Several weeks ago, I saw a question on my Facebook news feed that originated from one of the blogging pages I follow. The question was pretty straightforward: Are there any topics you choose not to blog about? The answers to that question didn’t surprise me:
What did surprise me was the response of one blogger, who wrote (I’m paraphrasing here) “I actually think it’s WRONG to talk about politics. We all have our values that we were raised with and no one has the right to tell us those beliefs are wrong. We should all just do what we think is right and respect that each of us has has different opinions and let it be.”
I read that, and my first thought was Thank you for decimating the very foundation of the political system in this country. After all, the United States was established as a place where people were specifically entitled to both have and share their opinions. That sharing is designed to be the basis for our entire legislative structure. Get rid of shared opinions and you have a dictatorship. Or a monarchy. Or some other political system where “our values that we were raised with” don’t make any difference.
My second thought was If I have to hear “that’s how I was raised” as a justification for an opinion one more time, somebody’s going to get hurt.
Not really, of course. I’m a pacifist at heart. But the idea that our upbringing is some kind of explanation for what we believe completely ignores the facts that 1.) we become adults with the ability to make our own decisions, and 2.) we aren’t required to maintain the values of the people who raised us.
I didn’t. That’s mostly because I’ve lived my life in a very different way than my parents lived theirs. It doesn’t mean I’m right and they were wrong; it means our opinions were based on a different experiences.
Fear of conversations about any issue mostly stems from a misunderstanding of what argument really means. And it’s no surprise that people don’t understand that concept–if you’ve been paying any attention at all to the current political climate, you’ve seen how quickly it devolves into name-calling, mud-slinging, bloviating, and a whole bunch of other completely useless behaviors. None of which has anything to do with argument.
What is argument, you ask?
It’s a conversation in which people express differing views, and the values behind those views, with an aim toward explaining why their own position is the more logical one.
Let’s take that apart, shall we?
It’s a conversation. That means two people who are both speaking and listening to each other.
People express differing views. If everyone you speak to happens to share your opinions, then there’s no need in your life for argument. But there’s also no need to examine your views–which means they’re probably not very carefully considered. Argument is probably the best tool we have for understanding our own opinions.
People express the values behind those views. Most of us know what we believe on the big issues. Fewer of us know why we believe those things; we default to bumper sticker slogans without really taking time to consider the implications of our beliefs. (For instance: if someone is opposed to abortion because “Abortion stops a beating heart,” then that same person can’t logically be in favor of the death penalty, which does the same thing. If we extend that argument to its logical conclusion, that person would also have to be a vegetarian and never so much as squash a spider. See why it’s important to think through our values carefully?)
People aim toward explaining why their own position is the more logical one. Notice that this doesn’t say “aim toward winning.” The whole idea of “winning” an argument is misplaced. It’s not a competition. Argument is intended to be persuasive, but if you end up persuading someone to change their mind, you don’t get a trophy. Perhaps you get a few moments of smug self-satisfaction, but that lasts only until you realize opinions are infinitely mutable. They’re based on information, and the facts we have on hand are always changing.
Arguments are not fights. (Although you might think so, if you do a quick Google search for images relate to the word. You’ll see lots of people with their backs turned to each other, raised fists, etc.) Nor are they disagreements. Both of those terms suggest parties who are at odds with each other.
Rather, arguments are discussions during which people disagree. How is that different from a disagreement? Generally speaking, we try to settle disagreements–to come to a point of compromise. We don’t have to settle arguments. We can end the discussion by saying “I don’t think we’re going to agree on this issue. Thanks for sharing your perspective.”
I wasn’t raised to be an arguer. In fact, I was raised to be a good, conflict-avoidant Lutheran girl. Somewhere along the line, my academic training taught me that–as the title of a freshman composition textbook states–everything is an argument. Novels make arguments. Poems, songs, works of art–every single one of them is making a point.
When we avoid argument on any topic, all we accomplish is failing to think through our own perspective. I place a fairly high premium on walking the walk–on living a life that’s consistent with my values. I don’t know how that would be possible if I weren’t as clear as possible in my thinking about what I believe. The best way to be clear is to talk with people who see the world differently and challenge us with new perspectives.
That isn’t argument for its own sake. It’s understanding that argument exists as a whetstone for sharpening our understanding of ourselves and others, not as the blade with which to make an attack.