thoughts on debate

I was having a conversation with a friend on FB, and it sparked a train of thought in me about debate/ argument, and why I don’t like it. I’ve been chewing over it ever since, but before I launch into my entry, I’d like to clarify: This is not a response/ rant entry.

I am not writing this out of frustration with the interaction or individual referenced. I’ve made that sort of passive-aggressive mistake with this person much earlier in our friendship, before I realized how resilient to miscommunications they were, and I don’t want to make it again.

It’s more that this conversation inspired me to think about my relationship with debate, and what I consider healthy debate. I appreciate the friend in question has shown an ability to agree or disagree and discuss (or sidestep) such conversations respectfully. This is a rare thing in a friendship, I have learned. It shouldn’t be.

Debate and respectful disagreement should be part and parcel of being an adult. Not everyone will get along. We all have different views, different experiences, different upbringings and backgrounds and religions and politics. It is so necessary in this world of ours to learn to disagree respectfully, to stand by your values while extending the hand of compassion, to learn where your lines in the sand are.

For example, I am perfectly willing to respectfully disagree about religion and politics, but I cannot tolerate blatant homophobia, racism, classism, mental illness denial, or sexism in a friend. Mind you, I understand that sometimes people hold unconscious views and attitudes (due to upbringing, social location, familial influence, etc.) that may support or otherwise be products of a generally racist, homophobic, classist, mental-illness denying and sexist society, and that’s a situation that allows a little more leeway.

I’m just saying that, generally speaking, if someone makes a crack about how men can’t be trusted around children, or how women can’t be trusted in leadership positions because of PMS, I’ll politely or jokingly check the assumptions that sort of language perpetuates by saying something like, “I dunno, my husband’s a man and he’s really good with kids, (politely)” or, “Haha, because we’d all prefer predictable aggressiveness caused by constant testosterone levels, amiright? (jokingly)”.

Like, I think the sort of vague, unconscious and socially-indoctrinated levels of discrimination is something that (on a person-to-person basis) requires compassion, respectful engagement, and awareness of social location to respond to. I say this, of course, as a white cisgender married woman in a fairly liberal area … I imagine I would have a much less lenient view if these sorts of microaggressions were far more commonplace in my personal experience, and that’s something else I try to keep in mind. This is how I deal with such microaggressions; that does not mean it is the only or most valid way.

More like read A book, amiright?

Now, if I am conversing with a person and they use insulting slurs to refer to LGBT, gender identity, skin tone, presumed mental health status, or personal worth based on presumed income; or make discriminatory and arbitrary statements about how such individuals do not deserve equal treatment or consideration, then I object. I explain why I disagree. And if they change their perspective, awesome!

If they continue to insist they have the right to hate (and limit!) someone else because of things outside of the individuals control, such as inborn qualities or social location, then I put the brakes on the friendship. I will be a polite acquaintance, but I cannot trust the moral and intellectual character of an individual such as a neighborhood man who believes, for example, that women (and probably men, but this person just referred to women — did not seem to think men could be abused) in abusive relationships are partially responsible for their situation because they didn’t just leave the first time their SO hit them or insulted them.

This is not theoretical for me. I have ended burgeoning friendships because the individual expressed bigotry, and I have ended long-term sibling relationships because the individual condoned and supported the expression of bigotry in public conversations with their friends. I am not okay with bigotry, it’s that simple.

I guess this feeds into, a bit, why I don’t like debate. In my experience, the friendships that end due to bigotry are the ones where I tolerated those expressions of bigotry through multiple debates over a long period of time — arguing, for example, about whether the rape scene in Descent is “rapey” enough (yes, it is), or long, drawn-out debates on gay marriage. And eventually they got so fed up with me not agreeing with them that we fell out altogether — sometimes dramatically, sometimes just abruptly dropping me.

These larger red flags of bigotry, conducted through repeated and heated debates, were often relatively infrequent. But there were also often accompanied by a pattern of disrespect toward my family and our choices.

There would be subtle comments and sniping remarks about my son being a fan of My Little Pony, or rolling of the eyes and snickering at the feminist literature, critical race theory, and labor law books that litter the surfaces of my house. There would be pointed criticisms of the “selfishness” of women who chose not to have children, or the apparently worse women who do not provide siblings for the child they do have. There would be snipes about my son’s bad behavior being a direct result of my atheist/ feminism/ progressivism, but silence regarding his good behavior.

There would be dismissiveness — cutting me off midsentence, or asking my opinion and rolling their eyes when I gave it. Pooh-poohing my education, experiences, and attitudes because I haven’t “lived it,” so I can’t understand it. It’s like, uh, that’s the fucking point of reading, in’t it? To submerge into worlds and points of view that aren’t intrinsic to your lived experience?

Or, less obvious, things like commenting negatively on some random boy wearing pink and what that might “mean” about him when they know my stance on homophobia, stereotyping, and gender norms. Or seeing the Obama sticker on my car, and launching into a pro-Romney rant focusing on how progressives are ruining the country. (And yes, I do see you clocking that sticker, and I do see the quickly hidden sneer. And it’s not subtle when you’ve been hanging out with someone for about an hour with no hint of politics, and they notice the Obama sticker while walking back to the car and then they launch into a rant about how liberals are ruining the country.)

All these are little socialized methods of signaling disrespect and mockery, and they’re difficult to get upset about in the moment. I mean, they are upsetting, but as isolated incidents they’re also minor.

It feels, with each singular incident, that’s it’s not worth ending a friendship over. A slip of the tongue, a bad day, a lapse in judgement. And there’s all these other things that you have in common, and the good memories that you have … you convince yourself that it’s not that big a deal, that you’re overreacting, that it’s “just” a friendship, it’s not like you’re married to the person. So what if they’re kind of rude sometimes — you want people to be patient with you when you’re less than your best, right?

And it’s not until you look at all these tiny little microaggressions as a whole that you realize this person doesn’t really seem like a friend … hell, they seem more like they hate you.

In retrospect, I’ve realized that the people in my life who were unable to handle respectful disagreements in lifestyle — the people who see my Obama sticker and go on an anti-Obama rant, or the former FB friends who feel the need to argue with every single sociopolitical meme I post — are the same people who engaged in those toxic relationship behaviors.

It was almost like they were needling me, trying to start another argument so they could change my mind — make me pro-gun, anti-choice, or accepting of their homophobic and sexist attitudes.

So that’s why I have gradually and almost unconsciously incorporated the following guidelines both on and offline for my relationships.

Facebook Rules of Thumb

  1. I try not to go onto the personal page of someone else and start arguments for the sake of arguing. I expect similar respect from my FB friends.
  2. If I don’t like the content of someone’s feed, I silence their feed. I expect similar respect from my FB friends.
  3. If you come onto my page and start an argument about something I posted, I will engage in discussion with you. I will cite my reasons for holding that point of view. I will utilize the data, research, and statistics that inform my attitudes. If I deem that the conversation is going nowhere and has become circular and pointless, I will say so — either in the thread, a private message, or both — and explain why I believe this to be the case.
  4. Three strikes and you’re out — the first time someone starts an argument on my page that seems to be trollish and simply disagreeing to disagree, I follow the protocol listed above, and let them know my limits for this sort of negative behavior. The second time, I again let them know. The third time, I limit their access to my page or completely defriend them.

FB is a form of social media. I have the ability to shape it to my needs. If I want debate and argumentation, I go to reddit. For positive interactions and friendship, I go to the website that literally does not have a “dislike” button. If someone makes themselves a constant negative force on my feed, I will remove them from the online equation. Sometimes people who are perfectly nice in real life turn into illiterate and infuriating trolls online. I don’t know why this transformation happens, but it does. So I choose, in those situations, to only engage with their real-life personas.

Rules of Thumb for My Blog

  1. My life is an open book.
  2. If you don’t like the content of the book, don’t read it.
  3. If you disagree with the content of the book but insist on reading it, utilize the comment box (I do not approve needlessly insulting comments, like calling my son a “fuck trophy,” or calling me the “carrier of a fuck trophy.”)
  4. In the past, I used to change my writing style (topics, language, etc.) for the comfort of friends/ family who read my stuff. I changed how I posted, where I posted, when I posted. I don’t do that anymore.

I altered what I posted about. In order to minimize disagreements and real-life drama, I kept contorting and twisting and changing this blog to fit the needs of others, instead of myself. Eventually I accepted this was a losing proposition, so now I write the blog for me. If others like it and read it, great. I stand by what I write.

But no, I will not (generally) stop writing about things because it makes a reader upset or uncomfortable or angry, especially if I am working through a personal disagreement with that specific reader, and they were refusing to communicate with me or interact with me in real life long before I wrote the entry.

Real Life Rules of Thumb

  1. Mom told me not to discuss politics or religion at the dinner table. So I try not to.
  2. If my guest insists on discussing politics or religion, I usually try to find commonalities/ areas of agreement, and stay away from specific political talking points.
  3. If the argument turns from respectful to toxic, I first try to end it (we’ll agree to disagree!), and if they keep hammering the point, I through caution to the wind and go head to head.

Of course, these are rough guidelines for how I assess my friendships and the boundaries of them. My main thing is that I really strongly feel that disrespect and negativity is not a healthy part of any relationship, or disagreement. If I say, “No, you’re wrong, you’re so stupid, don’t you know anything?!?” — that doesn’t help the situation. It puts the other person back on their heels, and it makes them feel defensive and angry, and it turns into a loop of negativity. I’ve made that mistake. I will probably make that mistake again.

But if I say, “Well, I can see where you have that perspective, but I personally don’t share the same stance because of (x, y, and z — data/ statistics that I usually relate to a personal anecdote to bring immediacy and relevance to my response).”, then that’s more respectful. It validates their experiences and perspectives — their life — but it also gently checks what may be some unexamined assumptions and provides information for further research (if they choose).

I have learned, time and again, that some people will claim they “don’t get offended,” or that they “just love to debate.” Almost invariably, these people tend to be easily offended and it turns out they only like to debate when they win. If you call them on logical fallacies, incorrect facts/ data/ statistics, and prevent them from tangentializing rather than ceding a lost point, they get very defensive and angry. This is also when the sniping comments in everyday interactions start to arise, and when the friendship as a whole starts to spiral downward.

In a way, I guess the first major sociopolitical disagreement is sort of a gauge for the friendship/ relationship as a whole. If the person in question reacts badly to an unresolved fight, and keeps poking the issue, that’s a red flag. If the person in question agrees that your points are valid and reasonable, but refuses to cede their stance, that’s a red flag. And I guess that’s why I try so hard to limit or prevent these sociopolitical disagreements from occurring in the first place, because I’ve lost far more friends than I’ve retained after the inaugural debate — and sometimes that disagreement doesn’t take place for months or even years after the formation of the friendship, meaning I am left stunned and mourning the loss of an otherwise exemplary companion.

All this might sound like I don’t maintain friendships with people I disagree with. That would be incorrect. I am friends with plenty of people who disagree with me, and I disagree with them. We have (and continue to) disagree about a range of topics, from religion to vaccines to spiritualism to GMOs to gun rights to legalizing drugs.

Depending on the personalities involved, we may have friendly and heated debates on these topics, or we may simply choose to agree to disagree and focus on our similarities. Sometimes we change each other’s minds. Sometimes we don’t. The wealth of experiences and perspectives these friendships bring to my life is invaluable, and as long as we can be respectful about our differences, I’m cool.

And yes, the people I am specifically thinking of are people who have had that first sociopolitical disagreement with me, where serious differences in life outlook and experiences were aired, yet we were able to continue a friendship based in mutual affection and respect.

Circle of Trust, Greg. Circle of Trust.

I, of course, also have friends that haven’t undergone that test by fire, and while I consider them friends, they are not quite in the same circle of trust as friends who have proven their ability to respectfully disagree.

It is true that I am not friends with bigots, though. That’s a bridge too far.


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