Hang our banners on the outward walls


Ever since I was a small child, I have had an aversion to arguments; I have recognized that my opinions can never be imposed by strength. Only by means of vocabularic confusion could I ever hope to win a dispute -and even then, only by quickly withdrawing from the arena of combat. Of course one cannot progress through life on harmony alone; it’s important to know how others think, if only to judge when to duck. Truth is a tapestry often replete with threads of dubious provenance. Unfortunately, the object of an argument seems to be to win, and therefore to be deemed correct; to consider the merits of the other side is only appropriate in situations where compromise is not only possible, but acceptable.

That there are often times when the louder the shout rather than the more attuned the ears, seems to argue against the value of our vaunted ability to use reason to settle arguments, or arrive at consensus. And if this is so, then does intelligence actually mean something different than the ability to reason? I happened upon an essay entitled ‘A Good Scrap’  by Ian Leslie that attempted to make some sense of the seeming disparity: https://aeon.co/essays/why-disagreement-is-vital-to-advancing-human-understanding

As he writes, ‘If our reasoning capacity is so bad at helping us as individuals figure out the truth, they [the French evolutionary psychologists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber] say, that’s because truth­-seeking isn’t its function. Instead, human reason evolved because it helps us to argue more effectively… For intellectualists, the purpose of our reasoning capacity is to enable individuals to gain knowledge of the world. In the inter­actionist view, by contrast, reason didn’t evolve to help individuals reach truths, but to facilitate group communication and co­operation. Reasoning makes us smarter only when we practise it with other people in argument.’ Hmmm.

In other words, perhaps the only way to get a rational and balanced discussion is to ensure that the other side makes its point. Not only would it open up the discussion, it would make sure that ‘our’ side can justify its position. For discussions involving groups, rather than individuals, Leslie describes an elegant paradox: ‘in order for a group to reach rational conclusions, at least some of its individual members should argue a little irrationally. When everyone feels compelled to generate arguments and knock down competing arguments, the weakest arguments get dismissed while the strongest arguments survive, bolstered with more evidence and better reasons. The result is a deeper and more rigorous process of reasoning than any one person could have carried out alone.’

And passion in the discussion is helpful as long as it isn’t aggressive or hostile. The object, after all, is resolution of the argument, with the avoidance of conflict. I wish I’d seen that essay earlier.

I don’t get invited to many dinners nowadays -the fact that I’m single perhaps makes the seating arrangements awkward for most couples, but so does the possibility that I might be a loose cannon: unconstrained, embarrassing, or whatever. But I do have some friends who seem willing to throw their caution to the wind and seat me at the far end of their table -perhaps so I’d have to shout to be heard by the rest.

At any rate, I found myself at one of their dinners, and looking around the table, I thought the wine had made everybody receptive to new ideas. A lady wearing a striking purple blouse who was chatting with her neighbour several seats away happened to mention that she thought there should be a national league for women’s hockey, and my ears perked up.

“That sounds like a good start,” I said, trying not to shout so they could hear me. “I love women’s hockey,” I added, “But why not allow women to play on the same teams as men?”

There was a hush at the table as if I’d uttered a sacrilege.

“Terrible idea,” the woman tutted at me. “Men play differently…”

“And men are so much stronger…” a man, mid-table, ventured to no one in particular.

“Are they?” I asked, directing my question at the man.

“Women have just as much skill,” countered one woman. “I don’t think that’s in question, do you… Andrea?” she continued, looking at her friend across the table.

“Come on!” a man two seats away from her said rather loudly. “A hip check from one of the professional guys, and skill, or not, she’d be taken off the ice on a stretcher.”

“Surely they could change the rules to outlaw those kind of checks,” I added. “Isn’t that what they already do in international female hockey games…?” Actually, I wasn’t completely sure about that, so I quickly checked my plate and found a scrap of potato I’d missed.

“Well…” another woman spoke up, “Personally, I wouldn’t want to play on a team with men. I mean, what’s the point?”

“Because women are as good as men,” I answered, putting the potato back on the plate.

The woman stared at me for a moment, and I couldn’t really tell if she was undecided as to whether to agree with me, or remain silent.

“But how do we know the women could play as well as the men?” the man countered -but less belligerently. He was obviously concerned that he might have ignited a controversy that could outlast the night for him.

“That’s easy,” the purple blouse said, leaning heavily on the table for emphasis. “Schedule a game between them…”

“They’d have to change the rules, then,” said another man somewhere along the table.

“So?” Purple was not backing down. “I’m sure you’ve seen the Canadian women’s teams playing against the women’s teams from other countries…” The man nodded. “And did you find them as exciting as the men’s games?”

He nodded again. “But, that’s still women playing against women, eh?”

I felt like sticking up my hand. “Well, then instead of inviting women to play on the same team as the men… Why not have two leagues -one male and one female- and then, at the end of the season, have the winner of each play off against each other?” There was a buzz around the table. “I mean it wouldn’t have to be for the Stanley Cup, or anything…”

Purple spoke up again. “And why not?”

I had to smile at that: through turmoil, peace… Finally, an argument nobody lost.

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