Sunday, September 25, 2011

Mary Quite Contrary

I can pinpoint when I started writing online—in the summer between my 7th and 8th grade years. I know because my typing scores went from 24 words per minute to 50 or 60. I learned that I had to think, compose and write quickly in the chat rooms on the Microsoft Network (this was before a unified internet when people were either on MSN or AOL) and I also learned that people who judge you based on your spelling and grammar (“If you can’t even spell Freud, you must not know what you’re talking about.”). I also frequented a “discussion board” called The Shout, or something like that. The Shout was a site based in England for teenagers to start arguments from posts titled things like “Abortion???” Even though we often had the same arguments and no one was likely to change their position, I loved the chance to full-throttle argue with someone and I definitely screamed and cried and paced in front of that screen many a time.

I hit my most contrary phase around 8th grade. I wasn't big on fighting with my parents, but debating the "big ideas." Some of my friends were wary of "contention" and I was a little contentious, sometimes. Or often.

I keep telling people that I'm over it. There are a number of topics that I'm just exhausted about, gay marriage being foremost, I guess, and I just kind of step back and let the argument go on around without me. People aren't going to change their strongly held opinions any more than those British teenagers at the Shout were interested in nuanced argument.

That being said.

Sometimes when I hear people make a claim, I automatically want to defend the opposite. Government military humanitarianism is bad. Can't a bad peace be better than a good war? Charter schools will save education. What about private and religious schools the charters displace? Vanilla is the worst flavor of ice cream. What brand and variety of vanilla do you mean? It's a reaction. Honestly, I rarely care about the position I take.

In some sense it's a good thing that I learned about rhetoric as a field of study, and can place my eristic tendencies in context. I can identify what it is that I'm really arguing and analyze my interlocutors' positions and tactics. It's Shout without the shouting.

I recently got in my first Facebook debate and it's been wonderful. Mostly because those involved are smart, respectful and our argument doesn't really strike at the core of people's untenable beliefs. We're debating the virtues and vices TV watching. It's been lovely, and I think I'm learning quite a bit, but I also watch myself, carefully. This time it's for fun and everyone knows it. I must remember not to strike up arguments for fun when I'm the only one who enjoys it.


Whistler said...

I identify with that impulse to play devil's advocate. So, did you argue that TV is a waste of time or a useful relaxation exercise?

Jamie said...

Mary, your post made me laugh. And miss you all the more. It's been fun to have my opinions challenged. Why DO I feel that way about TV? What are my inherent biases? How am I insensitive to the needs of other people vastly different than me? While debating almost always makes each side more firmly convinced that they are right, it is useful to flesh out our stances on something and consider negatives to our stance that we hadn't before. And I think we're doing a good job of having a non-threatening, non-ad hominem debate. I can't handle too much conflict anyway. I hate normal arguing.

I like that your debating skills are enhanced by your rhetorical studies. I was especially impressed with your aggregated list of the issues. Very impressed. That's synthesis right there. Also a very good rhetorical tactic to make the opposition feel like you have at least acknowledged their position by repeating what they are arguing. Does that make sense? Wish I could have taken those rhetoric classes with you.

We can stop the debate whenever you want (don't want it to get old), or we can start a new one.

Anyway, thanks for the meta-discussion on the debate. You're a pal. A brilliant, kind one.

Day said...

Interesting. I've been thinking a lot about discussion/argument styles, but have no conclusions about how to make sure people are comfortable. . . asking them doesn't always work. I also wonder, what (if anything) do we owe each other, in conversation?

mlh said...

You know, I just barely read a commentary on Aristotle that suggested that rational debate is a human need, how we express ourselves more humanly, etc. Our current climate either fears dissent or whips it into a fervor.