Thursday, March 26, 2009

Why I argue

As I'm sure everyone who knows me outside this blog knows, I am not a confrontational or argumentative person. I am shy. I like everyone to like me, so I try to anticipate and smooth over any possible conflict (which might be a positive spin on a passive-aggressive tendency that drives Justin insane, but fortunately for the rest of you, nobody else is married to me). I try to be nice, if only because I like people to be nice to me back.

On the other hand, I like to write, I like to craft arguments (much more for extracurricular topics than for papers, go figure), and therefore I like to go onto other people's blogs and argue with them. I don't go to the Democratic Underground (or for that matter Free Republic, to argue about whatever I disagree with them about, like illegal immigration or Obama being the antichrist, I haven't checked lately), because that would be an exercise in futility. I go to blogs by people who disagree with me but who might listen to what I say (or the commenters on those blogs, if they're there for the political debate and not just because they're friends with the blogger, in which case it seems to me to be crass to debate them. I mean, I don't want strangers picking fights with any of my friends who might post controversial comments on my blog, so I imagine the same would go for other bloggers, right?).

Today I read something on one of those blogs that made me wonder if the blogger had really been paying attention to anything I'd said, because it was such a mischaracterization of a belief I hold and have debated at length on that blog, making that generalization about everyone with whom that blogger disagrees. So I composed an elaborate response, which I had planned to email. But right now it's moldering in the purgatory of draftdom, because I'm wondering, why do I argue?

I'm not going to change anyone's mind. I think everyone who argues, or writes anything provocative, is certain their mind is not going to be changed substantially. I know I don't expect mine to be. So the point is either 1. to pick at each other without changing anyone's mind, which is the tone of political discourse currently (and probably always has been) and may be cathartic but in the end is basically pointless, a masturbatory sort of pleasure at best, or 2. to persuade your opponent not necessarily to agree with you, which is unlikely, but at least to understand why you believe what you believe. For example, I am opposed to abortion (in a moral if not in a legal sense) because of my deeply held beliefs about what life is and when it begins, not because I want to oppress women or have been bamboozled by the patriarchy into a false consciousness that makes me want to oppress women. Now it is possible, I suppose, that the latter reason really is why I oppose abortion, but it's condescending to assume that when I have given other reasons for my beliefs, not to mention that I resent the whole false consciousness business, which I think is just other women trying to replace the patriarchy with their own particular matriarchy whose terms they (conveniently) dictate, but never mind that. I won't beat one of my favorite dead horses right now.

In short: my point in arguing is to communicate clearly what I think and to convince them that I mean it. The point of doing so, I like to point out, is that however easy it may be to argue against what you would like your opponent's opinions and motivations to be, your argument will be a lot stronger, and more likely to persuade, if you argue against what those opinions and motives actually are.

But then, is it disingenuous of me to claim that I want my opponent's arguments to be stronger? Then they might win. The result, actually, is that I and my side will have to develop stronger arguments in response. And so on, ad infinitum? There is something about an infinite dialectic that appeals to me intellectually, like the infinite glosses and commentaries on scripture in Judaism and Christianity, but sometimes it would be nice for the subject to be closed. As with abortion. It would be really nice (from my perspective) if there were no more abortions, which would come about (but quite imperfectly, which ultimately is why I am reluctantly pro-choice in a pragmatic sense) if abortion were illegal, or if there were a way to persuade every woman with an unexpected pregnancy to carry to term and to provide homes for those infants (there are already homes for, um, healthy white infants, which nods at another one of my bugaboos), or if, hey, every woman had the self-confidence and self-control not to sleep with anyone who didn't want and trust to be the father of her children, and if every man knew the same expectation and the same sense of shame (shame is not always a bad thing!) that every women who is pregnant and alone undergoes, and had to account for what happened to his sperm after it left his body--an expectation to which they are rarely held, even by feminists, who long ago relinquished any sexual accountability they might have expected from men (yet again, another post) as long as that sex is consensual. Wow, there's a wild idea?

But you can gather from my sarcasm, and (I'll admit) the judgmental tone that now I am veering into territory where maybe I do in fact want to control people, in that I have a sexual ethic which is pretty narrow by today's standards, and my justification for it--that, religion aside, people in general and especially women would be a lot happier and better off if they followed it--probably depends at least somewhat on my own sense of self-righteousness. That's a fault to which religious people are prone, but so is everyone else, I've noticed. I have gotten by in life by behaving pretty well, being pretty intelligent, and being fairly decent to people, but those things usually come easily to me, which is not to brag, only to say that I can't really take credit for them, or expect everyone to do as I do.

But where was I? Before becoming distracted, I claimed that my objective in arguing was to strengthen my opponent's arguments, which I might or might not want in a direct sense, but it has the effect of 1. elevating the debate, one hopes, to a more refined and possibly productive level, at least angling toward closure even if we never reach it and 2. imprinting on the other side, and I hope also on mine, the belief that individuals, no matter how much we may disagree with them, have innate human dignity (you may guess I use this phrase for the same reason I hold my other beliefs) which demands that we listen to them and respond to what they are saying, not what we would like them to be saying, in which case we do not treat them as humans but merely foils to our own pontifications. Which is tempting to do anyway; I am always more interested in what I have to say than in listening to what the other side has to say. I devote much of my thought process to formulating what I am about to say in response to what I am not devoting as much attention to. (At least when you write, you can listen, then think; when you're debating in person you don't have that luxury. That's one reason marriage is hard.)

And in all this I haven't even mentioned the problems that plague most arguing on the Internet--the namecalling, ad hominem (ad mulierem?) attacks, et cetera. I would like to think I don't go there, but on occasion I'm sure I do, because I am always doing it in my head. About 90% of what I type never gets posted, because I am always editing out the inappropriate parts, and there are a lot of them. They tend to fall into the trap I've already discussed, convenient psychoanalyses of the person I'm debating, who would only say or believe such things because of various pathologies that, you know, I'm obviously not qualified to diagnose because 1. I'm not a psychiatrist and 2. I don't know them.

Every person is a mystery. I also don't think it's just religious people who are prone to dogmatism and absolute conviction of their beliefs that force the rest of the world to conform to the narrative they've already written, so that the person with whom you argue is no more than a character in your solipsistic universe. I mean, I have arguments in my mind with people who haven't even started them yet! But, but, but. Every person is a mystery. I discuss all these topics with Justin, whom I've known intimately for nearly seven years, and he still says things that surprise me. How do any of us know anyone else we only know through inflectionless words in 10 point Courier?

And perhaps I should end there. I haven't really come to a conclusion yet. I think I might just need to take a break from arguing for a while.


anOCgirl said...

that's too bad that you're going to take a break from arguing...although when you come to my blog with an opposing voice, i often think that we're debating, rather than arguing and, yes, there is a difference. personally, i really enjoy when you come to my blog and defend the other side.

if you go to a blog presenting a different view from yours and your comment in defense of your view gets deleted or you become the subject of insults in the thread, then the blogger/commenters are being weak and perhaps their argument doesn't carry much weight past the usual talking points.

debating the issues is more than just about exchanging talking points. it's about two people explaining the position that they are deeply passionate about and respecting the other side enough to listen and at least consider their point of view. no, you may not change people's minds immediately (although you might in the long run), but by putting your arguments out there, you are humanizing the opposing view point and you're out there demanding respect for that view point. certainly, there is value in that.

our blog debates have taught me that there are people on the other side who are not just repeaters of the rhetoric of the week on Fox News. there are intelligent people on the other side who feel just as strongly as i do about the points they believe in. and despite our disagreements on many things, i respect you and your point of view.

Margaret said...

I definitely hold to the distinction between debates and arguments. When a debate starts to turn into an argument, I usually get uncomfortable and stop talking, making the other person think they've won. Alas.

Here's an idea... I think we debate because we want respect. Usually when a person presents an argument, he or she uses a bit of straw-man reasoning to make it seem like a done deal. If I'm on the 'straw man' side, I feel disrespected. I want to show that we on the other side have intelligent reasons for our beliefs, thereby (hopefully) gaining back the respect I think I'm due.

It's true that convincing someone to adapt beliefs opposite to what they once held is usually impossible. If anything, debating/arguing usually makes people feel defensive, causing them to defend their perhaps flawed reasoning all the more vehemently. But I think that sometimes it can be productive. Remember back when EVERYONE thought the Gospel of Matthew was written first? Now the vast majority of NT scholars hold some form of the Mark-Q (four source) hypothesis. That's a product of well-reasoned, respectful debate.

Juliet said...

You both have a point that there is a difference between debate and argument. I was using the terms interchangeably (or did I even use the word debate?), but I had it in the back of my mind all along that what I really meant was debate. Although that applies to the verb "argue"; I think the noun "argument" has a less hostile meaning, because we use it in the academic sense to describe a thesis in persuasive writing (please forgive me if I stop making sense at some point in this comment; I am tired and sick and blah).

Margaret, your second paragraph was right on, and less verbose than everything I wrote last night. And OCgirl, "humanizing the opposing view point and demanding respect for that view point" too. I'm glad you respect me and my point of view; the feeling is mutual, although I don't always say so.

I don't know if it's a sign that I'm not passionate enough about academia that I think of academic debate as an entirely different playing field and think, "Why does it matter if the Gospel of Matthew was written first? Because Irenaeus said so?" (He did, right? It's been a while.) But then the stakes are higher for biblical studies than for, say, classics; it doesn't make any difference if some guy named Homer actually wrote the Iliad and Odyssey, because nobody thinks of those texts as sacred or inspired (now), but it does matter (doesn't it? how much?) if people who knew Jesus wrote the gospels, or if Paul wrote all the Pauline letters, and so on. That's what makes the Bible so hard to study, and props to you for doing it; I punted and went for the history of biblical interpretation, where the stakes are lower.

Anyway. I think debating has different effects on different people. Some people find it energizing, but it really wears me out and makes me kind of cranky in real life as well as online, which is why I have to back off sometimes, for my own sanity and domestic happiness (and why I sometimes wonder why I do it in the first place!). So I need a break. I've taken similar breaks before and it usually makes me happier, and no doubt more pleasant to be around--and there are at least two people who are around me a lot and would appreciate that.

Margaret said...

Yeah, biblical studies can be an interesting world. I often avoid conversations with non-academic Christians because I don't want to upset them with my views. Not that I don't talk to them; I just try to point the conversation to different subjects when possible. I realized earlier this year that with my thesis going the direction it's currently going, I may end up having a lot of conversations about the Apocrypha. Oh boy.

I actually like OT studies because it's less competitive/angry/cutthroat than NT studies and, I think, DSS as well. There's a huge difference in the tenor of a room full of NT scholars responding to a paper at a conference versus Hebrew Bible scholars. I think because the NT is shorter and 'hotter.' I don't think that's why I chose OT, but I'm certainly glad for it.