The urge to argue

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Social commentary at the Shady Grove Metro Station in Gaithersburg, Md.

Election season brings out some of humankind’s best and worst qualities. This post is not going to be partisan in nature, I promise. I decided early on that this would not be a blog about political issues. But I do think it’s acceptable to use our current environment as a jumping off point to make larger observations about social behavior.

For example: Do you have trouble walking away from a disagreement when you believe that you are right? Do you often or always try to have the last word? Do you not understand why people don’t change or at least open their minds once they have encountered your perfectly constructed logic? If so, this post is for you!

I’m not talking about writing or other forms of communication that are designed to influence people and are directed at potentially receptive audiences. No, the subject of the moment is bickering with another person or persons when you can clearly see that no progress will be made on either side and the lobbing of insults is likely.

As a lifelong arguer, I find it difficult to conduct myself in a way that doesn’t increase my anxiousness and frustration—particularly in a heated atmosphere where others are also worked up. Despite making some progress in this area over the last decade or so, this year I have found myself on Facebook arguing in comment threads with people I don’t even know.

These debates go nowhere. They achieve nothing, as far as I can tell. But I want to win, dammit! A couple months ago, I made a pledge to myself that I would cease quarreling back and forth with people who are as committed to their positions as I am to mine. Instead, I would write well-thought out posts that might reach a wider range of people. Or, I would encourage myself to go do any kind of activity other than futile social media one-upmanship.

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A friendly doormat in St. Petersburg Beach, Fl.

After a month or so, I couldn’t resist any longer, and I broke my pledge. Immediately thereafter, I bargained with myself and came up with a revised rule: I could post in the comments but only with links to news articles. Or, I could write the responses I wanted to make, but I had to save them in my Notes and not post them. I’m trying to follow this new guideline, but it’s not easy. In fact, a complete break from social media might be in my near future.

I have a long history of arguing with my mother, my closest friends, and with significant others. An old boyfriend probably saw me at my most argumentative; one of our worst fights started because I asked him to estimate how long it would take for an aspirin I just took to start working. He refused to guess, and I was not having it—at all. Just as ridiculous, one of my worst fights with my current husband was over whether or not to replace our well-worn cookie sheets.

One of the main factors that makes stepping back (and not escalating) so challenging is that I allow myself to really lean into my anger. Because I am mad, I want to make the other person feel bad. I want to let the most spiteful, smug part of me loose and push the other person’s buttons. I want to make them feel small, and foolish, and wrong. If you’ve never felt like this, I am truly happy for you. It doesn’t feel good. You might feel satisfied for a bit, but an emptiness follows, and upon reflection you feel petty and unable to check yourself.

Meanwhile, the reasonable side of me wants to win fair and square. The frustrated lawyer inside of me dreams of mounting a persuasive argument—putting together the ideal combination of well-researched facts and moving rhetoric. Who among us arguers doesn’t want to craft that elusive statement that touches hearts and converts the most ardent of opponents?

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Poop emoji to hang on your wall, found at Blacksmith’s Garden in Frederick, Md.

In an attempt to talk myself down from self-righteous mountain, I delve into what I believe are the root causes of stubborn, useless arguing. Whether I am lashing out in anger or assembling another set of indisputable facts, I think it goes back to the shared human desires and fears that I wrote about in an earlier post.

When you look at it this way, “wining” an argument is confirmation that you are in control and worthy of respect. If you are slighted—or in the case of some of my worst arguments, the other person seems to be refusing to give you what you are asking for—this agitates the part of you that longs to be heard and validated.

I have found that the trick is to remind myself that the outcome of one argument is not going to change the amount of control I have over my life or affect whether I am a human being of value on this earth. Heck, I can even admit to myself that I do have flaws and I don’t know everything without my entire self-esteem falling apart.

Times like these are tricky for us arguers. We don’t want to silence ourselves or deny our feelings. But we must remember that we will actually feel much better if we disengage and perhaps take some time to consider the other person’s point of view.

Upcoming blog topics:

  • Destructive distractions
  • Radio writing assignment
  • Podcast dream guest appearance
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