Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sometimes it's better to just shut the hell up

My paternal grandfather was a lawyer. He was also a very bright, well-read and cultured dude. And there was nothing my grandfather liked more – except for listening to the opera on the radio on Sunday afternoons – the entire goddamn opera, if you will – than a good argument.

And, he couldn’t stand losing an argument. Well, that was the lawyer and logician in him. Arguments to him were intellectual calisthenics. Didn’t matter what the subject was, he would persist with his points and with steely logic defeat his adversary.

When I got into my late teens I came to appreciate the process. That was around about the time I actually, momentarily, considered the law myself. The idea of me joining the ranks of the barrister/solicitor contingent appealed to my grandfather greatly. I obviously never went in the direction of .the bar – the bar of jurisprudence, that is.

Regardless of the direction of my professional aspirations, my grandfather did teach me how to argue a point and he would remorselessly shoot down any violations of the process. If I was to stand up against his points I had better come well-armed because he afforded no compassion for pikers in the realm. I needed facts and, if losing, I must never resort to ad hominem insults. If A equaled B, and B equaled C, then I’d better be able to prove that A also equaled C, or give up the fight.

By the time I was in university I’d gotten pretty good at the process. I recall one argument that took place when he was visiting my parents for Sunday dinner. I don’t remember the topic but for the first time I knew I’d gotten the old guy good. I was firm in my resolve and with the smugness of youth I rejoiced in the fact I believed I’d won. While I hadn’t exactly left him sputtering, I did give him pause. The pause seemed like victory to me.

After he’d left for the evening I felt good. I had, I thought, earned my stripes. I had defeated the old master and that, I was sure, gave me some sort of master status. It would never be the same now that he had come up against a foe such as I was at the age of 21 or something equally ridiculous and callow.

I was wrong. The phone rang at 10 o’clock that night. It was my grandfather. He told me that he knew I was wrong but hadn’t been able to find the documentation to validate it. Back at his home he’d found it and shot my illogic to shit. He was prepared to admit, however, that he should have been better briefed before going into ‘court’ that evening.

Regardless of all of that, I have always taken pleasure in reasoned argument and debate and have only tempered that feeling later in life when I came to realize that not only do some people dislike argument for argument’s sake, but they find it somehow confrontational and disruptive of polite discourse. And some people are also given to personalizing arguments with such retorts as: “Oh yeah, sez you, shithead!” Such interchanges truly destroy the intellectuality of the exercise.

I also eventually came to realize that some arguments cannot ever be won and that there is no point in trying to win them, despite the facts that politicians and advocacy groups tend to do this all the time.

Unwinnable arguments are those that call to the fore human feelings, intrinsic beliefs, bigotries, and plain boneheadedness, regardless of how firmly the arguer believes in his stupid damn ideas.

Yes, argument is a study in logic. When you pour in some human sentiment, then you spoil the broth irreparably and the issue will go nowhere.

Consequently, I have a mental list of subjects not really worthy or winnable of argument. They include:

- The death penalty for certain crimes: I’m still primarily opposed, but I make exceptions I realize. I shed no tears for Ted Bundy, nor did I think the State of Florida was in any way remiss for frying the bastard.
- Abortion: I learned long ago to never venture into this realm. It’s much too personal and, as a male, I don’t feel I have any right unless I personally know what it’s like to be facing an unwanted pregnancy.
- Homosexuality: I am not gay, but I have always – not just recently after it became trendy – believed that we find love where we do and who am I to judge or argue the point.
- Drug Legalization: As an addictions counselor and one who has seen the addicted sitting across a desk for me, or going through the agonies of withdrawal (not a soothing sight) I have strong opinions about this. Others have differing opinions. It’s one I have had to learn to live with.
- Teenage sexuality: At one level, I think a healthy expression of sexuality is part of the human condition and who am I to stand in the way of a behavior that is intrinsic and was certainly very much a part of me when I was young. On the other hand, if I were the father of a teenage daughter (which I am not) I would be: “Not with my daughter you don’t, you little bastard!”
- Religion: To indulge in such an argument is always presumptuous and also insufferably arrogant. Whatever the tenets of the beliefs of another is never anybody’s business, and to try to dissuade somebody from the articles of his or her faith is stupid. You may take exception to Tom Cruise’s Scientology, but it remains his business. Go ahead and poke all the holes you want in what he holds dear, but you are wasting your breath. The number of wars throughout history that have been based on violating the religious beliefs of others are innumerable, and they still go on, as we all know. This is probably the most dangerous realm of argument of all.

As I suggested, it is not really worth anybody’s while to debate about the foregoing. At the same time, we shouldn’t avoid honest debate. It can be enjoyable and I have also found that if an argument mounted to counter my thoughts on any matter is well enough founded, I can even be persuaded to assume an alternate point-of-view.



Blogger Wenderina said...

I'm relieved to find I agree with you on all your "unarguable points" and love that you were able to tell us they were unarguable, while clearly stating your position. Well done.

3:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can't argue those things because they are issues of morality and that's subjective. All you can do is say why you believe the way you do.

7:09 PM  
Blogger Jazz said...

I had a teacher in college, Mr. Petzel (BB had him as a teacher years before I did) and he was great at teaching us the whole argument/debate thing.

I once argued with him for almost a whole class that god could not exist. He argued the other side. At one point he said to me - Lilian you can do so much better than that, THINK!!! I had the same argument with BB, I got him to think too.

I think that's the thing with people who argue well, they get you to think.

I think people don't think enough today.

7:56 PM  
Blogger Voyager said...

The art of persuasion and rhetoric (as in the true meaning of the word rhetoric, not in the perjorative sense politicians wrongly use that word these days) is great fun. So much so I chose to make my living at it.

9:45 PM  
Blogger meggie said...

I totally agree, that listening to reasoned arguement, I have sometimes been persuaded to alter my point of view. As to other lists of contention, I also agree, they are not for me to debate. I prefer to hold my views, & they can hold theirs- Tom Cruise springs to mind, no matter how ludicrous he appeared leaping about on couches on Oprah!
I once shocked our employer, by saying I would arm my children with all the knowledge I could about sex, & prevention of pregnancy, should they 'experiment'. I felt sexuality is human nature, & not up for judgement.

12:42 AM  
Blogger Merelyme said...

You show great courage to state your opinion on these hot topics. I must say that I am in agreement with you on them though. What does this mean?

Sorry I have not been around much lately. Just so busy writing. Thank you for continuing to visit me.

1:25 PM  
Blogger Spider Girl said...

Hi Ian,

Hope all is well with you. :)

On the subject of debating i will say I know what I know, and feel what I feel, but damned if I can find the eloquence to lay down those views without spluttering all over the place. At least that has sometimes been the case.

Guess I'll never be a lawyer. Ah, well.

Still it would be nice to hold a good debate. I've always admired the skill in others---at the same time sometimes being quite annoyed that they HAVE that skill.

8:07 PM  
Blogger geewits said...

I love a good-natured intelligent debate, but there is a time and place for everything. If you have emphatically told your friend (who differs in your political beliefs) that you did not want to discuss politics on your vacation, and they promised no politics would be discussed, then proceed to bring up politics almost hourly, well that's just rude.

I identified with your grandfather in that I once ended an argument in a draw over the location of the Mason-Dixon line. I did not know exactly where it was, but I knew excatly where it wasn't. The next time I saw this person I had a highlighted dictionary passage with me.

8:12 PM  
Blogger Ellee Seymour said...

I know several people who never admit they are in the wrong or apologise - including a woman - and it drives me mad. Then there are the men who say, "you know I didn't mean it," after they have upset you, but can't say sorry.

12:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


2:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To me, this is perfect. I think it explains what a lot of people feel/think but cannot articulate. When I was very young, after my Mother died, I was very confrontational, but it did not come from any form of longing for honest debate, but from a place of anger. I got my point across & I did "argue" things I truly believed, I did consider the other points of view, but still it was anger-based. I don't know, in retrospect, how much I truly realized the actual basis at the time, but I see clearly now that it was there.

I'm in my 40s now and I "let it go," sometimes too much, even when I have valid information to back myself up if I am in the company of people who just want to hear themselves talk. It is so much wasted energy. And criticism isn't aggression(at least not from me) but many people ALWAYS take it that way. ~Mary

ps I am blog hopping today, with almost nothing "planned." A very quiet, calm, latte day for me, but I am so very glad I ran across your blog. I shall be following.

4:54 AM  

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