“I know you don’t like conflict”*

Long ago, I stood with a friend in someone’s kitchen engaging in a casual debate about a social issue. It was during the “welfare moms” era of the Clinton Administration. A few cases of misuse of public funds had been in the news and suddenly people receiving assistance, especially single mothers on welfare, were labeled “those kinds of people.”

This friend was on the bandwagon, I was decidedly not, so we passed the time batting our opinions back and forth. But every circular argument runs its course and finally I said, “Well, it looks like we should just agree to disagree on this one.” She wasn’t ready to give up. She kept going on until I said, “Honestly, I’m not going to change my mind. You’re not going to change your mind. So let’s just move on.”

“Oh,” she said dismissively. “Well, I know you don’t like conflict, so fine.” And that was that.

That “I know you don’t like conflict” comment annoyed me because she didn’t get the point. I enjoy a good back-and-forth debate. What I don’t enjoy is stubbornly retracing the same argumentative path over and over again with no end in sight. Those kinds of debates have no intrinsic value for either party. There’s no point in it other than hearing oneself go on and on and on.

Years before this kitchen scene with my friend, I came triumphantly home from college for Thanksgiving dinner. My eyes had been opened to the sorry state of the world by many things, not the least of which were my South African Literature class (South Africa was still under apartheid rule), my Martin Luther King/Gandhi philosophy class, and my participation in the fledgling AIDS Speakers Bureau on campus. I was full of new insights, a broader world view. I was a totally new person! It was not unusual for our family to engage in some debates at the dinner table, but this time instead of being the youngest spectator in the family fold, I was armed with enough knowledge to be a full-fledged combatant if necessary.

This is not to say I came home with the express purpose of indoctrinating the family into my new point of view, but I was primed for the soapbox. And when the conversation turned towards social issues I leapt upon that soapbox with gusto, delivered a passionate speech, got patiently challenged by some family members, and eventually stormed off to my room in a rage.

I stewed for what seemed like a long time, thinking about how clueless they all were and how unfair and how their attitudes were what was wrong with this country and how I couldn’t wait to get back to school.

And then came a knock on the door. It was my mother, my loving and very reasonable mother. She sat on my bed and said, “Honey, we are so proud of how well you’re doing in school and we’re excited that you are so passionate about what you believe in. But there’s one thing you need to know.”

“What.” I said, sulky and not particularly interested in what she had to say.

“You need to understand that no matter how passionately you feel about something, people won’t listen to you until you show you are willing to listen to them, too.”

The English 101 students always groaned when I announced the list of banned argument paper topics:

  • legalizing marijuana
  • lowering the drinking age
  • abortion
  • creationism
  • euthanasia
  • gun control
  • flag burning
  • death penalty
  • Affirmative Action

The protest was inevitable. “But that’s so unfair! Those are all the best topics! Why can’t we write about them?”

“This is why,” I’d say. “First of all, I can list, off the top of my head, this very minute, what your reasons for OR against any of these topics will be. Go ahead, pick one.”     

And they would test me. I’d recite the top three arguments for and against each topic to a mix of their laughter and groans. Then, I’d lay down my final point: “How many of you chose these topics for every argument paper you wrote in high school?” They didn’t need to respond; their sheepish grins were answer enough.             

When I listen to current arguments about politics (Oy, the government shutdown) or read what one side said about the other side (it doesn’t matter which, they all do it) or wonder for the umpteenth time why reasonable people pay any attention to photo op rants by politicians playing games, I think back. I remember my overzealous college self, my more considered post-grad. self, my naive students who weren’t yet sure what their opinions really were.

And then I wish for a moment that I could require masses of people to write a typical English 101 argument paper.

The Assignment:  Choose a very narrow topic that you care about and want to learn more about. Do not choose anything that is on the Banned Topics List, but you can look at them to see why they are examples of topics that are too broad. Figure out what your opinion is about your narrowed topic and then imagine how you would explain and defend your opinion to a reader who does not agree with you.

You should have 3-5 reasons for your point of view and provide concrete evidence to support each of the reasons. Be specific! Vague statements like “but it’s tradition” or “it’s always been this way” don’t count. Using source material is a good way to support your point of view, but be careful. Choose sources that are objective and have been well researched. Avoid sources that are vague or unsubstantiated. Only use source material that is reputable, but look at it with a critical eye.

Purpose:  Despite its name, the purpose of learning to write an Argument Paper is to hone your own critical skills and to present your opinions to an audience who may disagree with you, not to convert people to your side. Your goal is not to change your reader’s mind–chances are slim that you will–but to present your point of view so that the reader can say, “I still disagree with you, but I see where you’re coming from.”

Audience: Imagine a person who disagrees with you, but who you respect and like. Write your argument in a reasonable, thoughtful, and respectful way. Do not attack, insult, or belittle their point of view even if you disagree vehemently. Disagreement itself is fine. In fact, taking counterarguments and breaking them down is an excellent way to show your point of view is stronger. You can be strong, assertive, and clear cut without falling into ad hominem attacks. Remember, the fastest way to “lose” a debate is to attack the person who disagrees you with rather than focusing on showing the strengths of your own position. You can counter argue the reasons behind their point of view until the cows come home, but you may not insult the person who holds them.

I graded hundreds of argument papers over the years that I taught English 101. Many were well written, many were abysmal. I learned about issues I had no knowledge about and learned that for every naive and shallow 18-year-old student who didn’t have a clue, there were five more who were thoughtful, curious critical thinkers.

Never did I read a paper that personally attacked or insulted people who were on the other side of the argument. And for every argument I agreed with, I read another well-written argument that I didn’t agree with. But on those I was happy to write, in my ubiquitous purple ink, “Nice work!” all the while thinking, “Isn’t it nice to agree to disagree?”


*This essay first appeared on my book blog, Too Fond of Books, on July 12, 2012. Unfortunately, things are pretty much the same today in American political discourse as they were last year.

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4 responses to ““I know you don’t like conflict”*

  1. Ah, some people I know and love would do very well to heed your sage advice 🙂

  2. This is a beautifully clean bit of writing, so well suited to the subject. Pleasurable as ever to read; economical and honest as so much else that you write is. And then there is the subject itself, which tells of an impasse that I think we all recognise. When I get to that point, I often step back and consider ‘I really do believe that you believe you are right’. To feel something with such conviction, often so deep-rooted: there’s no way of changing that in some people. Like you, I’d rather not go round and round. I don’t often seek to be proven right or to own the more persuasive argument, but I would hope to have someone believe the conviction and force with which I feel something and appreciate a point at which it is worth agreeing to disagree.

  3. I enjoyed reading this article! I sometimes wonder if when people get into that kind of argumentative around-and-around about an issue, what they really want is empathy. So many issues that I care about deeply are also issues that I feel pain about on some level, and when I find that I’m ruminating on them in my thinking, that means my pain wants to be heard.

    When people argue about pretty much anything, they are arguing about strategies—what should happen, what people should be doing, what policy should be, etc. What would happen if instead of focusing on those strategies, we inquire into what is motivating the person (or ourselves) to want that strategy? When we get to the deeper layers of motivation, then we’re at the point where we can agree instead of disagree, where we are connecting instead of disconnecting. After all, we all want love, respect, care, autonomy, meaning, understanding, to contribute, and so on. Our chosen strategies are simply an expression of what we want at that deeper level.

    On a completely different note, I had to both laugh and grimace reading your list of “banned topics” and the assignment. Quite awhile ago, I taught American Government on Guam for two years, my first job out of college and I had no education or experience in teaching. I had my students write these types of papers, and I wish I’d had the experience and foresight to similarly ban these topics and give the fabulous instructions that you wrote above. Perhaps another year or two of teaching (getting beyond the sink-or-swim stage) and I would have figured it out!

  4. Thanks for your response, Julie! I think you’ve probably hit the nail on the re: many people’s reponses to having their ideas challenged, especially in today’s political climate. But I also think there are many folks who like to debate just for the entertainment value of debating. 🙂

    As for the banned topics–that was totally a result of my sink-or-swim years! I’d learned a few lessons before coming up with that one.

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