As a liberal I have frequently been haunted by an experience of helplessness when I argue with Conservatives. What happens to me is that I “lose my English” (in my case a first language). This isn’t new to me and I suspect it isn’t new to other liberals who share this uncomfortable tendency with me.
When my older brother bellowed an argument in his English accented (the country, I mean here) baritone voice oozing with apparent confidence, the effect on me was that of shaming. At these moments, I got little practice in, or modeling of, self-defense. It was enraging and futile. And in circumstances that echoed that earlier one, I haven’t seen a good way out.
Put it this way, as I see it now in circumstances reminiscent of this kind of frustration and this kind of impossibility, a better road would need to involve acknowledging defeat.
With a healthier self-esteem I would have been helped to declare myself inadequate to the task of proving a point against someone in the implacably opposing position. And it would have been impossible, precisely because the argument at hand was most frequently not about actual facts but about actual feelings — even if unspoken.
In the present, and in the days just before the Election I realize that to my mind there is one key argument at hand and it is not about facts, and neither is it about science, at least science per se. It is about what we care about and whether we care at all.
Staying with the present, I am very sensitive about the issues that have come up lately, in America alone. The pandemic, racial injustice, the killing of George Floyd, the right to life not as an issue of abortion but of the right to choose and have protections for our physical and emotional health and safety, are but some of these issues. And of course, there is more. I cry at the sight of children and families in cages. And when I hear people who are to the right, mostly what I hear is callousness, not caring very much if at all.
But you know, many of us have been and felt bullied as being weak and ineffective and pathetic if we feel too much. As such many of us might not even consider stopping furious arguments by saying we are happy to lose the contests that involve demeaning and denigrating. Instead, we try our best (but usually fail) to make our points and we try our best to be civil. Or we become self-righteous and defensive and part of the insult fest.
I am suggesting that a lot of the above occurs because we have histories of shame for our own sensitivities. Many of us have been dismissed as hypersensitive and told not to take things “so personally”. But isn’t it the only way to take things, things that are supposed to be important? In doing work as a psychotherapist it is frequently through being sensitive, picking up on the emotions that are both felt and bandied back and forth, that one opens up a conversation about what is really going on. Thank the goddesses for small things.
I am not suggesting, by the way, that we go about bleeding with our bandages ripped off all our wounds. Instead we would have to cultivate self-protection, but this would involve owning up to losing at brandishing the weapons of out of context facts or even of facts alone.
Science alone can’t be of supreme importance. Science can only matter if people care about the science. Black history or American history or the stark facts of climate science can only matter if we give a damn about the consequences of damage to ourselves, our children, our states, our country and our planet.
All of the above would take practice. But before we could practice, we’d have to consider the possibility: to admit our ineptness at arguing about things of passion and urgency with facts alone. It isn’t unimportant to have a grasp on facts and to try to communicate them. It is just that it may be impossible to communicate effectively with someone who doesn’t see the need for a leader to have honesty and accountability, as but one example. It is obviously okay to teach and to learn in the process. But where the main goal is to cause bloodshed on emotional levels what can be the point?
As it turns out the inability to do verbal warfare so competently may not be a flaw. That is to say that if we are stopped by the degree of our passion and our empathy, this can become as crucial a part of reclaiming human dignity as anything else.
For what it’s worth, I hope that in the coming days some of us might refrain from trying to win arguments we are not fit to win. And that in so doing we might feel a beginning of a different kind of victory — the owning up to our sensitivity as a strength, something we don’t have to keep on hiding.