I don’t argue much. As a consequence I’ve had to sit through many conversations with people whom I just should told have told to fuck off. People who are radically misinformed, people who argue from daytime television, people who sincerely believe in the tough lovin’ of an invisible daddy in the sky. People who ascribe to the colour of skin a hierarchy of inherent worth (but can’t figure out how they’re taking all the jobs). All the slackjaws who come out from under their rocks when your pour some alcohol out and jack up the background music.
Luckily I have friends who love to argue when faced with idiots like these, friends who chase strangers through the halls of their own assumptions until they’re driven out of the bar. For these friends, morons are meat. They’ve learned to transmute their convictions into a pastime, a game of meaning. Definitions and concepts are clarified, isolated and arranged for maximum enjoyment. Rhetoric is employed and deployed. And sometimes it’s just a bunch of drunken shouting, but the only people who really come away angry are the ones who shouldn’t have opened their mouths in the first place. It’s all incredibly entertaining, but I have trouble joining in.
In contrast to my aggressive friends, who show up spoiling for a disagreement, I view conversations as opportunities to agree with people. Partly this stems from the fact that I lost all arguments as a child; I refused to understand that logic and facts don’t work when people simply find you irritating or smug or physically short, and so it didn’t matter if I was in the right. Indeed, the more in the right I was, the less people wanted to hear it. Under those circumstances, the stakes for each argument were impossibly high, because I was arguing for my own worth in the social hierarchy of childhood. Which was pathetically obvious to everyone in my peer group (let no one suggest that nine year olds aren’t perceptive, albeit cruel, judges of character). Every time I argued a point, I was actually signalling Look at me! And who can bear such a spectacle, whatever your age?
So at some point I gave up on argument. Sometimes I catch people spouting bullshit, but then I think oh who cares and keep nodding along. Sometimes I adopt the supremely passive-aggressive technique of packaging my response in the form of an agreement but filling it with content that actually contradicts what they were saying. Usually, though, if I can’t possibly continue to agree without committing myself to some really untenable ideas, I disengage from the conversation, slowly retracting the landing hooks and kicking gently off until I’ve reached safe enough distance to gun the engines. Why should I hit this person over the head with my point of view? What good would it do the bullshitter to have his bullshit thrown on a plate and handed back to him? It probably won’t convince or convert him to my point of view. Nor can I think of much reward from argument beyond the satisfaction of being able to outtalk some poor bastard who’s blundered into cow-pattied pastures and lost his footing. And whatever happens, my nine-year old self thinks, I’m not going to win any friends by telling people what I think.
The older I get, though, the more that nine-year-old voice fades, and I become increasingly willing to step up and be the obnoxious ass I’ve dreamt of being. Last Thursday I ended up being that ass, and man, was it fun. I was taking part half-heartedly in a conversation that revolved around the question of Do You Believe In A Moral Evolution of Humankind. I threw my opinion in early on and left the wrangling to a few friends of mine and another fellow I’d never met, a soft-shouldered drunken customer service rep from a telecommunications company. For the record, my opinion was “No,” since in these arguments people say “humankind” when what they really mean is “a few wealthy industrialized nations with decent human rights records and centralized plumbing,”and the last truly great thing that people have done is extend the vote to women, and that was quite a long time ago now. I also found the term “Moral Evolution” so loaded with assumptions that I didn’t even know how to talk about it. I started to tune out. Eventually, though, the customer service rep put down his beer and said, with a wave of his hand meant to end debate, “Yeah, but in nature the weakest get killed off, you see. In the herd”.
Arguments from nature infuriate me. They piss me off so much that I will counterattack without regard for context. I had very little idea as to how the conversation had gotten round to this National Geographic moment, but I could guess. So I said to the fellow, “What do you mean?” He refocused on me and said: “You know, nature. The way it works in nature is the weaker get killed off and the stronger survive -“
“I don’t buy it,” I interrupted.
The guy looked at me. I could see the surprise in his eyes ripple outward, the slight loss of definition in his round unlined face. How could I not buy it? What’s not to buy? How can you not buy Nature?
So I told him. I told him that the “nature” he referred to was a series of received truths and quasi-religious bromides based on our cultural horror of being part of the world. I told him that he had seen “nature” perhaps once or twice in his entire life, that even once he left this city he was surrounded by farms, which are exemplars of controlled biomass, about as natural as a golf course. I told him that his attempt to explain human interaction in the framework of “nature” – in truth a debased Darwinism married to a primitive hierarchy of cultures – was reductive and fundamentally bigoted, eschewing as it does all the complexities of our social systems in favour of a brutal series of life-and-death encounters. In efficient, polite and forceful language I peeled back the guy’s assumptions and flayed his point of view without recourse to ad hominem attacks or Derridean jargon. The whole process probably took thirty or forty seconds, and then I was onto another topic altogether.
I’m not stupid. I doubt that I convinced the guy of anything beyond the speed of my mouth. Nor do I believe that I had entered into an evenly matched contest; he had wandered into one of my pet topics unawares and stepped on my toe. But it occurred to me that there was a time, twenty-five years back, when I was the weaker of the herd, consigned in the social Darwinist nightmare of childhood to the vulnerable and lonely edges. All I could do was shout to be taken in to the protective embrace at the centre, where fellows like this customer service rep would have stood.* Once I would have been arguing with him in order to prove myself to him. Now I was just pissed off and unwilling to brook received opinion. What I really wanted to tell him was that I was once on the outside, and that if the world really worked on a simplified ‘survival of the fittest’ model, I would never have gotten to this point, secure and grounded, well-married and successful, sitting in a pub and exercising my brain in the off-hours. Really, I needn’t have said anything at all.
*Yes, I’m aware that I’m adopting the very metaphor I’ve been reviling for the past five hundred words. Slugs can still feed a vending machine.