I don’t think a lot of people who know me in the real world would describe me as timorous, but I am. Sure, I will ask just about anybody a question even if it makes me look dumb and I will brace myself and dive into uncomfortable new social situations as needed , but put me in a conflict situation and all kinds of alarm bells and whistles go off. If I am in the conflict I rush straight to the de-escalation and defusing stage; if I am only observing, I try to take it all in (how are you doing that? how do you defend yourself so handily?) Part of my problem is that the stress of the interaction shuts down my brain so I simply cannot think of any of the arguments that would back up my position. I know you are wrong, I might think, but I can’t quite work out why with you standing there grinning (or snarling) at me. Although in my head it sounds more like Aaaaaaghh! Think dammit! Aaaaaghh!
Obviously this is not how a mature adult should function, or at least not how I want to function. I thought what I needed was practice, so one evening, while having a glass of wine with friends at their home, the conversation turned (as it does,) to Guantanamo Bay and the treatment of suspected terrorists, and I thought, here we go. Why this topic, Lynnette? you might ask. Such a politically and emotionally charged issue seems like rather big potatoes, perhaps you should have started with something smaller, like whether consumers should be forced to buy fluorescent bulbs or whether wool or microfiber makes a better base layer when working out in the winter? Well, maybe. Here is what I was thinking: Guantanamo at this point was covered ground. The arguments had already been made many times in the media, and I was familiar with both sides. I also felt that both sides had valid concerns and that, to me, made it safer. A reasonable person would need to cede at least one “point” for opposing valid concern so at minimum, I’d have that, right? I am so silly sometimes. Anywho, my friend, who is conservative AND former military took the position of ” terrorists are trying to destroy us and we have to do whatever necessary to protect our country and our people,” leaving me with “if we are the bright light of civilization we had better act like it and torture puts our citizens who are outside our borders at greater risk.” Now don’t get all excited about this, I have political and philosophical leanings but for the most part I am all “jeez-o-pete there are a lot of good points here and I really don’t know what the right thing is.” This is another reason I suck at arguing, but I was TRYING. I guess I thought it would build character or something.
So instead of just letting the opinions roll over me as usual, I picked up the other end of the conversational rope and gave it a congenial tug. At this point, I am sure both Mr. Wordtabulous and my friend’s wife (who is also my friend) thought, “Oh, shit.” But I was all, this is fine, two adults respectfully sharing opposing views, we’re all friends here, cool. But one of us wasn’t cool. One of us was increasingly loud and ranty. I was increasingly uncomfortable, but after all, the purpose of this had been to push the envelope. I tried to keep things calm and conversational but that was a unilateral strategy that broke down when my friend shouted into my face, “I hope you’ll be happy the next time one of our soldiers gets killed by an IED!!” I looked at him in shock and then stormed out of their house, slamming the door behind me. He sent me an email the next day or so, saying that the episode was unfortunate and he didn’t feel arguments should get in the way of friendships. And we all picked up from where we had been BEFORE I began my little experiment.
My processing of this event has been in stages. My first stage was, “My friend is an ass.” Which isn’t true. He is a hard-working, loving husband and father who volunteers his time in the community and has genuine concern for others. So I got through that phase pretty fast. Next I thought, “I still suck at arguing, and now I’m traumatized, too. I guess I’ll never do that again.” I held onto this phase a really, really long time. But recently I was at State Services for the Blind, doing my thang of reading books into digital media and was assigned the job of finishing At the Oasis by Bill McDonald. It is a collection of essays by the Minnesota writer on a wide variety of topics. One of the essays was on his three “round tables” in which he and others engage in debate over events and ideas of the past, present and future. Tears are not welcome, he warns, but then says that all viewpoints are. The more I read, the more I believed that lively doesn’t necessarily mean combative. Maybe, I thought, I’m not the only one who could use some pointers on argumentation (looking at you, argumentative friend.) Maybe I just need to find the right folks to disagree with, and establish the goal of fleshing out and truly understanding the subject as opposed to winning or losing a match. I am not itching for a fight, per se, but am starting to think that when the next one comes my way, maybe this time I won’t avoid eye contact. What could possibly go wrong?
I only read the last few of McDonald’s essays, so I can’t give a full review, but the one he wrote on whether the citizens of the US could ever vote away their democracy as did the citizens of pre WWII Germany was both thought-provoking and moving. Check out his work on Amazon or via the link at the title above if you are interested!