Try Not to Be Disagreeable

Imagine two people disagreeing with each other, arguing with each other. The first thing you can say is that nine times out of ten they will not agree with each other at the end of their discussions. What is the cause of their conflict? I can think of three obvious situations: (1) they disagree about facts; (2) they hold different premises; (3) they have conflicting desires. There could also be a fourth element: One or both the arguers have hidden motives for arguing.

You might think that disagreements over facts could be easily resolved and that differing premises could be identified. However, I believe that arguments over conflicting desires are probably the simplest. One person wants to go to a movie; another wants to go to a baseball game. They argue over the merits of the two pastimes. Their words conceal the real disagreement. Each person really wants the other to accompany him. They are not arguing over the merits at all; each person is trying to impose his will on the other person. How can one argue that another person should prefer a movie? It makes no sense. The disagreement could be concluded quickly. One of the people could decide whether he would prefer to go where he wanted to go or would rather have the other person’s company at the other event.

Of course, there are always those hidden motives. Perhaps one person merely wants to impose his choices on the other. Maybe one of them would prefer to go to the movie alone but has an idea of what their relationship should be, an idea that supersedes his desire to see the movie and so causes ambivalence. The hidden motive could be anything; for instance, one person might actually want to go to the baseball game but argues for the movie because alcohol is served at the game and the person wants to control the other’s drinking habits.

In theory disagreements over desires can be easily resolved. They always involve the desire of one party to control another’s actions and sometimes preferences. Once a person identifies this motive, he can deal with it as he sees fit: He can attempt his domination and, if he fails, he can tolerate the other’s independent status or distance himself from the other appropriately.

Arguments that we would characterize as intellectual can be much more complicated. A pundit argues for a certain form of federal medical insurance. In the process he makes a point about the “cost to society” of the plan. (1) As a matter of fact, he believes that demand for medical care is inelastic: That is, the plan will not increase the demand for a certain treatment. (2) He holds the premise that government ought to be responsible for the medical well-being of its citizens. (3) He has the desire to control part of the money of a certain segment of taxpayers. As a hidden motive, he might receive a salary from the political party advocating the plan. He might harbor resentment against the segment of the population to be taxed. Or he might simply want to show what a clever debater he is.

Why do we argue at all? Consider two English words: agreeable and disagreeable. We speak of a disagreeable person as one whom we find difficult whether we agree with him or not. We even have the cliche: “Try to disagree without being disagreeable.” It is perfectly acceptable in English to speak of an agreeable aroma even though aromas seldom have opinions and never argue. Agreeable means nice and disagreeable means an attitude close to nasty.

Why not be agreeable? Arguing over facts is pointless (unless one has a hidden motive). You can attempt to educate your opponent or simply propose a bet about the fact in question. Arguing with a person who has different premises than yours is hopeless. The best you can do is clarify the difference between your premises and the other person’s. It seems to me that all arguments can be reduced to desires to dominate or liberate oneself from domination and hidden motives. The actual discussions either are power struggles or they serve to advance hidden motives. Such arguments remind me of the phrase from Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” “Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

Fighting over desires is merely a means to dominate someone or assert your independence from him. If the person is arguing back, you have failed to dominate sufficiently. If you continue the argument, you have not freed yourself sufficiently. I have noticed that the most passionate arguments are advanced in defense of one’s misery. An abused woman or a miserably unhappy man will construct elaborate edifices of logic to show why they must remain in misery and danger. I cannot say why unhappy people employ their logic and intellect to prove that their misery is inevitable other than to cite some hidden motive, a motive hidden even from the people.

Before I continue, I should admit that I have been advancing a position. In English, we would say that I have been making an argument. Arguing against arguments seems paradoxical. In my defense, I claim that I am only stating a position and that I don’t mind being disagreed with. I’ll argue a little, too, like everyone else; but mostly, I am content to identify the factual areas of disagreement and to make plain my and other people’s premises. My hidden motive is fairly benign. I make arguments for the same reason people tell jokes or like to show you something entertaining. I don’t know why people like to repeat jokes but my motive is the same as theirs.

There is a difference between political arguments and most other arguments. Political arguments conclude in the use of force by the state. The desire to dominate is always a component in a political argument. Of course, the arguer hides this truth as much as possible. People can argue about candidates, policies, forms of government, and other political matters. It would take a very long book to catalog all the methods of political persuasion. It would be an interesting study because most of the methods are dishonest to one degree or another. In democracy, these methods are always evolving because the losing side of a political argument will always seek a new way to persuade people.

I will concentrate on a single word, nice. Some part of everyone wants to be nice and agreeable. The word nice is derived from the Latin word nescio, which comes from non and sciere meaning “not to know” or “to be ignorant.” In English, too, there is a faint connotation of contempt in the word nice. Generally speaking, people want to be nice to each other both in a personal and in a political sense. However, if a person is arguing in order to dominate you, agreeableness is weakness.

There are limits to niceness. I want to be nice to my children but it would be wrong always to agree to everything they wanted. I do not want to be mean to thieves but I don’t want to be so nice to them that honest people would suffer. In order for me to be effectively nice I need some sort of structure or theory. I need the idea of the good. Good is a vague word: Different societies and different people in those societies have very different ideas of the good.

In constructing my political ideas, my first task is to decide what my relationship is to other people. I need to replace the mind of the human with the mind of the citizen. My nature is to care most about those closest to me. My wife and my children come first. I have positive feelings toward a number of other people and I regard the rest of humanity with various degrees of apathy. The mind of the citizen is not so simple. A man in San Diego demands that farm workers in Maine receive $5.15/hour but he thinks wages in Tijuana are none of his business. A woman in Detroit cannot tolerate a Texan’s pot smoking but she is indifferent to the drug use in London, Ontario, a few miles away.

Suppose that a person has acquired the mind of the citizen and wants to be nice to his fellow citizens. He wants them to be protected from crime. He wants them to be paid fairly. If they experience bad luck, he wants to help them. He still needs rules, laws, boundaries, and methods to implement his positive feelings through the state. He must form a theory of government.

There are many theories of government to choose from; a very few examples are the divine right of kings, military dictatorship, and liberal democracy. However, a person motivated by a vague desire to benefit his fellow citizens is rarely inclined to consider political theory; rather he accepts the government as he finds it. Furthermore, his agreeable attitude predisposes him toward moderate political views; that is, he prefers to find a middle course between competing political views in his government. The nice person is inclined to be moderate.

The problem with moderation is that it is almost always dangerous and wrong. Consider all the forms of government that have existed in the last 5000 years and then pick one that flourished at a particular time and place for a few dozen years. Could it be that the best form of government lay between the competing views of the citizens of that government? Perhaps some Roman citizens argued that the citizens of a conquered country should all be enslaved and others argued that they should be exploited through taxation. The moderate Roman citizen might try to find a middle course between what he perceived as two extremes. Or maybe some Germans advocated the extermination of the Jews and others merely wanted to confiscate their property. I see no virtue in finding a moderate course between these two paths. In our liberal democracy we are constantly presented with dichotomies that omit dozens of other possible policies, and if we suggest an unconventional answer, we run the risk of being labeled “out of the mainstream” or even disagreeable.

Forget motives of selfishness, revenge, hatred, and others that are mixed into all decisions. If we look only at the desire of people to be nice, we see that a strange change takes place when people use the state to be nice. Someone wants to help the poor or improve education or wipe out some disease. In our society, he sees government as the most effective tool for expressing his benevolence. Then he encounters resistance. He asks himself who could be so mean and answers “evil people.” He changes from a nice person to a partisan. He identifies villains. He “takes sides.”

As a citizen of the United States, I am the subject of the solicitous concern and even the love of tens of millions of people. Here’s the funny thing. If I drop dead today, only four people in the world will really care and three of them will get over it pretty fast. If I ask for $100, ten people might give it to me and eight of them will resent me for asking. These are the people who are dealing with me, Allen.

In my role as an abstract citizen, I am cared for and loved. This is my role as 1/300,000,000 of the American people. However, in my role as an individual, I am regarded differently. If I, Allen, die of lung cancer, my death will be seen as an object lesson (and implicitly reported as such by the various news networks). My life and my death meant nothing more to most people than proving some point. If I die from AIDS, some will see my death as proof that my lifestyle was wrong; others will see it as justification for their demands for research funding. In any case, my death will be seen as some sort of “proof.” Rather than mourning, there will be quiet celebration. The nice people will rejoice in their minds even as they publicly shed tears over my demise.

How can Muslims love God so much that they cut off people’s heads and murder schoolgirls? Somewhere the desire to be nice turned into the desire to be good. In our culture, we rarely see how the desire to be good or (worse yet) virtuous affects the lives of people. Our news providers are far too hard-nosed to consider these abstract forces. They prefer to think in terms of money and power. But the idea of the good is what really moves the world. How can people desire to help drug users so much that they put them into prisons? At one time people actually wanted others to have a better life. This desire became entangled with the violence of the state and now we hardly question our treatment of drug users (as long as our drugs of choice are not forbidden). Most of the nice people now are merely annoyed by drug users.

There may be people who have a burning ambition to be very nice or very agreeable but I haven’t encountered them. I do know that many seek to be very good or very virtuous. They have a theory or a vision or a religion or a political platform. Also, they have villains. In today’s world, everyone is someone’s villain. The truly virtuous kill the villains while the merely good regard the murders with quiet satisfaction in their own minds.

People are not often persuaded by arguments, however logical. They are recruited to a side and the recruitment process is emotional. Consider sports teams and celebrities. Remember how many people are completely committed to their teams. Remember how many fans of celebrities would feel that their lives would have meaning if they could only be close to their idols. The motive to be nice is but one other tool in the recruitment process.

And what is the moral of all this? Don’t argue? Just be nice? Just be agreeable? Such a prescription is insufficient; it will lead you into accepting all sorts of nonsense. If I tell you that I know what is good, I will be lying, either to you or to myself. I suppose that there is a way to be good that will not involve you in evil but I can’t tell you what it is. My guess is that you’ll have to figure that out for yourself.