How to Disagree
In Ag47, we often play a warm-up game called “Everybody’s Fault.” It’s your basic game of keeping a ball aloft as a group. Everybody counts together each time anyone hits the ball, and when it falls down to the floor, the whole group chants “Everybody’s fault! Everybody’s fault!” No one who dropped the ball is blamed. Everybody wins the game.
I think about this game most times I’m in an argument with someone. With some caveats that I’ll cover at the end here, most times when two people disagree, it’s everybody’s fault. And it’s everybody’s job to fix it. So let’s talk about arguing, and how to get through it without throwing things or punching people.
Start from Respect
Take a deep breath and a step back from the dumb stuff your friend/roommate/lover/sibling/partner just said or did. Remind yourself that you care about them and they care about you, and the most logical root of your disagreement is a mutual misunderstanding or mismatch in priorities. Take their perspective: what do you know about them that led them to have this opinion or behave this way? Are they taking their bad day out on you?
Get to the Source
Why is it worth having this argument in the first place? If it’s true that you care about each other, it’s probably because you want the other person to be better, for whatever definition of “better” fits your purpose. Maybe you want them to learn something. Maybe you want them to act differently. People, however, have to get better on their own. The most pro grownup maneuver in life is having realistic knowledge of what you can and can’t control, and caring for yourself and those around you accordingly. Staying aware of what you control and what you care about is super crucial to getting out of an argument without feeling like you just lost a boxing match of feelings. This previous post on how to deal with manipulative people is a good primer and companion piece. It can be hard to be sure you’re understood when you’re also angry and sad. Make sure what you’re saying and what the other person is hearing match up. Avoid name-calling/ad-hominem attacks (helpfully, Wikipedia has this weirdly amusing graphic about types of arguments, prominently featuring the phrase “ass hat”). Avoid derailing from the original point, especially in any of the ways discussed in that link. Stay focused and stay kind. And, if you need to, get the heck out of there. I am a lifelong emotional doofus and am only now learning to say “I can’t keep having this argument right now” before I burst into tears.
Define a Resolution
How will you get to the end of this disagreement? Maybe you’ll change the subject and just let it go. Maybe you’ll agree to disagree. Maybe you’ll hash out a compromise. As long as you don’t let your differences fester into resentment, all of these are good solutions.
In a recent Twitter chat about hate-reading, fellow grownup-of-this-blog Leah said “Pro tip: remind yourself you are going to die before reading all the good things.” This also applies to having internet arguments, or IRL arguments that extend online. You are going to die before you have every rich and fulfilling friendship that you possibly could. You are going to die before you read every book and see every movie and play every game that you want to see or do. Probably don’t spend your finite life hours raging futilely against the haters. You’re not going to change their minds, and they might ruin your day. Meditate upon this little guy and let it go.
Another crucial step in getting offline is to avoid subtweeting your friends. I get all Obi-Wan-sensing-a-disturbance-in-the-force bummed when I see subtweeting going on. Venting to one or two trusted folks in person/on the phone/in a gchat is preferable to putting your bummers out there in the public internet. I try to go take a walk or read a comic or something when I feel the urge to complain about people behind their backs. This is not to say that I always succeed, but it’s a strategy.
The Caveat Section: A Brief Guide to Calling Your Loved Ones Out on Their Occasional Bullshit
Here are the big caveats I mentioned above: it’s not your fault if someone else is racist, sexist, cissexist, classist, ableist, homophobic, fatphobic, etc. Verbal/emotional abuse is most definitely not the fault of the person to whom it’s directed and I am sure the Tumblr Social Justice Police would rightly revoke my license to put words on a blog if I ever suggested otherwise.
That said, everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes, and a very occasional use of oppressive language doesn’t make someone a devil-scourge that you should excise from your life. It’s helpful to call your friends and loved ones out on their oppressive shit so they learn that words have consequences — and eventually, one person at a time, the world gets a little kinder and less bogus.
A good technique for this is the compliment sandwich, or yes/no/yes. Start out by reminding the person that you care about them and think they are rad, then get in there with your criticism of the language they used. People are naturally a little defensive when they’re called out on being wrong, so have this conversation privately if you can. Point them to some topical resources they can learn from, like this site on anti-racist allyship, or this glossary on gender identity and the language that goes along with it. Finally, top off your compliment sandwich with more nice stuff. You care about this person, and you are confident they’re awesome enough to take into consideration your cool tips on how they can be more thoughtful with their speech.
Because in the shortness of our lives together, do we really have time not to be as kind as possible to the people we’re here with? I don’t think so.