Monday, May 13, 2013

When Does Arguing Cross a Line?

Those of you who know me know that I love debating and arguing. I love talking to people with opinions I disagree with, figuring out why they have those opinions, sharing my own thoughts, and trying to lure people over to my way of thinking. But in pursuit of happiness this month, I have been trying to argue less. I feel arguing can either take the form of a good, refreshing debate, or an actual fight. The lines have gotten blurred for me lately, and I want to try and straighten them out.

So where are the lines? When does arguing bring me great joy, and when does it bring me distress?

I think these are the things that can make arguing delightful for me. When these are gone, it becomes frustrating rather than fun.

1. Respect for each other's intellectual capacity and integrity. I don't like to argue with people who I truly don't respect intellectually or who don't respect me. There's not even any point to it. It just devolves into someone being very condescending to someone they think is less intelligent than them.

2. Respect for each other's moral capacity and integrity. I don't like to argue with people who I don't think are good people. I don't know anybody who outright thinks I'm not a good person, but I wouldn't want to argue with them either. I have to trust that the other person wants to do the right thing, the loving thing, the just thing, even if we disagree on what that is.

3. True listening. This is a basic application of the Golden Rule. Just as I believe the things I have to say in this argument are valuable and would appreciate being heard, I want to extend that courtesy to whoever I'm listening to. This means no jumping to conclusions and really trying to process what they say before I jump to respond.

4. An end goal of understanding rather than agreement. If my main goal in arguing is to persuade rather than to listen, learn, and understand each other, I will nearly always be disappointed. Even if I never get the person I'm arguing with to agree with me, I feel a sense of accomplishment if I feel like I have learned something about them and how they think. Similarly, I feel accomplished when someone says, "I get your point. I don't agree with you, but I get what you mean now."

These four aspects make the process of arguing very enjoyable for me. As we're both laying out our opinions, even if we're voicing them strongly, this underlying current of respect and understanding can make an argument a joyful exchange of ideas rather than a fight.

So what makes an argument into a fight? Well, let's see what happens if you reverse or take away those four positive aspects:

1. Personal attacks. As soon as you start making attacks on the character, intelligence, or heart motivation of someone you are arguing with, you have devolved into a fight, and it is not going to end well.

2. Only sharing your own views and ignoring or dismissing the other's. If someone else does this to me, I simply back out of the conversation. If I'm doing it to someone else, I may not realize it at first, but I can usually tell as it goes on because it feels different. It feels unsatisfying.

3. The end goal is WINNING. If the drive to win gets really strong, anything that isn't a complete victory feels hollow. Sometimes if I'm in this mode, even convincing the other person isn't enough - they need to say, "I was wrong and you were right all along and I should have listened to you" for me to feel like it's an actual win. Which, of course, hardly ever happens.

I am trying to do a better job of knowing when I'm in the middle of an argument whether it is a debate or a fight. Too often what starts off as a debate devolves, and I am trying to learn when I need to simply walk away.

In the middle of my month/week/whatever of happiness, I've tried to stay away from arguing altogether to see how it affects me. I broke that rule several times this past week, and although it occasionally felt exhilarating to be in the middle of this constant back-and-forth of whirlwind debate, I always wished I hadn't afterwards. I'm going to try to pick that back up again this week, because the negativity and fighting I allowed into my life this past week took its toll on me, and I was mentally and emotionally exhausted all week long.


  1. You didn't put in here that it distresses your mother and she has to leave the room. I know when I've been insulted. I know when I've been insulted!

  2. Hannah, this is an issue that I've worked on myself a lot over the years and especially throughout the last year and a half. Like you, I enjoy a healthy, respectful debate. (I think you've seen enough evidence of that!) But there does come a point where there's nothing positive to be gained from engaging someone and I've gotten better about recognizing that and taking steps to avoid being ensnared by it.

    I don't know where the line is actually drawn, but I do know the worst crossing of it that I've experienced to date. Several years ago, my wife's grandmother's sister passed away. We and the rest of her family went to Ohio for the funeral. Mind you, this is where I first met my wife's aunt. Upon ferreting out that I'm a Democrat, she made a point of engaging me on the subject. At first, I thought it was the kind of mutually respectful debating that I enjoyed with my wife's grandmother.

    It wasn't.

    Instead, she hounded me on a battery of talking points and refused to allow me to graciously exit the discussion. She was so hostile that my wife's grieving grandmother became so upset that she actually got up and left the dining room and retreated to her bedroom for nearly three hours. Maybe berating someone she's just met over Clinton's tax policy was worth it to my wife's aunt, but I personally would never choose that kind of debate or argument at the expense of so upsetting an elderly woman grieving for her only sister. That was definitely on the other side of the line!

    One of the hardest things about maintaining a healthy distance from these kinds of draining, even poisonous, arguments is that there is endless bait out there. There are times when even a seemingly benign subject is tempting but the person is wrong and it takes some restraint. That can be especially frustrating if the subject is one of importance to you. I often feel a measure of guilt at not using my voice to challenge perspectives with which I disagree when the subject is of personal importance.

    It also hurts that my default mode is casual snark. I've learned to rein that in online quite a bit, which unfortunately can make me come off as a lot drier and more of a wet blanket than I (think/hope) I really am. There are lots of times online when I really just want to cut loose, but I know it isn't worth it even though it's a whole lot easier to "walk away" by just closing a tab than it is to physically extricate myself from an offline situation.