Thursday, October 29, 2009

Listening, Not Discussing

I may have mentioned before that there are people worth listening to, because they are opinionated and interesting, but not good to discuss things with. It is emphatically not a left-right thing, as I am thinking of two examples from each camp as I write this. They are folks who cannot listen themselves, so whatever point you make, they accuse you of meaning something else. I can seldom tell whether this is a rhetorical ploy on their part to win arguments or if they truly see the world as either 100% agreeing with them or being completely opposed. I suspect the latter.

This phenomenon is often found in conjunction with people who cannot attack your point without attacking you as well, usually with dripping sarcasm. They put their energy into the insult instead of the argument.

I imagine many writers I love to read could fall into this category. Their skill is in expressing, not balancing. PJ O'Rourke or Mark Steyn might both be pleasant boon companions - but there is some chance that having a conversation with them with even the slightest disagreement would be impossible.


Retriever said...

So true. I've often wondered if it's partially a birth order thing? Tho all those theories are now discredited...My spouse is an only child and I am a bossy oldest child and so both of us are used to pronouncing and being listened to....:) Fortunately for him, I have got a little better at listening over the years...

On a related note, I have been sadly reflecting how often one can be close to friends and relatives yet be unable to discuss things with the for fear of such disagreement as to rend the friendship. My most beloved female friend of over 21 years and I disagree on such minor matters as pacifism, the military, evangelical churches, abortion, domestic politics, illegals, etc. When one has loved a friend for so long one doesn't want to fight so dances gingerly around all the important issues. ..strange.

One of the things I enjoy on the internet is the chance to discuss differences of opinion with people who don't care as desperately to win one over to their point of view as, say, a best friend or spouse might. In theory, people could learn from each other in the potentially more neutral space. In fact, some of my commenters have changed my mind on certain issues, tho I don't know if I have had an equal effect on them...I know that you attract some pretty pugnacious comments because you discuss substantive and controversial stuff. I tend to write lots of personal and everyday stuff that either bores or is less controversial...

Donna B. said...

Retriever, I understand exactly. My sister (the youngest, I'm the middle) and I have greatly narrowed the list of things we can freely discuss over the past ten years or so.

The change coincides with her move to the UK and with both of us spending more time on the internet.

karrde said...


The lack of ability to discuss is likely inherent in being confident enough to write a book on a controversial subject. (Even if the controversy is a specialist controversy over the origin of certain word-types in the Indo-European language groups...)

I did find myself unable to speak peaceably with one sibling after a certain series of international events, which we both followed vigorously on weblogs and internet-based news.

Since then, I think his opinion has mellowed somewhat...but I'm not sure, and I don't want to spend time talking-but-not-discussing about it.

@nooil4pacifists said...

Regarding professional authors, I agree: some times, as a reader I want balance and sometimes I want well-written polemics. (Well-footnoted polemics would be even better, but rare.)

But one-on-one debate is different. Polemics -- left or right -- won't do. Neither will accusations of hidden meaning or presuming bad motives. Reasoned discussion is impossible with that sort.

Still, as you say, I'd rather go to lunch with the opinionated, well spoken, type.