My History with Contention
I am no stranger to contention. I was born a boy in a girl’s body, so even before I hit kindergarten, I had gotten into plenty of arguments with my parents, my brother, and random grown-ups at grocery stores. I argued I was a boy. They disagreed. I usually lost the argument. Once I entered kindergarten, similar arguments took place, though by this time I learned that I wouldn’t win by simply stating the obvious (“I’m a boy”) and instead had to argue for other points that were still fair game. Though I don’t remember this, I apparently lost Candyland to a boy who was the size of a third grader, who was in my class. In retaliation, I spit on him and started a fight. Having ADHD, I was restless and bored, and prone to start conflicts for my own amusement.
I didn’t always start the conflict, though–I was frequently bullied as a kid. I got into verbal and physical altercations with kids at school who made fun of me for various reasons. I was short (and still am). I was smart (hopefully still am?). I could act like a know-it-all (working on this one…). I was hyper (definitely still am). I have a very Type-A personality, and wanted to control everything. I was not afraid to let an idiot know he was being an idiot. I was also not afraid to be unique. I wore boys’ clothing, played with boys, and was interested in things only boys in my class were interested in (like Pokemon, and 007: Goldeneye, and hockey).
As a teenager, I continued to be unique, hyper, and something of a know-it-all. I continued to be bullied, though it was less frequently physical bullying. I continued to have no qualms about engaging in a conflict, and putting my opponent in his place. I took kickboxing lessons, and sparred with my friends, and commanded a Laser Tag team (yes, I was that cool). I was aggressive and had a lot of pent-up anger and energy for which I needed an outlet.
In college, I found a way to channel my aggression into politics. I frequently started debates with friends who were liberals, or even with my friends who were conservatives. Being a libertarian without a libertarian student organization, I joined the College Republicans and debated the College Democrats regularly, in a controlled setting.
I still love debating, as anyone who knows me will attest. But what I don’t any longer love, or have any need for, is seeking out contention.
What’s the Difference between Contention and Debating?
A debate is an intelligent argument between two people with different positions. It is based on facts. Both parties mutually respect one another and come into the debate with the assumption that the other party has as much information, intelligence, and morality as the other party, but has somehow come to a different conclusion. Abiding by these principles of debate, parties go into a debate with an investigative attitude–they are trying to figure out what made the other party conclude something different. They are not trying to attack the other party simply because he has a different idea. These rules are frequently broken in favor of contention, which is the spirit of animosity between two people that usually stems from lack of respect and giving each other the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes, contention is warranted. I don’t really care how a burglar came to the conclusion that he has a right to break into my house and hurt my family. His actions will result in much contention between us, probably to his detriment. But more frequently, contention is not warranted, and has no place in interactions between two parties.
This Week I Was Eviscerated, Burned at the Stake, and Fed to a Pack of Hungry Wolves
This week I was the recipient of a lot of unwarranted contention. I didn’t seek out this contention, but I probably should have anticipated that it would start.
It all started with a comment I made on Twitter. The topic was verbal slurs, and why it’s offensive to refer to someone as “tranny.” It should be obvious, but in case it’s not, I’ll summarize. Using any unscientific word to describe someone, regardless of your intentions, will frequently be seen as a slur, and a slur is hurtful because it implies that you think of this person as less than human. Referring to someone as “tranny” implies that you think because of a person’s “transgender” status, they are less than human and, if you make the leap in logic, “killable.” It doesn’t matter whether this was the intention or not. This is the implication, and the implication is bad enough to warrant a person to fear you. Especially when there historically has been a connection between slurs and violence against individuals.
I made the following comment: “IMO, we need to re-evaluate “offensive”. Most offensive slur? “Cracker” -implying slave owner just bc one is white.” I followed it up with the comment, “Also offensive-anything describing a person that should be self-ID’d. It’s MY choice if I want to be called #trans.”
At first, backlash sprinkled through like a tiny leak in a roof.
“Uh, no…RT.” That simple two-letter code, RT (retweet), from someone who adamantly disagreed and had a large following of others who adamantly disagreed, allowed for the roof to collapse, and the water to pour in.
At first, I tried to answer some of the tweets. I tried to explain that what I was saying had nothing to do with “social power,” but rather had to do with what was offensive. Of course, being labeled as “white,” my opinion was apparently irrelevant.
I tried to explain that the reason why “cracker” is more offensive than any other slur is because other slurs label someone as “inhuman” or “killable” — essentially, a victim of the crime of prejudice (at best) or genocide (at worst), while “cracker” comes from the term “whip-cracker” which essentially means that because a person is “white”, he is labeled as a slave-owner. The perpetrator of that prejudice, or genocide. I would much rather be labeled a victim of a crime, than the perpetrator of it.
I should have realized at this point that I was actually making things worse. Engaging with people who don’t view your opinion as valuable will only end in contention. The rules of fair debate have been broken. The other party doesn’t view you as an equal, he views you as inferior. Ironically, this was the very thing that we were talking about–slurs imply that the recipient of the slur is inferior. But anyway, I made things even worse for myself. By standing on the roof and trying to address each rain drop, I just essentially painted a giant target on my house, so that a barrage of cruise missiles could be aimed directly at it.
This was my last coherent argument against the assault of which you have only caught a glimpse. I was trying to explain the concept of how the damage oppressors do is far greater than the immediate consequences of lost property, families torn apart, and lives lost. A thinking person will realize that no one ultimately benefits from oppression, especially not those who perpetrate it, because they do a huge amount of damage to their own people in addition to those that they harm (for decades and maybe even centuries afterward, creating a precedence for hatred and violence and an excuse for more atrocities to occur at their descendants’ hands). And the damage doesn’t stop when the atrocities stop. For example, only just recently did Germans feel comfortable enough to wave the German flag in sporting events. Families are still being re-united after all this time after the war. Look at the DECADES of damage the Nazis did after the atrocities were over, to their own people.
A faithful person who believes in God also understands that the harm they do is even greater than the centuries of oppression and damage to self esteem that they may kick off with their evil acts. They also damage their own souls, maybe for eternity. Certainly, God forgives all. But if you have so destroyed your own soul such that you aren’t even willing to *ask* for forgiveness…then you have essentially damned yourself to eternal torment. The oppressors suffer eternal torment, while the oppressed can be resurrected in a perfected form and live for eternity with God. Clearly, oppressors do a TON of damage to everyone involved, and it’s wrong to claim that anyone benefits from oppression. I can see how my statement might be twisted, but if one was willing to step back and think, one might realize that what I meant was what I explained in the last two paragraphs. A couple of people actually did realize this.
Unfortunately, I didn’t even see these posts because after this argument, the opponents skipped the cruise missiles and launched a nuclear attack.
I won’t repost some of the things they posted, because they’re inappropriate for young audiences (in case any are reading). But essentially, I was called a white supremacist, Nazi sympathizer (anyone who knows me knows that these two things really got under my skin), my LDS faith was attacked, and plenty of foul language was used. In addition to all of this, the 1% were attacked, plenty of liberal philosophy was thrown around, and I realized what I should have realized at the beginning of this conversation. I had lost their respect. They weren’t listening to what I was saying, they were just attacking. They didn’t care to understand. There was no point in continuing the conversation.
So I logged off. I turned notifications off. I turned on The Mormon Channel (which hasn’t been working on my computer lately but it suddenly did! Just when I needed it!) and I did Chemistry homework.
And that is how you handle contention when you have the option of leaving. If your opponent has decided to go nuclear, LEAVE. There is nothing to be gained by staying.
What To Do if You Can’t Leave
Sometimes we can’t leave. We’re at work, or school, or it’s a loved one who has gone nuclear, and we need to stay. In this case, you have to try to regain safety of the conversation. Social media is a terrible place to try to do this, because everyone is isolated from each other, there are about 10,000 opponents against you, and you have no time to respond at all before another accusation has been mass-tweeted around the world a few times and you’re getting more hate mail. But if you’re face-to-face, you can stand your ground, regain control of the conversation, and remove contention.
1. State what you DON’T want to do. This helps to make the conversation safe. “I don’t want to imply that you’re being unfaithful to me.” “I’m not trying to turn this into a fight.” “I don’t want to tell you what to do.”
2. State what you DO want to do. “I’m trying to understand the source of these discrepancies in our finances.” “I want to understand where you’re coming from.” “I just want to know why you think that’s true.”
3. Actively listen. This means listen to what they’re saying, then give them a cue that you’ve heard them, and understand them. Make eye contact. Nod. Wait until they’re done speaking. Then say, “It sounds like you’re saying the bill might have gone to the wrong address. Is that what you mean?”
4. Ask for their solutions. This helps them to understand that you’re interested in what they think, and want to compromise. “What were some of your thoughts on how we could fix this?”
These tips and more can be found in the Crucial Conversations book, an excellent resource for dealing with contention.
Remember: the Spirit does not dwell where there is contention. This doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit won’t dwell with you while you’re being attacked. But once you’re attacked, you have a choice to make. Will confronting the attacker lead you to lose the Spirit? Do you need to confront the attacker in order to defend yourself, your family or friends, or your Church? What are the consequences of your upcoming battle? Sun Tzu brilliantly writes in The Art of War that a wise commander always weighs the implications of going into a conflict before committing.
The Lord wants us to be successful, happy, and productive. He wants us to make good decisions about what conflicts we engage in and which we decide aren’t worth it. I testify to you that if you pray for the Holy Spirit not to leave you, He will guide you on the matter of which encounters to break away from, and for which you must go to battle stations. I leave this with you in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.