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A Good Disagreement is Hard to Find

du Garbandier

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Recently I made the emotionally wrenching decision to sever contact with two acquaintances with whom I had engaged, over the years, in a number of fairly intense online conversations on a variety of rather polarizing subjects. Somehow and for reasons still inexplicable to me, things had devolved to the point where I simply could not expect to continue to engage without suffering real spiritual harm.

The experience has lead me to reexamine my motivations and expectations when it comes to discussing contentious issues online. Just what sort of fruit may I reasonably hope for? What am I really looking for in these discussions? I wrote out something of an answer and since, as I said in another thread, I believe learning how to speak with one another is of the utmost importance for Christians on the internet, I thought someone here might find it helpful in some small way. It is meant not as an indictment of anyone but as an attempt at locating certain lines of prudence beyond which I no longer desire to pass. Instead of linking to my blog I reproduce my essay here in its entirety.

Concerning the online discussion of contentious issues, the best result I have learned to hope for is the achievement or revelation of genuine disagreement.

People are naturally drawn to issues in which they have some stake or interest, and given the remarkable ease with which the internet allows us to find and participate in discussions of that which we find interesting or which in some way affects us, most of those involved in any given online interaction are, to one degree or another, already predisposed to accept certain kinds of ideas and reject others concerning the matter at hand. To expect to persuade someone against the grain of their predispositions is to expect too much from a disembodied medium like the internet, particularly in the case of ultra-polarizing issues like abortion. Generally speaking, whatever real persuasion or education arises out of these discussions happens away from the public eye, often slowly, often among silent witnesses to the exchanges. These third parties may not have had previous occasion to weigh the topic at hand, or at least not in the light presented by a particular commenter. They are interested but may be reluctant to offer comment themselves, perhaps because they need time to consider the matter, or maybe they practice the spiritual discipline of reticence. At any rate, to my mind the online contentions most devoutly to be wished for are those which clearly delineate the true lines of disagreement, such that persuadable third parties can have the best chance possible to independently examine and weigh the respective aspects of each competing point of view.

The sort of fructification of third party understanding I have just described is all but impossible when the principals of the discussion are not even interested in disagreeing, but only in reflexively mocking and dismissing whatever they disagree with. Unfortunately, as nearly everyone can attest, exactly that happens all the time; sometimes little else occurs. Even the presence of a single unruly vociferator can turn an entire thread or blog or message board into something utterly, irremediably unpleasant, just as a single drop or pinch of the wrong element can taint the whole drink or dish.

On the internet as in life, no one can control or hope to predict how another person will respond in any given circumstance. But I think we should never forget that in every interaction there is always a real choice of response. When I look back with regret on conversations I have had, I sometimes kick myself for not seeing that I might have responded in another way than I did without necessarily changing the substance of what I had to say. The phenomenon is a little bit like what the French call "the spirit of the staircase," except the belated epiphany involves not what one could have said, but how one could have said it.

The person who chooses to pursue genuine disagreement (for purposes of illustration and grammatical clarity, let us call him, say, Jughead) will respond to what he disagrees with so as to best illuminate that disagreement. That means taking pains, for instance, to clear away the cluttering weeds of illusory or irrelevant points of disagreement, in order to better focus attention on the most important ones. Thus, Jughead will tend to ask questions, seek clarifications, explore hypothetical scenarios, eradicate ambiguities of thought and phrase, issue retractions and restatements and further explanations, and so on. In short, Jughead will go out of his way to establish that the disagreement is real and not merely one proceeding from his heat-oppressed brain.

The person disinterested in disagreement (I shall call him Anti-Jughead) will take no such measures because he chooses to assume that the words of others are exactly what they appear to be, and nothing more or less. Anti-Jughead exhibits little-to-no awareness of his own interpretative framework, nor does he apparently want to overcome the limitations thereof for the sake of better understanding the views of others. (Incidentally, if Anti-Jughead happens to agree with your position it is of trivial significance, because he probably filtered your words through the same simplistic apparatus by which he has learned to judge all other persons, things, and ideas. But since agreement gives him far less cheap pleasure than does simple destruction, if he does agree with you he is likelier than not to ignore you. So at best his concurrence probably signals his not being
bored by you.) Anti-Jughead will in fact aim to perpetuate and increase ambiguities and distortions, and in general he will strive to spread hermeneutic chaos through the imposition of his will on the terms of the debate. People like Anti-Jughead love the internet and thrive on it because it expedites their chaotic purposes. Their mastery of the arts of snap judgment and knee-jerk reaction discloses them as the enemies of education, which usually demands time enough for the cultivation and development of true judgment. But Anti-Jughead and his band of whimsical destroyers have no desire to educate me, to show me where and how I may be wrong, or to illumine possible implications of my perspective which I may not have seen or considered heretofore. It's a shame because there may well be blindspots and other points of consideration pertaining to my perspective which they are better equipped than anyone else to recognize and address. But they are in no wise interested in helping me grow or in giving others information sufficient to make a just appraisal of rival points of view. They are squanderers who willfully deprive themselves and others of true education.

I see little use in psychoanalyzing the reasons why people choose to respond they way they do. The choice is the important thing. Never forget that every person has a choice of response. Over time, patterns emerge which indicate a person's predilection for certain kinds of choices and against other kinds, and the task of every responsible person is to attend those patterns in order to gauge the likely fruitfulness of further interaction. After a certain point, even the most successful interchanges become Pyrrhic, and must be cut off in advance lest the overweening desire to be right prove fatal to sense and sanity and, above all, charity. Where a certain level of established community exists, that cutting off can be quite painful. But the fact of our mortality dictates the prudent severance of limbs that, so far as we can judge, will not bear good fruit, at least not within the precious amount of time on earth with which each person is entrusted or within the limited purview of our own small strength and means and influence. The person who makes this immensely difficult decision has no claim, on the basis of having made it, to a greater share of virtue or valor or wisdom than anyone else, and certainly not more than those cut off; but at least we in the lengthening shadow of our mortality can understand all too well the necessity of such choices, we who grimace here in this vale of tears with the pains of amputation, even as we learn to conduct ourselves in joy and deep inconsolable longing for the new creation.

Edited by du Garbandier
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I appreciate what you say. OTOH, having reflected on the "spirit/wit of the staircase in my own life, I have found that the struggle to communicate in cyberspace with little or no typing skills tends to distill my thoughts. Sometimes too briefly and concise, but I don't often miss too much that really needs to be said.

The sort of fructification of third party understanding I have just described is all but impossible when the principals of the discussion are not even interested in disagreeing, but only in reflexively mocking and dismissing whatever they disagree with. Unfortunately, as nearly everyone can attest, exactly that happens all the time; sometimes little else occurs. Even the presence of a single unruly vociferator can turn an entire thread or blog or message board into something utterly, irremediably unpleasant, just as a single drop or pinch of the wrong element can taint the whole drink or dish.

I suppose that this could be the nature of a blog. OTOH, if mgt of any board tries to keep such derision to a minimum, when it arises from otherwise dependable sources and members, the tone itself can speak volumes against the position from which the mockery comes. Or also, can say something about the facillities of the mocker in the context of the subject when coming from an otherwise plausible POV.

For example, in the past when this board had a Politics section, one occasionally experienced newbies coming in and characaturing beliefs they opposed left and right in such a way that suggested little contact with contray POVs and arguments. In such a circumstance, it is quite easy to indulge such ignorance a la Rom 14:1 while challenging misconceptions as they appear. In this way, with patience, one can at least change the perceptions of opposing POVs possessed by contending parties, as well as demonstrating rational and grounded arguments for those third parties.

I'm an old MK who long ago came to the sad realisation that my chief skill in intellectual pursuits is as a propagandist. Therefore, I have always been conscious of third parties and the necessity of being as conscious as possible of counter arguments in my approaches to various issues.

One can never completely interpret another's motivations and passions in environments such as this. The only thing to do as a result of choosing to participate is to take words and arguments at face value. The alternatives would be to become paranoid of true motives, or withdraw, I think. Nice to have you around! Will try to respond to other issues you raise.

"During the contest trial, the Coleman team presented evidence of a further 6500 absentees that it felt deserved to be included under the process that had produced the prior 933 [submitted by Franken, rk]. The three judges finally defined what constituted a 'legal' absentee ballot. Countable ballots, for instance, had to contain the signature of the voter, complete registration information, and proper witness credentials.

But the panel only applied the standards going forward, severely reducing the universe of additional basentees the Coleman team could hope to have included. In the end, the three judges allowed about 350 additional absentees to be counted. The panel also did nothing about the hundreds, possibly thousands, of absentees that have already been legally included, yet are now 'illegal' according to the panel's own ex-post definition."

The Wall Street Journal editorial, April 18, 2009 concerning the Franken Coleman decision in the Minnesota U.S. Senate race of 2008.

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Interesting thesis, du Garbandier. I think you'll find that, around A&F, there are very few deliberate "anti-jugheads", as you describe them. Trolls tend to get very little response here, relative to the wide world of the web. Rather, our weakness in this area is implicit "anti-jugheaded-ness, where, without meaning to, we obfuscate (or miss) the heart of the disagreement for the sake of winning the argument.

So you ladies and you gentlemen, pull your bloomers on...

-Joe Henry

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