For my first quarter-century on the planet, I fled from arguments and disputes, manifesting all the courage and toughness we associate with rabbits. When I saw a disagreement start up, I was soon lost in worry over the misfortunes it was sure to produce.

And then liberation arrived.

Now, when the opportunity to pitch into a good argument appears, I recognize it as a chance to enjoy myself and to benefit in lasting ways from the exercise. As the argument gets going, I am happy to be alive and equally happy that the participant who joins me in the argument (who I have no reason to call an opponent or an antagonist) is also alive.

But do notice that I keep putting the adjective “good” in front of the word “argument” in these assertions. Participating in a bad argument delivers no benefits and is no fun at all. When you find yourself in disagreement with people who think they are arguing when all they are doing is asserting what they have always believed, you have every reason to walk away, unless you are inexplicably in the mood for a weird combination of agitation and tedium.

This shift in my attitude was a surprisingly easy transformation to make. If you have not yet had the good fortune to make this shift, and if you would like to give it a try, here’s all you need in your tool kit, in the form of four recognitions.

    1. The capacity to enjoy a good argument is not an intrinsic character trait. On the contrary, it is an acquired enthusiasm, and anyone of any age can acquire it.
    2. When people put everything they have into challenging you, they are conveying how much they respect and admire you. When you challenge them in return, you are offering your fellow participants a hearty dose of your own respect and admiration in return. It would be completely batty for anyone to feel hurt or injured by this volleying back-and-forth of appreciation of each other’s company.
    3. When participation in an argument starts to feel uncomfortable, things are going exactly as they should. With a very rare exception, the onset of unease means that you are about to learn something, to have a fresh thought, or, good heavens, maybe even to concede a point with grace and dignity.
    4. The time has come for Americans to redefine “winning an argument” as emerging from an exchange smarter and better oriented to life, and to redefine “losing an argument” as ending an exchange with exactly the same beliefs you had when the argument began. This approach is, of course, a world apart from the conventional assumption that winning an argument means prevailing over your opponent. That old assumption has become so exhausted that it asks for a goodbye party, with a few insincere tributes to how much it has contributed to our lives, and then an escort to the exit.

 

A Baseline of Timidity, Transcended:

Making the Case for Recognition #1

The capacity to enjoy a good argument is not an intrinsic character trait. On the contrary, it is an acquired enthusiasm, and anyone of any age can acquire it.

Several decades ago, I took part in a competition where success rested on an audience’s appraisal of oral presentations by the candidates. I took the competition seriously, and I tried my best. But I walked away with the certainty that I was not going to win.

Why was I so certain?

None of the individuals assembled to sit in judgment had asked me the kind of challenging, argumentative, maybe just-on-the-edge-of-abrasive questions that would have signaled that they saw me as a serious candidate.

So I was surprised when I learned that I had won. And then I was carried far past surprise when the person informing me of my success told me, “We were particularly impressed at how you held up under the grilling we gave you.”

The grilling?

Was I there for that?

Remember, I had spent my first quarter-century dreading what I took to be the rough sport of argument and dispute, ducking for cover when I thought a grilling might be headed my way. And then I turned into a person who held very demanding standards for what it meant to be properly grilled.

But, before I became that person, I left a trail of timidity in my wake.

When I started graduate school, I was rattled, shaken, and undone by the harsh, aggressive, and confrontational style of discussion that many of my fellow graduate students wholeheartedly embraced. After a couple of weeks in this disturbing new world, I sought refuge in the office of a professor who seemed likely to respond with kindness if I were to give voice to my despair.

When the professor got the drift of my sorrows (not easy for him to do, since I was weeping and enunciation was thereby impaired), he responded in a way that I had not seen coming.

“I get it,” he said. “I see what’s going on. You are not used to the Northeastern intellectual style.” (Full disclosure requires me to note that his statement included an adjective that attributed ethnicity to his characterization of that intellectual style, an adjective which I have chosen to omit here.)

There, in his office, I put myself on record as defeated by my encounters with a form of intense conversation that I could only see as a distressing unleashing of contention and altercation.

With this story, we have, as the scientists say, identified my “baseline condition” when it came to an aversion to arguing. At age twenty-one, I did not like it a bit.  I hated it. I wished the people around me would just stop doing it.

And then, in a very short time, I embraced the sport of argument as if I had been born to it. That “baseline condition” of timidity faded out of existence, and I acculturated completely to the “Northeastern intellectual style.”

An entirely new cognitive operating system had been installed in my mind. Now, when someone said to me, “You just made a big leap of logic there,” or “You do realize, don’t you, that what you just said is a direct contradiction to what you said a few minutes ago,” every neuron came to life and eagerly reported for duty.

In one particularly memorable incident, this transformation produced an episode of serious sleep-deprivation for a treasured friend. My fellow Western American historian, Richard White, had invited me to speak, and he and his wife had invited me to stay with them. They had no reason to regret their hospitality—until Richard inadvertently volunteered to help me demonstrate how thoroughly I had embraced the satisfactions of argument.

When we returned to their home after my speech, Richard made a big mistake. “Only people who grew up arguing,” he said in an offhand remark, “enjoy it.”

It was already late in the evening, and I knew that Richard had an 8 o’clock class the next morning. And yet I felt compelled to challenge his assertion.

So I challenged it.

Somewhere in the 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. zone, I decided that I had made my point. The next morning, when I heard the sound of Richard’s car pulling out of the driveway only a few hours after the end of our lively dialogue, I indulged in a moment of self-reproach at having kept him up so late. And then I went back to sleep.

 

Toughening Up at The Ping Pong Table:

Making the Case For Recognition #2

When people put everything they have into challenging you, they are conveying how much they respect and admire you. When you challenge them in return, you are offering your fellow participants a hearty dose of your own respect and admiration in return. It would be completely batty for anyone to feel hurt or injured by this volleying back-and-forth of appreciation for each other’s company.

This was an insight I reached when I was quite young. But it took me quite a while to realize that this insight remained just as relevant even when I was nowhere near a ping pong table.

This may take a little explaining.

When I was a kid, I rarely escaped from the status of “the youngest.” I had (and have) two big sisters, who were ten and eight years older than I. This gave them quite a head start in every arena of human achievement, from vocabulary to dexterity.

Nothing equaled a ping pong table for putting a spotlight on this disparity in ability. For years, I tried to play against older people, but my performance remained piteous. No doubt thinking that they were being kind, some people held themselves back and just kept sending the ping pong ball back to me in low-speed, high bouncing returns. These adults would no sooner have slammed the ball when I volleyed back with my own low-speed, high-bouncing return, than they would have hit me directly with the paddle.

As I edged up on age ten, I turned into a pretty capable ping pong player. With this transformation, I came to view the adult custom of taking it easy on me as a lot more condescending, demeaning, and insulting than benevolent, gracious, and merciful. Mistaking me for a child (this seems understandable in hindsight, though it struck me as intolerable at the time), adults would pick up their paddles and try to play in this condescending, demeaning, and insulting manner.

But things had changed.

They would direct the ball toward me in that low-speed, high-bouncing manner.

I would slam it back.

At that point, many of them would abandon benevolence, graciousness, and mercy, and shift over to doing what they should have been doing all along. They tried to beat me. And, often, they did. But having adults play hard against me gave me the chance to get better and better. I loved playing against better players who took me seriously, putting everything they had into trying to beat me, even if it made them feel a little silly to be taking a child so seriously. When they beat me, fair and square, I was grateful that they had treated me as a worthy rival.

I am certain that there are thousands of us:  people who acquired the character traits that led us to satisfying careers because our elders did not hold back in taking us on in some sport, some test of wits, some form of competitive exertion. But I can only guess how many of us eventually channeled this competitive (literally!) advantage into a love of argument.

For me, that transition was linear and direct.  After too many years of thinking that I didn’t like arguing, I finally awoke to the fact that hearty participation in a good argument should be understood as the moral equivalent to ping pong.  You play hard, and if the other player makes you work hard for every point, you end the game as a winner, an outcome that holds only a remote relationship to the actual score.

 

A Hybrid, Muddled, Confounded Political Conundrum Comes into Being:

Making the Case For Recognition #3

When participation in an argument starts to feel uncomfortable, things are going exactly as they should. With a very rare exception, the onset of unease means that you are about to learn something, to have a fresh thought, or, good heavens, maybe even to concede a point with grace and dignity.

Since I have several hundred stories to support this proposition, I could not figure out how to choose one story from such an oversupply. Instead, I opted for a different approach, summarizing the outcome of the numerous occasions when the onset of discomfort made a lasting impact on my thinking.

I was born in 1951. By the time I started college in 1968, quite a number of my political opinions had become fixed in place. For two decades, I spent nearly all my time in the company of the likeminded (in an interesting inter-generational twist, this included my parents). And then, gearing up in the early 1990s, a series of good arguments with political conservatives took the rigidity out of my political convictions. And, validating Recognition #3, sticking it out through unease delivered me to the hybrid, muddled, confounded political identity that I have occupied for years.

Thanks to these moments of discomfort that I did not flee, my confidence in affirmative action as the solution to the nation’s racial inequities lost ground, even if it did not entirely disappear. I came to acknowledge that even the best-intentioned federal regulatory programs can give rise to petty tyranny and burdensome rules that sometimes produce the exact opposite of their intended outcomes. I can brood, with the best of them, about the long-term impacts on posterity of the federal deficit. And, maybe the greatest betrayal of the stances I took in my younger days, I picked up—and never let go of—the saying, “Good capitalists get paid for solving problems.”  I did not, however, pick up that other saying, “A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged,” partly because I have, blessedly, never been mugged, but also because I choose not to be characterized by either of those two ungainly political categorizations.

If judged by the political positions I held in my younger days, the statements in that preceding paragraph might register as evidence that I have slid down a slippery slope toward compromise, impurity, and even contamination.  Since such an appraisal will provide me with opportunities aplenty for good arguments, my honestly admitted political impurity will provoke more episodes of discomfort that will keep my thinking from easing back into rigidity.

And yet the nation’s circumstances in 2020 require me to end this subsection with a statement that is also likely to offer a good number of opportunities for arguments that deliver me straight to discomfort.

In the last four years, the Republicans who engaged in good arguments with me, and who convinced me that my liberal orthodoxy had as many weaknesses as it had strengths, have fallen on hard times. In his contempt-saturated habits of expression and in his unending enthusiasm for personal attacks, often targeting good souls who happen to hold opinions differing from his, President Donald J. Trump bears no resemblance to the gracious, good-natured, principled conservatives who I came to respect and learn from, and who I will never demonize.

My loyalty and gratitude to this currently besieged and disempowered sector of conservatives remain undiminished. I believe it would not be misleading to characterize myself as the most committed advocate for a restoration of the full conservative integrity that led me to take on discomfort and change my habits of mind.  So I live, from day to day, hoping against hope that the GOP—the Grand Old Partywill soon return to the “Grand” part, setting an example that will bring out the better angels in Democrats, with magical sightings of bipartisan angels reported wherever citizens gather for good arguments.

And if that statement doesn’t have the power to provoke a lively exchange, I’m not sure what to try next.

 The Reason to Listen, Revealed:

Making the Case for Recognition #4

The time has come for Americans to redefine “winning an argument” as emerging from an exchange smarter and better oriented to life, and to redefine “losing an argument” as ending an exchange with exactly the same beliefs you had when the argument began. This approach is, of course, a world apart from the conventional assumption that winning an argument means prevailing over your opponent. That old assumption has become so exhausted that it asks for a goodbye party, with a few insincere tributes to how much it has contributed to our lives, and then as escort to the exit.

The first words of the title of this posting—“How I Learned to Stop Worrying”—are misleading.

But you probably already figured that out.

I did learn to love a good argument and to embrace that opportunity without an ounce of dread; that part is certainly true. But this change in attitude has left me with more time and energy to devote to worrying: about drought and fires in the American West; hurricanes on the Gulf Coast; the grim rates of unemployment and the failure of small businesses; the many obstacles lying in the path of the creation and deployment of a Covid-19 vaccination; and the terrible polarization of the United States.

In an odd twist, it is exactly that accelerated commitment to worrying that gave rise to the wild dream that drives this essay, namely:  If I could persuade some percentage of my fellow citizens to share my enthusiasm for good arguments, the polarization would drop in intensity, and we might be able to get somewhere in dealing with all those other worrisome problems.

OK, let’s put that wild dream aside for the moment, and return to reality.

This nation’s capacity to engage in good arguments has reached the vanishing point. In the all-too-near future, the nation’s sorriest ritual—that miserable performance called “a presidential debate”—will provide unmistakable evidence to support that assessment. As millions of Americans have arrived at the conclusion that arguing is inevitably sterile and pointless, we are left with only shouting matches, blame fests, fruitless data disputes, or embittered silence. This is the bedrock problem that deepens and enhances every other dilemma we face.

Over the last years, pundits of various stripes have gone into over-production of a certain form of pep talk. In an endless loop, these people keep telling us that, to do our part to redeem our polarized society, we must take every opportunity to listen to those with whom we disagree.

Once you have listened, what can you do?

You can write a commentary of your own, telling other people they should listen, particularly to you.

The commentators telling us to devote ourselves to listening have come to resemble a sad group of recipe-writers, who have convinced themselves that the act of writing a recipe begins and ends with instructions to go out and acquire some ingredients. After the command, “acquire groceries,” these aspiring kitchen gurus skip the part of telling us what to do with the ingredients we have assembled.

To depart from analogy and opt for directness: today’s exhortations to listen go nowhere and still take a long time to reach that destination.

Here’s a better alternative.

By all means, listen. But once you have listened, and once you have reached an understanding of the ideas that other people hold and why they hold them, then invite those folks to join you in a good argument.

We should listen so that we will have all the ingredients we will need to win arguments in the only sense that matters: emerging from the exchange smarter and better oriented to life.

One way to get the right take on winning and losing arguments is to repurpose and redeem that platitude, “We will have to agree to disagree.” Understood as a passive submission to the recognition that two people are not of one mind, this unfortunate platitude has lumbered through life with the wrong meaning.

Set free from this sad message of defeat, and inevitability, those words get a new lease on life. “We will have to agree to disagree, and so we are off on adventure! We will put everything we have into taking part in a good argument, and the friendship between us will not only endure, it will gain in strength.”

 

The Native (Or Maybe I Meant Naïve) Home Of Hope:

The University as the Habitat Where Argument Thrives, Theoretically

When I was a teenager, I had the good fortune to hang out on college campuses with older relatives. At the start of each visit, I would go to the college bookstore and buy a notebook, believing that carrying this notebook would make me look a lot older than thirteen (which really asks quite a bit of a notebook). I visited classes, where I was swept into enchantment as I watched smart people agree to engage in vigorous and unbounded discussion.

These visits gave rise to a hope that was always naïve, and—in 2020—is racking up more points of naiveté with every passing day.

Here, undisguised, is the conviction that took permanent hold on my soul before I turned fourteen.

Society has designated universities and colleges as the places that will foster and celebrate good arguments. In those places, people can say all kinds of stuff. Everyone in the vicinity might disagree wholeheartedly, but no one will proclaim, “You cannot say such a thing on this campus.” Instead, everyone will make steady use of the statements that certify that a good argument is in progress:

        • “I see your point, but I wonder how you would respond to this objection.”
        • “Could you give me an example to support what you just said, and could you help me see why you think that this example is typical, and not an exception to the rule?”
        • “I seem to have lost my bearings, and I am no longer sure what we are arguing about. We started with a disagreement over subject x, but now we seem to have shifted over to another subject entirely. Could we return to the original topic, or do those two topics connect to each other in ways that I am not yet seeing?”

I could go on and on with examples of this sort, but I’ll cut myself off.  Still, admiring the beauty of the movements and maneuvers that people perform in good arguments is a form of gratification that will never cause me to say, “Enough!”

And now for the concluding peroration.

When I was a kid, I thought universities and colleges would guide society in the practice of good arguments. In 2020, this hope isn’t exactly working out, which may be the understatement of the year.

Here is the complication that I did not begin to foresee, though I probably should have seen this coming. The topics that would benefit from good arguments on campuses arouse very intense emotions. This makes these topics particularly likely to foster bad arguments in which participants simply reassert what they have always thought. After a few rounds of that miserable stalemate, silencing the noise seems far preferable to amplifying it. While that summation might seem to discourage any effort to convene for a good argument, it also puts a premium on giving it a try.

But here is my honest opinion:

Higher education is giving signs of defaulting on the promise of free expression and disagreements worth having.

 At the very least, that opinion should provide the occasion for good arguments beyond counting.

Count me in.

 

If you find this blog contains ideas worth sharing with friends, please forward this link to them. If you are reading this for the first time, join our EMAIL LIST to receive the Not my First Rodeo blog every Friday.

 

Photo Credit: Banner Vaccine image photo courtesy of: pixabay.com, by Juliox.