Avoiding (Most) Arguments: It's a Pretty Black-and-White Issue


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I am not prone to taking sides on many issues.  In fact, I try as hard as possible to resist choosing sides, or feeling so strongly about any one issue that I’m unable to at least appreciate the other side’s point.  And even in how I’m describing it I’m implying that issues are simple enough to be described by one point or another when in reality almost all issues are more complex and present a spectrum of potential solutions rather that a discrete set of binary solutions.  Often I would rather take no side and be open to what others have to say, or be free to reject and question everything that I hear.

Lately I’ve been finding myself in a bit of a pickle as a result of this because I often find that by not choosing a “side” of an issue or having a particularly strong opinion on any matter, I often don’t have much on which to connect with others.  I also find that I rarely tell people that I think they might be incorrect.  I personally feel that this more metered and placid approach to issues that I perceive to be complex in nature is the correct one, and that is just about the only thing I feel comfortable asserting firmly.

To take a couple of steps back and address those who might be thinking “well maybe you’re just spineless,” there are a couple of reasons why this is the approach I’ve chosen to take over the last few years.  I actually do have strong feelings, it’s just that perhaps they’re meta-argument arguments.

First of all, I feel strongly that you should never be hellbent on anything on which you aren’t well researched.  Just about the only things I feel comfortable arguing (or rather let’s say, discussing in depth) on for instance are physics, math, outdoor gear, radiation doses, and to a certain extent, computers, technology, and the ethics surrounding them.  These are the things, which while I’m no expert, I do understand to a comfortable level.  When you argue an unresearched or misguided point simply because you feel very strongly about something, or perhaps all the “research” you have done is simply read stuff written by people who agree with you, you’re lowering the level of discourse to, well, sadly to say, the news.  Issues are deeply complex this day in age with layers upon layers of abstract social, political, economic, and technological ideas and ideologies influencing tiny facets that most of us fail to see much less appreciate and account for in our arguments.  Arguing based on such oversimplified ideas and a failure to appreciate such complexities dumbs down discourse and frankly, can cause deeply rooted problems and complications that just add to the many layers of abstraction overlaying a point of argument.  We’re giving ourselves too much credit if we assume that we assume we know all there is to know about something… or anything really.

Second, I don’t get into fundamentalist arguments.  In these arguments, rationality usually fails at some point, emotions take over and relationships can be ruined.  There is a place for these arguments, but for me, it’s only when all parties can stay calm and agree to disagree while respecting and hearing one another’s points.  Emotional discussions are good, but when it becomes less about reason that’s when I tap out.  I respect people’s right to feel how they feel, but all too often misinformation is spread on these issues because people feel desperate to make others agree with them and I have no respect for that.  And when an issue becomes such an issue, I have no desire to try and discuss misinformation, unless it is to simply identify it as misinformation.  (To add one last thing, if I’m not researched on a topic then how could I possible hope to identify misinformation when I see or hear it?  Someone could cite made up facts all day long and I would be none the wiser.  Just another reason why it pays to discuss issues on which one is well versed, and also ones that are not potentially minefields of bogus “research” and made up facts.  I think that we all know the worst offenders in these respects are usually political in nature).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I rarely think that people feel the way they do because they want to make the world a worse place.  I feel comfortable asserting that all of the convictions that people hold strongly enough to argue in favor or them are rooted in an attempt to make the world more in line with their world-view and their set of morals; with the rare exception, all of these people would define their ideal worldview to be “better” than the world in which we live.  Abortion?  Both sides feel their solutions would make for a better place.  Capitalists?  Same thing.  Artificial intelligence fanatics?  Religious folks, both extreme and more subtle?  Pet lovers? Cycling activists? Etc.  All of these people believe that if perhaps a few of their ideas were realized, our society and universe might just be a shade more improved.  If you start with this before you walk into any argument and assume that while you may not see eye to eye, both of you wish to see the world better than it was yesterday, it can spin your whole idea of the other person, and your whole attitude about a potential disagreement in a new direction.


Now there’s a downside to this final point, and it’s one that perhaps many people wouldn’t suffer from, but I do, and that is that when someone doesn’t return such a feeling, it’s hard for me not to feel just a bit betrayed by a fellow human being.  Perhaps not betrayed by humanity, but just that perhaps our consideration for one another is slipping away a little more every day.  I know, I know, so many people complain that we’re getting more and more barbaric with each passing day and yadda yadda yadda and every generation complains that the one after it is worse than they were, etc.  I know.  It’s evolution.  I guess I’m not trying to make a blanket statement here, just an individual one and that is that arguments typically make me not feel so great on the other side of things so why bother?  There is plenty of inflammatory dialogue out there for people to mindlessly consume in 140 character chunks, why should I contribute further to it, even if it never hits the internet or moves beyond a table of people talking?  I just don’t feel the need to further expose the world to more anger and violence (but believe you me, I get plenty angry and plenty frustrated about many of the same issues that everyone is ranting about.)

What I’m trying to get at is that it’s not what we’re saying, it’s how we’re saying it.  I don’t like to argue points because I don’t like how many people are arguing.  I don’t like how I argue when it comes to that and I don’t like how I feel or the person that I become.  I do believe that ultimately we all want what’s best (or what we identify as “best”) for the rest of the world, but especially for ourselves, our family and our friends (our “circle of empathy” as Jaron Lanier puts it) and how could I possibly fault you for that?  We should all be willing to put our own opinions on the back burner and hear someone else’s and I hope that one day we can arrive at a place where we can expect others to extend us the same courtesy.

I’m certainly not alone in my feelings about the level of discourse now becoming “acceptable:” Popular Science recently pulled its comments section because misinformation was derailing and distracting public opinion on actual, researched journalism.  Jaron Lanier, whose book I recently finished and hope to write a whole separate post about, deeply wants to return the human element to the internet and its discussions.  Bill Watterson made loads of commentary in Calvin and Hobbes (see the cartoon included with the post).  Colbert made fun of Slate for including an approximate reading time of each article because people were complaining that they “didn’t know what they were getting themselves into.”  

If after that, you still feel that I’m spineless, well you can shove off you jerk.  Just kidding.  Perhaps we could learn something from one another.

(A warning to sensitive readers or people who maybe just happened across this, which is hopefully more than zero: This is going to get a little crass, sloppy, and ramble-y. I don’t typically write like this, but I just can’t help it here.  I’m gonna let all the slightly stream of consciousness writing hang out.)

But that all brings me around to the aforementioned pickle: in my effort to understand the opinions of others and to try and be amenable and open to new opinions while at the same time being well informed on issues, I’m struck by the absolutely magnificent wealth of opinions (both good and bad as well as pro and con), facts (both true and false), qualifications of authors (expert versus amateur versus amateur that fancies themselves an expert), and so many other shades of gray that I often find myself unsure of what to believe and trust even on issues I care about or am quasi informed upon.  I’ve lost the ability to feel like I have any argument for anything at all other than stating wikipedia-like what I’ve read or heard.  That’s the only stuff people can’t tell you is wrong!  It not out of a fear of being wrong, it’s because I just genuinely sometimes don’t know what is right and wrong anymore when it comes to those fun, complex problems facing our world today.  I don’t even have anything to gain or lose on most of these issues!  I have the distinctly opposite problem of Calvin and my own morals towards complete information gathering have betrayed me and hindered my ability to cohesively form any opinions at all anymore.  To remedy that, I’d have to accept a certain lack of knowledge (because I just don’t have the hours and hours and hours it would take to parse through all of the vast troves of information surrounding the many many issues about which I care), which would be compromising on what of the things I can comfortably assert that I truly care about (i.e. without a shadow of a doubt can assert that).  But to state that one has to be well informed before arguing a point would limit most people’s ability to argue a point to just about one issue, just based on how much information they would have to parse before they could consider themselves informed enough to make a case.  Blegh.  Here’s the pragmatic answer that I have: I feel ok if I’m pretty well informed on an issue and can accept that I might not know everything.  I wouldn’t blame anyone arguing a point if they had at least tried and were open to learning something new.

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Another layer to the pickle (it’s a pickled onion): THIS IS THE KIND OF STUFF THAT I’VE BEEN THINKING ABOUT LATELY.  Hardly anyone thinks about this shit, so I often find myself unable to talk to people about the things I really think about on a day to day basis.  When I even kind of come tangent to something related (i.e. not even really discussing the things, but just something similar), my opinion just blow forth like a pressurized well of strung together information that I’ve been thinking about for weeks and for which I’ve had no outlet.  It usually happens that way because I’m so excited to finally be able to talk about something I care about, but I usually shoot myself in the foot because people don’t know what to think when they hear me talk like that!  For example, the other day I got talking about creative media on the internet and how I feel strongly that more and more we vote by what we support with our dollars and how I think Jaron Lanier has a point that so many people who work so hard to create art are now nearly mandated to offer at least some part of it for free online in order to get exposure and that we’re basically going to run them out of business if we keep demanding that as a culture (aside: if this run-on sentence isn’t example enough of my desire to just freaking talk… just ramble even).  After I said a couple of metered sentences about it, my Mom made a point that was off-base but was actually just due to not understanding what I was talking about and I *guess* I countered a *little* strongly in that she was basically just silent.  In my defense she brought up how Al Gore was responsible for bringing the internet to everyone, which was incredibly unrelated and out of  context of what I was talking about, but she also hasn’t been thinking about this stuff as much as I have lately so I really don’t blame her.  It caught me off guard and had nothing to do with what I was talking about, but I ruined my ability to talk further about anything because she felt attacked by how I responded.  In all fairness my response was along the lines of “that’s not really what I was talking about. What I did mean was the following…” and the proceeded to clarify my first points.  Anyways, I think she also just didn’t want to talk about it.  I guess I was a little hurt by it.

All this said: I’d like to meet people, but I think most people who read that and didn’t know me would think I was a crazy person.  Sometimes I wonder if I’m a crazy person.  I’d like to meet people I guess to be a little self-serving and have someone to bounce ideas off of.  I feel like my world-view has just gotten murkier and much less refined over the last few years and I feel a little lost.  Perhaps we should bring back salons.  Or better yet: I’ll start my own secret society of thinking people.  We’ll call it “the society of the people who teeter on the edge of slightly manic insanity and desperately need others to talk to.”  All topics are welcomed so long as they’re pretty well researched by everyone beforehand.  And no haters.

Anyone care to join?