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.