Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

How to Keep Conversations From Becoming Fights

Of politics, infallibility contests & pre-conniptual agreement

“I could be wrong but I hear it coming from your side,” I say about the faint rattle we both hear as we cruise in my Toyota through rural Nevada to do GOTV for Obama early Saturday morning. 

My passenger is a woman in her sixties, a generous and dedicated soul, a psychologist who despite modest income gave more than $4000 to the Obama campaign. I found her through Obama’s rideshare site and already on our five-hour ride last night from San Francisco to Reno, we've talked of many things, our childhoods, love lives, jobs, the state of the union and the mysteries of the Republican mind.

Driving through the black-hole-dark desert last night she said she just doesn’t understand how Republicans can think like they do.  I invited her to venture some guesses, since wondering how people of any stripe become black-and-white thinkers is one of my favorite wonderings.  She said she has no idea. Their policies are simply wrong and she simply doesn’t understand it. Me, I’m more interested in how people come to their answers.  I try to be like the math teacher who doesn’t just want students to get the right answers, but wants them to show their work.  To me, Democrats aren’t better just because I agree with their policies, but because I think they use sounder methods to come up with their policies. Science, for example.

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Still, on other topics she and I found plenty of common ground, and had explored uncommon ground too, the places where we don’t know what to believe and are still wondering.  

This morning though, as we set out into the bright desert sun far outside Reno to knock on doors very unlike our doors back home, we’re not wondering much. We’re coffee’d up, ready to encounter strangers, and there’s something rattling in the car.

“I hear it coming from your side,” she says.

We both check the floor.

“I’m still hearing it on your side,” I say. 

“Well, you’re wrong” she quips, “but I won’t hold it against you.”

The rattle took care of itself, but her quip rattled me a bit. Call me sensitive, but throughout the weekend I never fully recovered my ease in conversation with her, feeling more wary about exploring uncommon ground with her.  There were a few more times when I felt her pull rank. Older, she moved slower than me and said a few times “You’re pushy.”  Driving through an area not populated by the kind of sensitive responsive man I aim to be, I thought to myself “maybe this is how we men come to fit the stereotype as lunkish and inert, the quiet sensible alternative to fighting with a woman who can pull rank so readily. Not that men don’t pull rank as easily if not moreso.

A conversation at its best is like two people sitting together on a porch swing, pointing and squinting trying to make out what’s approaching on the horizon, agreeing or disagreeing, arguing even, but both admitting that they’re just speculating, both willing to rethink their speculations, revisit questions and doubt their assumptions when challenged.

In contrast, a fight isn’t really about what’s approaching on the horizon; it’s about winning. The fight’s topic becomes secondary as both sides insist they’re right, and not just about one thing but about everything. 

A fight is a conversation that has become winner-takes-all.  Either you’re right and I’m wrong about everything, or visa versa.  In a fight it’s as though if I can catch you in even one error it vindicates me as infallible about everyting and you as having a character flaw that makes it so if there’s going to be any errors, we can assume they’re in you, not me. In fights neither side can afford to look for, let alone admit to even the slightest error. 

We think of fights as starting when one party or both is solely intent on winning. Sometimes they do.  Karl Rove’s Republican Party has all the smell and feel of folks intent on winning regardless of what’s really approaching on the horizon.  But it doesn’t take a megalomaniac psychopath to turn a conversation into a fight.  More often than not, fights start with simple rank-pulling, a seemingly innocuous comment like “You’re wrong but I won’t hold it against you.” What distinguishes such comments is a person’s self-activated promotion from advocate to judge as if they’re saying  “A minute ago it was your intuitions against mine as we explore what’s possibly true, but now that I’ve donned this imaginary black robe, I’m the infallible judge in charge of deciding who’s right, and it turns out I am.” 

To appreciate how seemingly innocuous such comments can be, notice how optional it is to preface our opinions with:

I think that…

I believe that…

It seems to me that…

I could be wrong but…

Most of the time such prefaces go without saying. I don’t have to say, “I think it’s sunny outside.” I can just say, “It’s sunny outside.”

But if you disagree with me about whether it’s sunny out, then the preface’s absence can become an issue.  You might say, “You believe it’s sunny out, right?” 

Or “You only believe I’m wrong about the car’s rattle being on your side, right? 

I tried, “You’re saying that you believe I’m pushy, right?” and my door-knocking partner said, “No, I think nine out of ten people would agree with me.” 

I’m not so sure of that.  Being different ages we had different paces.  I’m 56 and could find a 20 year old pushy for moving faster than I do.  If I followed her logic then by the time I was 90, I’d have decided in my infinite infallibility that everyone younger than me was officially too pushy.  Call it “Be like me syndrome.”  I think it’s a mental health hazard especially for those of us who live alone and especially if we’re clinical psychologists. We singles tailor our home lives to our every preference. We spend our day meeting people who treat us as authorities on how people should behave, a dangerous combination that could easily make us solipsistic.

Later, to make conversation, even if I no longer felt safe to explore uncommon ground, I encouraged her to talk more about her romantic history.  She mentioned prenuptial agreements. The way my mind works, and I don’t know why, I hear puns in the background, and this time I heard pre-conniptual agreement, which I took to mean an agreement a couples, or friends would sign before either party threw his or her inevitable conniption fits.

My pre-conniptual agreement with anyone would read something like this:

We are co-fallible. Neither of us is final arbiter on what's true, so neither of us gets to pull rank. Everything we each say is an opinion. Everything we do is a bet that could prove wrong. That doesn’t mean any opinion or bet is as good as any other, but just that no bet is a certainty 

If we can hold a commitment to our co-fallibility, we can keep the conversation alive, and stay out of fights those toxic infallibility contests in which each party tries to pin all error on the other, and neither party can risk looking for, let alone admitting to any error. To make our relationship safe for self-doubt, the one thing we hold to be absolutely true is that we could be wrong about anything.

Of course sometimes we have to act with 100% conviction based on 100% faith in some bet we place.  Still, no matter how high our confidence in a bet, it can never exceed our confidence that it is a bet, not a certainty. When we’re sure the answer is yes, we say YASOM: Absolutely Yes, Still Obviously Maybe.

As a nation, we’re experiencing the conversation having turned into a fight, an infallibility contest and then a fight about who started and is perpetuating it. 

As we fight, and fight about who started the fight, neither Democrats or Republicans can afford a lot of introspection. If either side tried to deescalate the fight by saying “You know, I should step back from my strong opinions to admit that I’m not certain,” the other side could leap in to say, “See?  That’s what I’ve been saying all along.  You’re positions are wrong and it’s time you woke up to it.”  America has become unsafe for self-doubt. 

I do think the Republicans started it. I could be wrong, but for me the evidence is strong. Some Republicans started it just to win and make more money. Others followed their lead because as toxic as infallibility contests are, especially for nation’s future in uncertain times, there’s nothing so immediately intoxicating as donning that black robe in a tense moment, and pretending we’re infallible. We’re all tempted to play final arbiter, but it’s a temptation worth resisting. 

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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