Friday, May 3, 2013

The Last Word

Quarrel, quibble, argue, bicker - in English we have many words to describe what happens when we disagree.

Why do we do it? To what end do we get red faced and angry, for what benefit do we wave our fists or shout? What do we hope to accomplish in the midst of conflict? And why do we go on and on when there's no clear path to resolution?

I've been thinking about it all day. At its foundation, every argument is a contest, a challenge. Arguments are one way we establish pecking order; they are power struggles. We're social predators, like dogs. We want to know who is alpha in every situation. We have to know, apparently because we fight all the time.

I'm not suggesting that societies with rigid customs about who is the boss of whom are preferable to all the kerfuffles we engage in here in 21st century America. Though - there is a way in which life would be a lot easier if we weren't always jousting for position.

The caste system in India is interesting. You might see a super high class Brahmin begging on the street, or a lower caste person who is rich and lives in some hideous gigantic house. The pecking order in Hinduism is so complicated, even though I've studied, I've read all about it, I can not wrap my mind around it. Indians love to argue. Even the elaborate bartering and bargaining that goes on in the marketplace is an example of the ways in which they establish pecking order. It's complicated.

Ah but that's India. I live in the U.S. of A where allegedly we're all equal. Not true - never was - but we try. We practice being equal as best we can (though of course there's disagreement among us about what equality means). One of the side effects of this evolutionary behavior is a tendency to altercate, sometimes about anything.

We think we are so sophisticated, but I maintain, as always, that most of our behavior is instinctual. It's the stories we attach to our behavior that are sophisticated, not the behavior itself.

I'm thinking about it today because of an exchange on Facebook. One of my friends posted about how sad it is that kids no longer play in the streets (he had been looking at old pics of San Francisco). One of his friends chimed in about how community dies when there is no exchange among neighbors.

I went on a little bit about Capitol Hill.

Me: Come to Capitol Hill. Kids play - not in the streets because they would be run over - but on the sidewalks and in the small front yards. When I moved here I couldn't believe it - neighbors hanging out with cups of coffee or glasses of wine on the front porches, catching up on gossip, kids growing up like brothers and sisters with their neighbors. Honestly I am not exaggerating. Come to Capitol Hill. I'll show you a living, breathing community. 
Friend of Friend: Capitol Hill, D.C.? Power Center of the World Imperium? Inventor of the Inside-the-Beltway Syndrome? No, thank you. Kids play in the street and run from back yard to back yard in the corner of Omaha, Nebraska, where I live, as they did in the corner of suburban Denver where my daughter grew up, and the parents’ heads, in both those places, are not addled by grand political madness. 
Me: C'mon and visit. You'll be surprised. 
FoF: Been there, done that, Reya. And you’ve seen my reaction above. It’s charming enough on the surface, but that’s like the charm of the kept rabbits in *Watership Down*.

At that point I was tempted to continue, if for no other reason than his argument was embarrassingly empty. The kept rabbits in Watership Down? Good lord. But I also wanted to prevail. Of course I did! I'm a normal human being living in a society where I'm allowed to express my opinion.

He insulted me (threw down the gauntlet) by saying he knows more about DC than I do, though he lives in Nebraska. He also insulted my dear friends and neighbors, maintaining that their minds are "addled by grand political madness." Nothing could be further from the truth.

He made clear that his mind was closed to the idea that real community could exist on Capitol Hill. He called me a liar. I wonder if he realized that.

I could have responded with outrage, i.e. Oh, so you know more about DC than I do? I've lived here 14 years! Or I could have been holier than thou, i.e. I'm sad your mind is closed to a wonderful bit of information about DC. Or ...

I could have said a lot of things, but it was time to close the computer and take my shower. The Voice in the Shower, a stalwart ally always, said, Rebuttals are not always necessary.

Wonderful advice and interesting to think about. Who gets the last word in an argument, and what does it mean?

I'm not against disagreements, by the way. As a Jew, I learn from arguing. In fact they say Talmudic teachings must contain a difference of opinion or they can not be considered authentic. I believe it. There are many truths, many realities. I love mixing it up with someone of a different opinion. I love nothing better than engaging with someone, after which I change my mind about something. As long as the quarrel doesn't become personal, I find it enlivening, no matter who has the last word.

But I must choose my battles carefully. Given the above, to continue would have been, at best, a waste of time, yes? He can have the last word. It was clear (after my shower) that unless I wanted to vent my spleen, nothing interesting could come from continuing the exchange. Hence I let it go. It felt really good not to respond.

Interesting to think about!

Shabbat Shalom, y'all.


Steve Reed said...

Well, FoF is just being idiotic. It's like he assumes everyone in D.C. is a Congressman. What about all the hairdressers and teachers and pianists and secretaries?

I generally dislike arguing, and I will try my best to avoid it. You're right -- it CAN be a learning experience, but it's also unpleasant, at least for me.

Pam said...

I always think its a good day until someone starts arguing around or with me - not good natured bantering, but the "I wish that hadn't happened" kind.
I don't like arguments at all.
If someone likes to have the last word, and they're obviously wrong, to me it just shows their arrogance, ignorance or both.
My daughter and husband both have to have the last word, so the argument goes on forever - someone always gets hurt.
I would hate to hear myself described as an argumentative person - I'm not a walk-over probably rather a walk- away.
Let the know-all get away with their silly facts - you know the real deal.

Reya Mellicker said...

Yes he's ignorant and arrogant. When I woke up this morning I found I still want to set him straight. But I will refrain.

I enjoy disagreeing until it gets personal. When someone starts saying I'm an idiot for my beliefs that's when I will walk away - but if its a free spirited disagreement about ideas - I actually love that.

ellen abbott said...

I don't like fights or when a disagreement gets personal and insulting which usually happens as soon as the other person understands they won't change your mind. I enjoy discussions of differing opinions, like you, it's how you get the info to allow ourselves to change our minds about something. but once it turns into an argument, I quit. I spent too many years in a power struggle with my husband us being raised in the pre-feminist era. he was not always right, he did not always get to make the decisions and I would engage until he acquiesced. which he never would. oh we spent many years fighting over stupid things. but I was fighting for more than the last word on any subject. I was fighting for my worth and value. Once I learned that my worth and value didn't depend on his acknowledgment of it, I quit the arguments. I expressed my opinion and then went on with what I wanted to do or think. he could have the last word. it didn't mean that I had to do anything his way.

Pam said...

Oh god - Ellen's comments reminded me of arguments with my father in the pre-feminist days. Intelligent women really had to fight for their beliefs then and so often having to disagree with stuck-in-the-mud women too. Being dictated to by men who were not the brightest sparks was difficult, and it is alarming to see it still happening in other cultures.
There are definitely arguments worth having.

Susan said...

Living in AZ I hear the same baseless arguments - everyone here is a bigot, Sheriff JoeWicked Witch of the west Jan Brewer lover, gun-toting anarchist.

Susan said...

I remember thinking India must be the worst place to live - and then I read City of Joy. It seems this guy created a horrible DC montage and left out key human elements also present wherever one finds oneself - charity, hope, love.

Linda Roberts said...

FoF's picture of where and how you live is so silly it's amusing. I grew up just outside of DC in Maryland so I am familiar with your neighborhood. At first reading I was ready to leap in for your side as a born chaperone and debater (reformed)- then I realized that FoF is probably not heart-soft nor interested in learning about your situation. I agree with Steve; FoF may imagine everyone huddling amid the columns of the Jefferson memorial. Just laugh!

Reya Mellicker said...

Awesome comments!

Susan your description of the Arizona stereotype is hilarious.