Friday, June 25, 2010

Winning the Argument Doesn’t Mean You’re Right

We all know someone who needs to get this message. Unfortunately, the people who need to hear it the most are the ones who will stare you straight in the face, uncomprehending, when you try to tell them. They’re right and they know it, and no amount of discussion with mere mortals will convince them otherwise.

I lived with someone like this for nearly two years. By the time I moved out, I was worn out. Why? He was good at arguing, and naturally assumed that his ability to easily win most arguments meant he was always right. Unfortunately, the two don’t follow.

I had a friend in high school, a brilliant young man on the school’s debate team. He once successfully argued that light is neither a wave nor a particle, but a technology from UFO aliens. He won the argument. Does that mean he was right?

I have recently run across several more people like this. Most of them are nice enough and mean no harm, but a few take arguing to Olympic sport level, leaving normal people strewn about the field like so many battle casualties. They have learned to listen for certain phrases and bits of information in conversation, latch onto them and launch into a (usually meaningless) argument. They use emotionally loaded wording that is inappropriate to the situation in order to goad people into joining the argument with them.

A recent example: I commented on a quote a friend put up on Facebook, suggesting that in certain ways, we really do create our own reality. One of these Arguers immediately responded, saying that I must mean that all those starving children in Africa chose to be in the predicament they’re in. It’s an emotionally loaded statement, designed to goad the other person into responding, and it’s totally inappropriate to the discussion at hand.

I have to admit, I responded. My own fault. I was multi-tasking, not paying close enough attention to what was being said, or I would have recognized the bait for what it was and ignored it.

One thing I have noticed about people who delight in arguing like this is that they all seem to have a black-and-white, fundamentalist mindset. Bear in mind, a fundamentalist in any field is someone who believes their own way is the right way, not just for them, but for everyone. In other words, whatever their viewpoint, they’re dead sure they’re right and everyone else is wrong. And their ability to win arguments reinforces their viewpoint. Not a good thing, if you ask me.

One of my favorite examples of this quality is Michael Shermer, infamous editor of Skeptic Magazine. I read somewhere that he used to be a fundamentalist Christian before he became an atheist (and a fundamentalist atheist, at that!). I can believe it.

Some of the most vicious Arguers I’ve ever met were fundamentalist Christians. They actually take classes to learn how to argue someone down - I’m not kidding. Anyone unlucky enough to end up in a conversation with these people doesn’t know what hit them until it’s too late.

All this arguing goes back to the classical Greek concept of rhetoric, a word we hear tossed around a lot during election years, usually with a negative connotation (“Don’t give me that rhetoric; just answer the question!”). Rhetoric is language carefully chosen for its emotional content in order to win an argument. That is its sole purpose: to win the argument. There’s nothing inherently evil about rhetoric. We use loaded language all the time in our daily lives, and politicians live off the stuff.

But sometimes people take it too far, like those who love to ambush someone with a loaded statement, win the argument hands-down and walk away chuckling to themselves about how superior they are. That’s a bullying action. The people who do this are bullies, though we often don’t recognize them as such because, as they’re quick to point out, they are only participating in ‘polite discussions.’

I get tired of having to keep constant watch for these people. I want real discussions about wide-ranging topics, conversations in which I might learn something new and expand my mindset and worldview. I don’t want an argument in which one person wins and the other loses. But in order to find the conversations I crave, I have to put myself out there. That means I’m occasionally spotted by these bullies, and they just sap my energy. I’ve often wondered if they don’t somehow vampirize the energy they generate when they upset people. They definitely delight in trampling us ordinary mortals in conversation, twisting our words to mean what they don’t and showing themselves to be oh-so-superior, at least in the skill of debate.

So what’s a mere mortal to do? I’ll continue keeping an eye out for those loaded statements, that bait, and do my best to ignore it, even when my gut response to these people involves words you can’t say on TV. Why? Because I like the conversation I have with people, the discussion of differing viewpoints - not to argue who’s right or wrong, but to appreciate how the world looks through someone else’s eyes. And maybe learn something from it. Not to be superior, not to win or lose, but simply to grow and share.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Making a Difference

My daughter is ten years old. She wants to save the world.

All right, not exactly save it, but at least keep us adults from ruining it for her and her children. We've been having a lot of conversations lately about what she can do to make a difference, a positive impact on the future. It's hard to come up with things an individual can do, especially a child, to change the world. But as we were talking the other day, I was reminded of a story:

An old man was walking along the beach after a storm. The sand was littered with hundreds, maybe thousands of starfish that had been blown up on shore by the wind and surf. As the man walked, he stooped and picked up the starfish, throwing them back into the ocean one by one so they wouldn't die. Someone came by and saw what he was doing.  They asked, "Why are you bothering. You'll never make a difference." The man bent, picked up a starfish and threw it back into the water. "I made a difference for that one," he said.

Well, there you go. We don't have to change the world, just our little part of it. If enough of us realize that fact and act on it, then all our 'little parts' of the world will join together and create big change. So we sat down, as a family, and brainstormed about how we could make a difference in our little corner of the world. Some of these are choices we had already made, but we came to see them in a new light. Others are new. Here are a few of them:

1. Switch our cell phones to Credo Mobile. If we're going to pay money for a service, we want it to go to a company that actively supports the same values we do, not to places like AT&T and Verizon that donate millions of dollars to anti-environmental lobbies. Credo members get to vote on the progressive social and environmental organizations the company donates money to, over $85 million and counting.

2. Likewise, we have chosen satellite (Dish Network, but DirectTV is good, too) over cable because the cable companies push huge amounts of money in Washington each year in an effort to limit consumer access to real information. Our roster of satellite channels includes such progressive/alternative sources as Democracy Now, Free Speech TV and Link TV. Unfortunately, the satellite providers don't offer internet service in our area yet. We're looking forward to that, so we can get totally away from the big corporations that extol 'virtues' we disagree with.

3. Grow our own garden. I've always had something-or-other growing, in pots or in the ground. But we've expanded our vegetable garden so we'll have enough produce to fill up an upright freezer at the end of the season. My husband doesn't mind if I take over more parts of the lawn - it's less for him to mow! We've also chosen the permaculture/edible landscaping route. We had two willow trees die and chose to replace them with butternuts. From now on, if we add something new or replace something that has died, the new tree/bush/etc. must be something that produces food. By growing our own, we're removing ourselves at least in part from the chemical and petroleum-laden grow/process/ship cycle of commercial produce. My daughter is actually willing to work in the garden with us, without being prodded, because she realizes the impact this simple act makes on the world.

4. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Yeah, I know, everyone does this these days. Or do they? On trash pickup day it's unusual for our garbage can to be more than 1/4 full. Our neighbors, who also recycle, have a lot more trash than we do; I still haven't figured that out. We recycle glass, plastic, cardboard, newspaper, aluminum, steel, junk mail and other paper, and phone books. Anything organic, including hair (human and animal) and paper towels goes in the compost. When I shred old bank statements and the like, the shreds go in the compost as well. We don't throw away clothes and household items; they go to Goodwill. We shop at thrift stores and used bookstores as much as possible to avoid buying into the resource stream.

We're adding more things as we think of them. Sure, we're just three people, but that's three more than were doing these things before. And my daughter figures, maybe if people see us doing these things, they'll do them as well. I'm thinking, maybe she's right.

Do you have any ideas for us? What do you do, or would like to do, to make the world a better place? Thanks for sharing.

Friday, June 4, 2010

That Part of Me Is Broken

I'm writing a book, you see, a novel, and that means I have to think about things. Not just plot and characters and dialogue, but values and ethics and judgment. Just when I think I have sorted out what I  think I know and understand, I have to examine why my characters act the way they do and then I get stuck in a bog.

Here's what happened: I was talking with a good friend, getting some advice and ideas about the novel I'm working on. The storyline involves a sheriff's deputy and her boss (it's a sort of inside-out murder mystery) as well as folk magic and Hoodoo. At one point the conversation with my friend focused on how law enforcement officers view victims and criminals. I found this part very interesting and started reading up on it from other sources as well.

We all tend to sympathize with crime victims, but apparently in certain circumstances detectives can come to sympathize with criminals as well, particularly in an abuse situation. You see, abusers were themselves abused. That's how they got that way. In other words, they started out as victims.

Once you understand the process, and the vicious cycle of abuse, you develop some sympathy for the abuser. The criminal. And obviously, this can cause problems for a detective who's trying to catch said criminal. So I should probably incorporate this ethical dilemma into my novel. But I have a little problem, since I like to imagine how my characters feel, and I can't manage to imagine this bit.

Apparently this part of my psyche is broken because I just can't stir up that sympathy. A number of years ago, when my mother told me how her father and uncle had abused and molested her, she expected me to sympathize with her and understand why she chose to abuse and molest me, but I just couldn't. And yes, I used the word CHOSE.

You see, I CHOSE not to abuse or molest my children. I CHOSE to break the cycle and not use my own childhood as an excuse to ruin someone else's childhood. Yes, it was hard. Damn hard. It required a lot of painful self-examination and healing work on my part. But I wasn't going to allow myself to become the kind of person so many of my family members are, doing something to their children simply because it's what was done to them. That's how 'fun' traditions like hazing manage to keep going - because no one takes responsibility.

So I'm going to drop my novel's protagonist right into this thorny dilemma. Who is really the victim, who is really the criminal, and what, if anything, does sympathy have to do with justice? She's not going to enjoy it. In fact, it's going to make her miserable. But maybe, just maybe, she'll discover where responsibility really lies.