How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love a Good Argument: Essay by Patty Limerick

As many of you do, I’ve spent a great deal of time on The Smokey Wire in the last ten years. I’ve found it difficult to explain why I should feel such an admittedly peculiar calling. Frederick Buechner once said “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” People are willing to accept that it gives me deep gladness, but I’ve had trouble articulating what utility TSW brings, or might bring, to the world.

Fortunately, the highly articulate Patty Limerick has written an essay that explains her wild dream, which is also my wild dream, in the sentence I bolded below.

I did learn to love a good argument and to embrace that opportunity without an ounce of dread; that part is certainly true. But this change in attitude has left me with more time and energy to devote to worrying: about drought and fires in the American West; hurricanes on the Gulf Coast; the grim rates of unemployment and the failure of small businesses; the many obstacles lying in the path of the creation and deployment of a Covid-19 vaccination; and the terrible polarization of the United States.

In an odd twist, it is exactly that accelerated commitment to worrying that gave rise to the wild dream that drives this essay, namely:

If I could persuade some percentage of my fellow citizens to share my enthusiasm for good arguments, the polarization would drop in intensity, and we might be able to get somewhere in dealing with all those other worrisome problems.

OK, let’s put that wild dream aside for the moment, and return to reality.

This nation’s capacity to engage in good arguments has reached the vanishing point. In the all-too-near future, the nation’s sorriest ritual—that miserable performance called “a presidential debate”—will provide unmistakable evidence to support that assessment. As millions of Americans have arrived at the conclusion that arguing is inevitably sterile and pointless, we are left with only shouting matches, blame fests, fruitless data disputes, or embittered silence. This is the bedrock problem that deepens and enhances every other dilemma we face.

Over the last years, pundits of various stripes have gone into over-production of a certain form of pep talk. In an endless loop, these people keep telling us that, to do our part to redeem our polarized society, we must take every opportunity to listen to those with whom we disagree.

Once you have listened, what can you do?

You can write a commentary of your own, telling other people they should listen, particularly to you.

The commentators telling us to devote ourselves to listening have come to resemble a sad group of recipe-writers, who have convinced themselves that the act of writing a recipe begins and ends with instructions to go out and acquire some ingredients. After the command, “acquire groceries,” these aspiring kitchen gurus skip the part of telling us what to do with the ingredients we have assembled.

To depart from analogy and opt for directness: today’s exhortations to listen go nowhere and still take a long time to reach that destination.

Here’s a better alternative.

By all means, listen. But once you have listened, and once you have reached an understanding of the ideas that other people hold and why they hold them, then invite those folks to join you in a good argument.

We should listen so that we will have all the ingredients we will need to win arguments in the only sense that matters: emerging from the exchange smarter and better oriented to life.

One way to get the right take on winning and losing arguments is to repurpose and redeem that platitude, “We will have to agree to disagree.” Understood as a passive submission to the recognition that two people are not of one mind, this unfortunate platitude has lumbered through life with the wrong meaning.

Set free from this sad message of defeat, and inevitability, those words get a new lease on life. “We will have to agree to disagree, and so we are off on adventure! We will put everything we have into taking part in a good argument, and the friendship between us will not only endure, it will gain in strength.”

I think the whole essay is worth reading. She has a concern about academia as a place for argument, which I share, based on my own experiences. If any of you currently in academia have programs to encourage and improve arguments, please post in the comments below.

You may also be interested in the Center of the American West discussions at “Lunch with Limerick,” as well as others of her “Not My First Rodeo” blog posts.

3 thoughts on “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love a Good Argument: Essay by Patty Limerick”

  1. Sharon,

    Your post reminded me of something I recently read in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography where he talked about the matter of argumentation and his evolution as a debater and truth-seeker :

    “There was another bookish lad in the town, John Collins by name, with whom I was intimately acquainted. We sometimes disputed, and very fond we were of argument and very desirous of confuting each other; which disputatious turn, by the way, is apt to become a very bad habit, making people often extremely disagreeeable in company by contradiction that is necessary to bring it into practice; and thence, besides souring and spoiling the conversation, is productive of disgusts and perhaps enmities where you may have occassion for friendship. I had caught it by reading my father’s books of dispute about religion. Persons of good sense, I have since observed, seldom fall into it, except lawyers, university men, and men of all sorts that have been bred at Edinburgh.” (Benjamin Franklin, Memoirs, 1793).

    Giving up his taste for argument, he next “put on the humble enquirer.” This role he learned first from an English grammar and then from Xenophon’s Memorable Things of Socrates. The Socratic method reinforced his natural hunger for trapping his adversaries in positions they really did not wish to defend — “entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved.” He liked to win – he gave no quarter even in chess –but he soon saw that scoring in this fashion was pointless. It convinced no one, and it cost him friends. He then adopted “the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence,” a practice he followed all his life that, one suspects, allowed a freer expression of his own desire to learn. It also helped draw men and women as well as children to him. And in time it became his natural style; what began in artfulness led him to what he really was (Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies, Robert Middlekauff, 1995).

  2. Since these wildfires have erupted, I’ve seen increased polarization (and politicizing) regarding National Forests, in California. (Facebook is a funny place, sometimes) There is an incredible flow of misinformation, mostly saying that “the liberals have blocked all forest management and prescribed burning”, and “they need to manage those forests properly”. None of them seems to be able to be very specific about what is ‘proper’. Most of those critics just want to blame California liberals for ‘wanting to burn down the forests’.

    Meanwhile, I often see those ‘liberals’ pointing at how much of the California’s timberlands are administered by the Feds. I even saw one apparent Park Service employee claiming that Federal NEPA is different in every State, depending on whether it is red or blue.

  3. These “adventures” are what lawyers do every day. And while their “arguing” doesn’t particularly promote friendship, there is often plenty of respect.

    (PS – There’s now 700 people who seem to agree with you. Not spreading as fast as covid cases, but not bad.)


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