civil, but it seems the simple act of speaking directly to someone and holding them accountable for their words rather than simply passively retweeting them is revolutionary and intimidating.

    It’s won me some grudging respect from the bolder and more confident of the right-wing critics. I think it’s about insecurity, really; this is a time of profound insecurity for all of us on so many fronts, that we seek the comfort of an audience that will swaddle us in acceptance. But that never made the world a better place.

    I forget what genius it was who said, “When two partners always agree, one of them is not necessary” but it’s very, very true.

    1. Your point is very fair — we DO live in an era of total insecurity but (she argued), its also, then, a time ripe with possibility for — gasp! — cooperation rather than encampments of the right and left.

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