How to Break an Argument


Stone cold they march

Here’s how a sparring match works. One fighter throws a strike(be it punch, kick, knife-hand, head-butt, jumping spinning roundhouse) while the second fighter attempts to block dodge or re-direct the violent energy of the strike. Then the second fighter launches their counter attack using any manner or variation of the above mentioned strikes while the first player blocks, dodges, or diverts. Fighter One again counter attacks, then Fighter Two, and so on. They do this until time runs out or 3 points have been scored. In an unregulated real-life fight, the two fighters follow this rhythm until at least one fighter runs out of strikes, runs out of energy and succumbs to the inevitable result of being beat to a bloody pulp.

Verbal arguments follow much the same pattern. Personality One declares their value/bias/agenda and why they think they are correct and why (everyone, but for sure) Personality Two is (at the very least) uninformed and incorrect (and quite possibly the stupidest human to have walked the earth). Then Personality Two rebuts, defends and vociferates about why they are in fact the correct one and how Personality One should not be allowed to speak in public. And just like in fist fights, the words fly back and forth, escalating, intensifying, enflaming, and inciting and quite possibly trending while they’re at it.

Curiously though, a good many individuals seem to engage in verbal altercations expecting a much different, and quite possibly delusional outcome. Verbal fighters seem to engage in their debates and flame wars expecting the other side to A) be silenced(forever) or B) Conceded their wrongness or C) validate their own point of view or D) actually abandon their ideological position having been exposed to the…intensity…of the opposing view.

Curious. Very curious.

The reality is that most heated conversations end with each side only becoming even more convinced of the validity and strength of their own perspective while becoming equally more convinced of the lunacy and fallacy of the other argument as well as the ignorance and incompetence of the other argue-er.

Nobody changes. Nobody benefits from the exchange. Most likely because nobody actually listened to the other side. What actually happened was that each side had brief moments of silence in which they plotted their next response, rather than trying to understand their opponent.

This may not be so bad if the content of the conversation were extolling the virtues of chocolate versus vanilla ice cream, or perhaps whether Episodes I, II and III of Star Wars do or do not constitute actual art.

dscn1239Alas, these sorts of conversations tend to have much more at stake.

Do Black lives actually matter as much as White ones?

Are Women actually people?

Are unborn babies actually people?

Was Christ actually who He said He was?

Did we get here by chance or by design?

Is the current presidency kind of disappointing or severely alarming?

How much should our schools be funded?

Are the impoverished among us worth welfare funds and accessible healthcare?

What about guns?

What about sex and marriage practices?

None of these conversations are matters we can just casually walk away from. Nor are they matters in which contradictory life practices can sustainably co-exist. These are the raw and gritty daily lives of every Human being.

Someone is more right than someone else in each of topics, and those individuals feel it is their responsibility to “help” everyone else by guiding them to see the truth.

At least we all want to “help” each other see the error in each others ways so that they can change and conform to what we think is right. Thus we shout and shout because the world needs to hear our respective messages because then everything will be….better!!

Trouble is, everyone thinks they are right.

But the current mode of confronting, challenging, yelling, berating, insulting and criticizing each other in hopes of overwhelming them into a conversation experience seems to be failing.

We out to try a different manner of communication.

Helpful data to remember is that communication has layers and those layers shift depending on the communication medium. I contend that face to face communication is among the most useful, if not the most powerful, mediums of communication. (To this statement, I am open to differing opinions.) I further emphasize what communications theorists have discovered, that only 7% of communication consists of the words spoken. Body language, non-verbals and para-verbals comprise 93% of what is communicated, understood and believed.

I contend that the written word, particularly the online written word, is one of the most treacherous mediums of communication. This is of course highly ironic as I am writing this, intending it to be read online.

Sometimes when I read the words of others online, I get angry. Or sad. Or fearful. I’m sure I am the only one. *sarcasm*

I have some atheist friends. They are some of the most thoughtful and caring people I know. Sometimes they write angry words about religions they have left, religious systems that have hurt them, and ideologies that they once embraced but now find oppressive. Sometimes their words go beyond merely celebrating their newfound freedom and turn back to attack the religious views they once held.

When they do this, I feel like they are attacking me. I feel this because I still practice my religion. More than that, I see a clear distinction between the corruptible human-made organizational and governing structures that are religion and the actual practice of seeking to know and practice the will of God in daily life.

I feel so sad when my faith tradition is attacked because I am so sure I see gaps in the understanding of the attacker and feel so sure that if they would just listen, I could persuade them of the error of their ways and because I’m also emotionally invested, I feel a very strong urge to launch into an ideological counter attack and quickly point out just how mistaken the other person is…

This is precisely why I say nothing.

I refrain from confronting someone when I am heated and threatened because in that moment, if I am honest, I care more about myself feeling safe than I care about their well-being.

But, I tell myself, my faith tradition highly values the discipline of speaking the truth in love. Balancing what is right with what is kind, what is true with what is merciful, what must be firm with what can be gentle.

To lovingly confront someone about an area of lack or brokenness in their life is a good thing, and a beautiful way to care for the other person.

On the other hand, confronting someone primarily to make myself feel better after being offended is not loving. That sort of communication is entirely self-serving.

What I observe is that my atheist friends frequently do get confronted(rather sharply) by people who know them. Confrontations turn into really long arguments which leave each side even more convinced of their own rightness and the wrongness of the other. Neither side has helped the other; they have only perpetuated resentments.

Punch, block. Kick, dodge.

Remaining silent breaks the cycle of violence. In a fight, this would look like getting punched, and not punching back.

Maybe this even looks like getting punched, then tending to the wounds of the attacker. The cycle of violence is shattered if at least one side chooses to stop responding to violence with violence.

dscn3903If at least one side of the argument chooses silence.

Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to remain silent. To remain silent and present communicates that the other is not an overwhelming crisis and that they are valued regardless of their beliefs.

The most productive strategy when I feel like I have been attacked would be to sit down with the other person and invite them to share their whole story. They believe as they do for a reason. Even if I disagree with their conclusions, the experiences they have had which have brought them to those conclusions are absolutely valid. If I want them in my life, which I do, I must make space for them to disagree with me and know that I will not cast them off. They must also know that I will not invade their ideological bubble uninvited, and I can only really communicate this with a pattern of behavior.

Communication has dynamics.

Compassion has mechanics. There are actions and sentiments that are compassionate, and those that are not. Compassion is presence, being able to be with a person, even while they suffer. Compassion is not retaliating at angry people, recognizing that anger is as a result of injustice and personal injury. Compassion values the well-being of the other over one’s own comfort.

Compassion is listening to the other person to understand them, not merely letting them talk while you plot your response. Compassion is biting your tongue while they open up to you and doing this over and over until you have demonstrated that you see them as a person, not merely an ideological target to be modified.

Most of the arguing that happens online serves no other purpose but to make the speaker feel better about themselves. The speaker has articulated their point, or perhaps contradicted someone else’s. In martial arts, the equivalent would be to deliver a strike after receiving one.

No fighter looks for ways to take a strike and not deliver one in return. That would be an insult to one’s self. A display of weakness and incompetence.

Unless it was not.

There is value in just being with a person. Just listening. To sit in silence with another person while they talk, rant, rave, insult, deride, without fighting back is a way of demonstrating that I care more about them and our relationship than about making my own position clear. Hopefully my positions are already abundantly clear by how I live. What probably needs to be made more clear, at least at first, is that I want to be with the person, no matter what, because I love them.


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