Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile

I have to admit that I have always had trouble with arguments. I dislike confrontation, and whenever it occurs, I seem to get backed into a corner from which I am forced to lash out. Often, I feel that my very identity is at risk: how could any thinking person who was in tune with reality, believe what I do? And if my argument is, in fact, wrong then what does that say about my other opinions that we haven’t yet touched on? Disagreements suggest as much about me as they do about the positions I espouse.

I have had a life-long passion for Philosophy, and I know many of the drills. An argument is seen less as combat or an attempt to disparage the opponent, but more as an exercise in clarification and a search, perhaps, for common ground. So, one hears the opponent’s position and attempts to reword it to show it has been understood. If the opponent agrees that their opinion has been correctly grasped, then ideally, they can state why they disagree with what they’ve heard from me. And so it goes, back and forth -each position clarified and understood before either moves on. Not infrequently, commonalities emerge, and hopefully, the ability to reach some form of compromise begins to materialize.

The problem in most of our encounters, of course, is proceeding without one side being forced to lose face -without feeling that only one side is correct -or, in the case of being proven incorrect, not feeling heard. Why, in other words, did the side espousing Fake News, let us say, come to believe it? Shouting at them, or belittling them is pretty well guaranteed to further intrench them in their views. We all do it, though -okay, I do, anyway.

Sometimes my way of seeing things seems so… obvious to me, that I become infuriated with the expression on the other person’s face, or when they shrug, sigh, or even roll their eyes at my opinion. I suppose I don’t feel heard -no, I don’t feel respected

I was dreading phoning a dear friend of mine who lives on the other side of the country. I hadn’t heard from her for a couple of months, and I wondered if there was something wrong. Since university, we’d always found ourselves on opposite sides of the political and ecological spectrum -we disagreed about almost everything, and so our Emails had to be carefully worded; even with phone calls we had to tip-toe around many of the issues. Skype was especially problematic because I could read the frustration in her eyes, and the way she wrinkled her forehead, or clenched her teeth. I realize I probably did the same and that just amplified the conflict. And yet, each time, despite my determination to change, I usually found myself rerouted along the same trail we always seemed to travel.

I’m always looking for helpful hints and so I was drawn to an essay from Australia by Hugh Breakey, a research fellow at Griffith University in Queensland. I wondered if they did things differently in the antipodes. https://theconversation.com/actually-its-ok-to-disagree-here-are-5-ways-we-can-argue-better-121178

Argument is everywhere, he writes, but ‘Unfortunately, we often fail to consider the ethics of arguing. This makes it perilously easy to mistreat others.’ So, there are certain norms we should follow in an argument: ‘we should be open to their views. We should listen carefully and try to understand their reasoning. And while we can’t all be Socrates, we should do our best to respond to their thoughts with clear, rational and relevant arguments… norms are valuable because they promote knowledge, insight and self-understanding… being reasonable and open-minded ensures we treat our partners in argument in a consensual and reciprocal way. During arguments, people open themselves up to attaining worthwhile benefits, like understanding and truth.’ And, ‘obeying the norms of argument shows respect for our partners in argument as intelligent, rational individuals. It acknowledges they can change their minds based on reason.’

It was also encouraging to find that Breakey and I were on the same track. ‘Two arguers, over time, can collectively achieve a shared intellectual creation. As partners in argument, they define terms, acknowledge areas of shared agreement, and mutually explore each other’s reasons. They do something together.’

All fine and good, but sticking to that in the heat of battle has always been my problem. My heart may be in the right place, but my mouth is not. My mind tricks me into thinking my opponent is being illogical -it’s them, and not me, who’s failing to argue properly. So, to counter this, Breakey offers a few tips. Like, trying not to think I’m being attacked, and remembering that I don’t want to lose my opponent as a friend. I should treat them with respect, and not judge their argument (and hence them) as faulty; they may well be open to changing their views -I shouldn’t assume otherwise -and let’s face it, we may both be wrong…

I don’t know why, but I suddenly felt equipped to phone my friend. I can do this, I told myself when she answered.

“Are you phoning to lecture me on climate change again, G?”

Wow, that started early, I thought. My first reaction was to feel hurt, but I caught myself in time. “Well, actually, I wanted to know how you were doing. I haven’t heard from you in a while…”

That seemed to soften her voice. “Oh, that’s nice of you,” she said tenderly. “I would have let you know if I was sick, you know…” I breathed a bit easier. “But you usually only phone when you’ve thought of a new argument to try out on me,” she continued, her voice noticeably harder.

I had to think. Do I argue with that point, or ignore it? I decided to clarify her assertion. “Do you really think that’s why I phone?”

There was a pause at the end of the line. “It seems that way, G.”

I wasn’t sure whether I should become defensive, or agree with her and apologize. I decided on the middle road. “I guess I do come on a bit strong sometimes, don’t I?”

Another pause -she was obviously having difficulty deciding how to reply as well. She finally settled on “I know you mean well…”

Not a victory, but a white flag of sorts I suppose.

Then, “But I don’t think you can convince me, you know…”

Was she trying to say I was incapable of convincing her, or just that I hadn’t approached her the right way? “Well, maybe I can suggest…” was all I could think of to say before she interrupted me.

“Although that article you sent me a while back was certainly worth thinking about…”

“The one on renewables, you mean?”

“Mmm Hmm…” I could hear her breathing into her phone. “I’ve even decided to ride my bike to work.”

It seemed like a turning point. “That’s great, Melissa!” I thought I’d share in her decision. “Maybe I should do the same, eh?”

A friendly chuckle echoed through my phone. “You’re retired G… But maybe you could at least ride down to the store…”

We were friends again; maybe they really have figured out how to argue in Australia.

Sleeping in the Call Room

Sometimes in the sounding night, with footsteps rushing past and light-bound shadows flashing orally under the firmly closed door, I awaken, startled, and wonder if I am next. It takes me a moment to clear the fog of that constantly unsettled semi-sleep, and understand that I am not at home. And won’t be for uncountable time. The pillow is not right, and the bed is far too narrow. And empty. There is a dusty patina on the sheets that I can feel despite the dark. It makes me cough if I pull them close. But they are old, like the room. Echoes of the others who have slept here, echoes of the phone calls that suddenly scream their warnings in the night, echoes of opening and closing doors just outside  -all those echoes are trapped in here. All clamoring for an audience.

There are more things imprisoned within this room than a person should feel. To embrace even a small fraction of the anxiety plastered on the door, let alone the shadows rushing noisily past, would be to succumb to that which we are not allowed: fear. To suspect, even, that there may be a situation so dire, so entrenched and insoluble that we could only witness it in horror, is to abrogate the right to the room itself. The right to close the door, to close the eyes in pseudo sleep.

The desk that welcomes and entices in the light, holds no promise in the dark. Holds no answers to the urgent questions from the phone. Or to the voice whispering loudly near the door. Whispering things I should not hear, and can’t because they are too quickly said. Meant for others standing just outside or passing on their ways to other things. To other doors. Here be dragons…

There is no time that passes here. It is not allowed –nor should it be. This is a place of black and void, an empty space yet full of ghosts who do not talk, or pace about. There is no room in here: it is barren ground. A fissure carved deep within the building. An abyss, a surface with no boundaries –except perhaps, the door, and those who seem to wait outside. For whom? And why?

Do they, too, wait for a phone to ring before they pound restlessly on a door? Is there anything that starts their ceaseless pacing in the corridor? Or is it random? Brownian motion? Perhaps they’re too aware to sleep, anticipating pages not yet issued, problems not discovered. Maybe they walk the hall with with text books open in one hand, pencils ready to underline another fact, but smartphones in the other, an app, finger-close… Just to check, you understand. Prepared for what, they do not know…

It is not them I fear, nor the hallway that sanctifies their life. They have other duties in the night. Responsibilities they must guard, lest someone find them wanting. They are not mine; my door is just a mistake for them, an anomaly to tempt them from their task. Nothing more. They do not belong to me; they are not my specialty. Not my responsibility. I cannot answer for them and will not let myself be distracted.

There is a sentence I read somewhere –King Lear, I think- and it surfaces now and then in the dust motes circling around the light under the door. It, too, whispers to me when I am startled by a noise outside, and nudges me if I pretend too hard to sleep: O, that way madness lies; let me shun that; no more of that. And when it sounds, it loops and twists in my head like a roundabout, the words circling like vultures, going round and round and round again looking for an exit…

But my job, for now, is to pretend to sleep. To pretend I will be ready when my duty calls, my own phone rings to silence those calls for madness from without.