Thursday, January 1, 2009


So there's a joke I first heard Gallagher tell. (I'm frankly ashamed to start this with a Gallagher joke, but that is, in fact, the person I first heard tell it.) "We all know the opposite of pro is con, so is the opposite of progress, Congress?" Along those lines, if you ever want to get on debaters' nerves, ask them, for any given debate, "Were you pro or con?" It happens all the time, and it's unaccountably irritating. The sides are called affirmative and negative, not pro and con.

In both cases, there's a widespread misunderstanding in play. "Pro" and "con" are not opposites; they're complementary. The prefix "con" doesn't mean "against," but actually means "with." Dictionaries list it as a variant of "com," which comes from the Latin "cum," meaning with. If you graduate cum laude, you graduate with honors. And in Spanish, a Latin-derived language, "con" is the word for "with." In French, it's "comme." Now, sometimes "con" is a shortening of "contra," which does translate as "against," but even that is a corruption. Its original meaning was "in comparison with," which is far broader than "against." You might visualize standing up next to another person so a third party can see which of you is taller. You aren't opposites, and one of you being taller doesn't make the other shorter, but you do stand contra, in comparison, so an observer can make the measurement.

Why am I going on about this? Because of the jagged edge our culture hallucinates in every outbreak of argument. I'm gearing up to teach rhetoric and argument this spring, and I'm going to be talking with the students about how our learned aversion to argument, our avoidance of open controversy, is in a lot of ways an American trait, and furthermore, an American sickness. It's a view that categorizes all argument as hostility, enmity, the demolition of affinity. And it's tragically wrong.

If we remind ourselves that "con" means "with," then the pros and cons that go with any proposal look and feel entirely different. Here are the arguments in favor of the idea, the steps toward it (which is the literal meaning of "pro"), and here are the difficulties that come with it. It's the idea of "with any major decision, you have to take the bad with the good." You can refine, address, minimize, but you must not make the perfect the enemy of the good. And, further, you can't decide at all until you've paid attention to the con. Attempts to do so leave the job unfinished, because the con goes with the pro. They aren't adversaries; they're symbiotes.

We are a culture more vulnerable to groupthink than any I can imagine, because we work so hard to extinguish disagreement. If we can't reach an understanding that "con" isn't opposition, isn't something to be pushed out, but rather that "con" is with, that it's a welcome and important part of decisionmaking that needs to be worked through, then we're due for more exploding space shuttles and more blood-drenched post-invasion quagmires.

The notion that every message has a content dimension and a relational dimension is one of the ABCs of communication scholarship: very basic, very fundamental. But it keeps popping into my thinking lately in ways that fascinate me, although I doubt they're terribly original. But this is another one: argument creates a relationship. I know that one's not original with me: Habermas and Ehninger got here first. But it's both true and important. Where there is conflict, there is engagement. (Cue Bridezilla joke.) After the complete breakdown of a positive relationship, if it is replaced by implacable hostility, the likelihood is high that there will be escalating conflict: perhaps physical, perhaps financial or legal or social or aesthetic or any one of an endless range of possible modes of conflict. But that conjunction is nowhere near inevitable when turned around the other way: an outbreak of argument, of disagreement, is not proof that the relationship has blinked out of existence. But too many people spring into action because of precisely that assumption.

One of the worst things that happened to me in 2008 is that I lost a good friend over a political argument. The friend has very conservative views, and sent me an email one day, asking a few questions about a letter to the editor I'd submitted to the local paper. In the email, the friend talked about "liberals like you" and said "all you liberals think," and variations. I wrote back saying I wasn't like all liberals, and I wasn't going to enter the conversation if that was one of its necessary premises. If my friend wanted to discuss with me what I thought, I was willing to do so, but I wouldn't be a synecdoche for a strawfigure. The friend wrote back, no exaggeration, within minutes, and informed me that our friendship was over. Boom. We exchanged a few more emails that day, but the friend stuck to that position that the friendship had ended.

I don't accept that, and I keep hoping, foolishly, that with the passage of time and the cooling of temper, there's hope for reconciliation. But it's that willingness to close the book on a relationship over changed terms in a simple disagreement, and to do so in a matter of seconds, that saddens and troubles me. It's not unique to that person, either: it's the overt manifestation of an attitude toward conflict, argument, controversy, disagreement, that is peculiar to our culture. And if I have a hope for the new academic term, for the new administration, for the new year, it's that we can reach a turning point and change that understanding.

It felt as though I was winding down with the end of that paragraph, but a thought struck me, so I'll tack it on. My mother, who lived through the great depression, is always horrified at how quickly people my age throw away leftovers, get rid of worn clothing, aging appliances, etc. I think our threshold for discarding the imperfect keeps moving lower and lower, that smaller and smaller imperfections qualify as sufficient reason to jettison, and maybe that's part of what's at work here. I'm not too confident of that explanation, because the friend I mentioned in the paragraphs above is only a few years younger than my mother, but the parallel between those two attitudes is pretty striking. Maybe learning to accept the imperfect and keep it with us is both a rule for thinking and for owning. And maybe there's not a difference.

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