I have heard it said that an argument is essentially an egocentric activity. It is simply about imposing one’s will, one’s opinion of what is “right” on another. My own experience has proven this is often the case. Yet, I love to debate. I use the word debate deliberately, to distinguish it from argument. By my definition, an argument is a battle of will in which right and wrong are not even an issue, but only ego which is at stake. Whereas a debate is a discussion of two opposing viewpoints in which the final determination is unknown and ego is not an issue.
I know, how often does that happen? Not often I’ll grant you. I often wonder if I am fishing at straws and trying to justify a tendency that I find within myself, one that I genuinely enjoy and therefore cling to – my combative nature. I consider the evidence.
When I was little, I used to sit in my grandfather’s recliner upside down. Grandma Elaine would always scold me for being improper, but that never dissuaded me. I wanted to know why I wasn’t supposed to sit in a chair upside down and propriety did not seem like a worthwhile reason. Of course, eventually Grandma Elaine shrugged and gave up, and I sat in that chair upside down for so long that my head started to hurt as it filled up with blood. Then I understood why people shouldn’t sit in chairs upside down and I didn’t do it anymore. I can’t honestly say I was merely curious. I sat upside down because I could. I defied my grandma because I could. I wanted to match wits against her at least as much as I wanted to figure out why I shouldn’t sit in chairs upside down. In the end, she was right, and I didn’t mind, but I needed to figure it out on my own.
I have always been more than willing to debate with anyone over anything. When I was younger, I would certainly have even called it arguing. I can recall arguing a point even after I was proved wrong and even after I knew I was wrong. However, as I got older I became a little more discerning and certainly more willing to admit when I was wrong. Ninth Grade English included a section on debate. I debated for capitol punishment, even though I was against it, and sited Biblical verse even though I was an avowed atheist.
My competitor cried foul. “You don’t even believe in the Bible!”
“No, but you do,” I pointed to the audience. “They do.”
Obviously, it wasn’t about being right, or I would have insisted on being on the other side, but it was certainly about winning. It was about ego.
I never enjoyed sports, especially team sports, probably because I was rather un-athletic and always picked last. However, when I got out of high school, I took a fencing class. I loved fencing. Fencing is one of those sports at which everyone is abysmally bad before they are even remotely good. I loved fencing people who were better than I, because that somehow improved my own performance. Subsequently, I lost a lot. When I fenced people too far below my own level, I became sloppy and I didn’t like that. So it wasn’t about winning, but it was still about ego.
I wanted to feel like I was doing the best I could, even if I was losing. I loved the challenge of fencing someone who was just a little bit better than I. I loved how damned hard it was. I loved fighting with the guys, because they had a different dynamic, since men are conditioned by society to be competitive and don’t take it so personally. I loved the battle of wits and I was perfectly willing to fight dirty if my opponent did and there were those in our club who would. Yet no matter how dirty we fought, we were also the type of club who ended every match with a hug, not just a handshake. We were a club without a formal coach, so we all taught and mentored and helped each other. Too much ego would have made that impossible.
My department went out for lunch once, as a farewell to one of our coworkers. This was when I worked in Military Science, surrounded my active duty, National Guard, or reserve Army officers and NCOs. The Major made a joking stab for something on my plate and I actually growled at him. After all, I growl at my father all the time, trading joking threats and insults back and forth, but the Major looked rather shocked before he burst out laughing. The fact that I liked fencing and took other martial arts classes perplexed them.
“Aren’t you a pacifist?” the Master Sergeant asked once.
“Yes, I’m a pacifist. Not a victim,” I told him, incensed by his assumption that pacifist was synonymous with doormat. My ego would not let anyone think I was passive just because I was a pacifist.
The best debate I can recall was one in student senate a couple of years ago. It was over library fees and it lasted three weeks. I began firmly on one side. At one point, the student president came to me and asked what it would take to change my mind. I think I responded something along the lines of hell freezing over. Yet in the final debate, something the external vice president said struck me true and clear. Before the entire senate I formally apologized to the president for my earlier flippant response and told everybody to make a note that should they ever meet my mother, they must bear witness that I can in fact change my mind. I then argued with the same fervor for the very position I had just spent the better part of ten hours arguing against. I love that debate because I learned something. I love that I was wrong.
I have a classmate, Bret, who I do nothing but argue with, rather gleefully at times. Of course, Bret loves it because we are two peas in a pod in this one respect. We both enjoy silly, meaningless debate, but neither one of us takes it at all personally. Bret fired a recent shot across my bow via Google chat, with no warning at all.
Bret: A second pox on you!
me: you were the first one, right?
Bret: I am the alpha and the omega.
me: not to mention pretentious
Bret: Then why did you mention it?
me: someone had to
Bret: I find it odd that people use phrases like 'not to mention' and 'it goes without saying...' and then they say it. Perhaps it is because they are not the alpha and the omega.
me: well, some of us have other hobbies, you know, as the beginning and the end perhaps you could outlaw all annoying linguistic conventions
Bret: Hobbies such as literary contradiction?
me: now where would literature be without contradictions? we'd have nothing left to write about
Bret: English profs might actually have to get productive jobs....no, it is best we keep the flakes isolated from productive society. I don't want to be told that my French fries are phallic symbols.
me: I'll remember that next time I see you eating French fries and be sure to bring it up
me: who moi? I do believe it was your metaphor, dear.
Bret: If the shoe fits...you should take it off and throw it at someone. -Bret the Wise
me: now that would be a waste of a perfectly good shoe
Bret: Also: You can lead a horse to water...but you can't commit seppuku with a keyboard. -Bret the Most Wise
me: I wouldn't be so sure of that until you tried; I bet if you fell on it, you could at least damage your organs and die of internal bleeding; not that I'd recommend it, of course
Bret: True, but internal bruising and bleeding does not a ritualistic disembowelment make. I'm pretty sure that the worst that could happen would be that a key would snap off and lodge in your bellybutton.
It continued from there for quite a while longer. When I first met Bret, I didn’t like him. I thought he was just an egocentric asshole. Now I know he’s just an asshole. Despite his vociferous assertion that “ONE is the only good size for a team!” I would rather have him on my project than anyone I know. If you tell him to shut the hell up and get back to work, he shrugs and gets back to work. He never takes anything personally, which is why I love him.
In the College of Architecture we don’t fear exams or term papers. We (perhaps unfairly) mock those who do. We fear crit. That’s short for final critique, in which you display your project on boards and through physical and virtual models for the faculty and visiting architects to comment on before your entire class. And by comment, I mean tear apart into itty-bitty, burnt and bloody, little pieces. During those first years, I was notoriously difficult to critique, both in formal crit and in private crit during studio between just the studio professor and myself. This is because most of the time I genuinely didn’t understand, and lack of comprehension makes me very frustrated, which I hate and tend to take out on the professor in question. It is a matter of ego. I don’t like to feel stupid. And architecture professors are not interested in pulling punches to spare anyone else's ego.
I’ve worked on it over the years, but sometimes in crit I still feel my hackles rise and once they do, they are very hard to smooth down again. Once I start to push, it’s very difficult to stop. This is one of the primary reasons I question my own combativeness. I can see exactly how damaging it is to me and those around me. I’m coming up on a very serious critique at the end of this month, and another year of very serious critiques to follow, and I need to leave my ego out of it if I am going to best serve both my client and myself.
This makes me question my own combative nature. Stress makes me quite prickly at times and I work hard not to damage my classmates. I use insults as endearments. I threaten people I love with bodily harm. I’ve even been known to punch, bite, or scratch on occasion, and I don’t just mean when I was a kid. It’s usually jokingly (or if I'm tickled, which I hate and react violently to), and I’m not out for blood, but I wonder if that tendency like a “gateway drug.”
Why am I like this? Where does this aggression come from? Why can it be so much damn fun sometimes and so rotten at others?
I’ve looked deeply and I’ve found no malice in it. I have found ego. Yet the thing that strikes me about the experiences I love the most is that they are the ego-less ones – the silly arguments with nothing at stake, the totally irreverent humor, the debates I loose, the crits I learn from, the sports I’m really bad at, the insults traded only with people I know understand the game. But can one engage in any kind of combative activity without ego? Is that even possible?
Do I need to kick the habit altogether if I’m going to make any sort of meaningful progress?