Of all the many great Monty Python sketches, I think my favorite is Argument Clinic. In addition to being just plain hilarious, it makes — as great comedy often does — some very astute observations about what passes for modern culture. It underscores how people love and crave interpersonal conflict. It illustrates that a great deal of what we call argument is just mindless “automatic gainsaying”. And it suggests that a great deal of arguing is as pointless and absurd as voluntarily being insulted or hit on the head.
But perhaps the most amusing aspect of all is the preposterous irony of the premise that a person would have to frequent a special clinic in order to find a confrontation. In truth, you’d be more likely to have to hit a clinic to avoid confrontation. It’s all around us. Modern life is saturated with it — as you well know if you’ve done very much driving. Or watching TV. Or attending sporting events. Or browsing online forums. Confrontation is the coin of the realm in contemporary America. Many people seem, quite literally to live for it. They’ll spit venom at you on the excuse of just about any topic they can seize, though there are three in particular (politics, religion and guns, not necessarily in that order) that are just about guaranteed to generate fireworks. Coincidentally, those are probably the three topics that Americans on the whole consider most vital.
We’re not talking about mere conflict, which is a healthy thing. Conflict makes us stronger, gives us direction, and ultimately solves rather than creates problems. But we get all the conflict we need (and sometimes more than we can handle, it seems) in the natural course of living. Confrontationism is the act of creating conflict artificially: attacking someone physically or verbally, not for the sake of defending your turf or accomplishing a purpose, but for the sake of sheer antagonism.
Mind you, there’s really nothing new about any of this. In what is considered the world’s oldest recorded story, the epic of Gilgamesh from about 5000 years ago, the Babylonian king Gilgamesh and the wild man Enkidu engage in a head-butting, eye-clawing, mud-rolling fight to the death, such as a couple of WWE gladiators would have you believe they do. In the end, the fight is a draw and so, each impressed by the other’s ability to wage a viciously senseless donnybrook, they become the best of buds. Likewise in the medieval yarn about Robin Hood and Little John crossing the footbridge.
But this is a different world now. We can get our thrills from bungee jumping, skydiving and alligator wrestling. We can also watch other people beat each other senseless in the ring or on the football field, and blow each other to bits on the big screen. And we can indulge in all sorts of violent video games and other simulated delights. Yet our thirst for confrontation does not seem to have abated one whit.
I rarely read online discussions about topics that are the least bit controversial, because it seldom takes more than a few exchanges for them devolve into “flame wars”. Even on this present site, although most of its readers are a cut above average in the maturity department, there are plenty of people who try to replicate the same cafeteria food fight atmosphere they’ve seen elsewhere. But you may not be aware of it because I’m more fastidious about filtering it out than most blog moderators — I don’t want this site to become another one of those. Consequently, I just delete the attack messages unless there’s a compelling reason to publish them — e.g., they contain factual or logical errors that it would be instructive to examine.
I remember reading about a guest on one of the Fox “News” screaming fests — Bill O’Reilly’s, as I recall — and during commercial break he was advised that he was not being combative enough, so he should ramp it up. Viewers might assume that the sparks are a by-product of debate; but they’re actually the steak rather than the sizzle. It’s an addictive vicious cycle, with Fox etc., etc., giving the public the in-your-face clashes it craves, which in turn fuels further craving.
And it isn’t just a matter of experiencing vicarious confrontations in the media. It isn’t at all unheard of for people to get into violent, and sometimes fatal, disputes over parking spaces or other matters even more trivial. Sure, people do stupid things behind the wheel, and they might make you justifiably angry; but is that any reason to call them names, threaten them, shoot at them or follow them home?
One day I was riding my bike across an intersection on a thoroughly green light when a car whipped around the corner and nearly ran me over. Justifiably peeved, I yelled at the driver to watch where he was going; and then I went on my way. He, however, chose to take it as a personal insult that I would reprimand him for being reckless and nearly killing me, so he yelled after me angrily, calling me a “pussy” and challenging me to duke it out. I ignored him, but I could still hear him yelling for as long as I was in earshot. A similar experience occurred even more recently with the driver of a vehicle who nearly hit me when I was crossing on foot — only this time I didn’t even say anything first. The motorist just started yelling, threatening and challenging me because I dared to be in his way.
Nor is it just among strangers. Friends and relatives sometimes shout it out, slug it out or shoot it out, with the initial conflict beginning with the silliest of matters — e.g., who gets the dark meat of the Thanksgiving turkey (the actual impetus for at least one fatal family shooting I read about).
One of the strangest and most disgusting experiences I’ve had in this regard occurred back during the Bush-Cheney years, and involved a friend (or so I thought) whom I’ll call John (since that was his name). John was a very intelligent and well-read fellow who possessed several degrees in a variety of disciplines — or so he claimed at every opportunity. He was also, as I understood it, essentially a Libertarian; and thus I would not have expected that he would have been fiercely defensive about Dubya. Big Mistake.
Pursuant to some comments his wife had made on a related topic, I sent her an article describing how the present GOP in general, and the Bush administration in particular, had a habit of glossing over, if not downright throttling, scientific research that did not support their ideology. It was John, and not his wife, who replied to me, and in the most scathing terms. After first assailing the credentials and credibility of the author — with whom he admitted being unfamiliar — he ridiculed me as a scientific illiterate (after himself regurgitating the myth that scientists in the Seventies had subscribed to a global cooling model) and a believer in “conspiracy theories” (after himself suggesting that thousands of the world’s top scientists were cooking the books on climate change).
Ignoring his surprise invitation to a schoolyard pissing contest, I gently reminded him that neither I nor the writer in question had expressed a stance on any issue involved — e.g., stem cell research. The discussion, I pointed out, was about the Republican attitudes toward science, not my own. And I sincerely urged him to pass along any information on that subject that he thought I didn’t have.
Instead, he responded with more insults and unfounded speculations about my beliefs, motives and background, declaring that he couldn’t explain anything to me because I didn’t have the capacity to understand. Politely insisting that I had the utmost confidence that a man of his talents could summarize recent political developments in such a way that even I could grasp them, I asked him again to clarify why he felt the criticism of the administration was unwarranted. Which just prompted even more insults and bizarre assumptions.
The upshot was that after three or four exchanges like this, John announced that he was terminating our friendship and wouldn’t read anything else I sent him. It was entirely his decision — I’d always enjoyed talking with him even though his pomposity had been evident from the start. In his last message to me, he said it was time for the “Monty Python Solution”. It wasn’t a reference to Argument Clinic; it was a reference to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which one combatant gets all his limbs whacked off by the other, and agrees to “call it a draw”.
Let me emphasize that at no time did I return any of John’s puerile insults. At no time did I challenge his opinions or express any of my own. I didn’t even correct any of his factual errors, although he certainly committed a few. Yet in his mind, we had engaged in a clash of Gilgamesh-Enkidu proportions, which he of course had won with his diplomas tied behind him.
I wish I could say that this incident was unique, but alas, it isn’t. Just recently, there was something eerily similar with a longtime reader of this blog who in the past had been a valuable contributor to discussions on the forum. But he apparently decided that it would be more fun to indulge in “automatic gainsaying”. He became obsessed with trying to discredit me about something, anything — even if it meant putting words in my mouth or contradicting his own. Among other things, he played three of the most common attack games: ad hominem (shooting the messenger, a la John), tu quoque (“you’re a hypocrite who commits the same offenses you criticize others for”) and what I call psychic psychoanalysis (“You may say X but you really mean Y because you secretly believe Z”).
I’d seen all of this before, so many times that it made my eyes roll; and normally I’d just ignore it. But because this reader had made comments of substance in the past, I thought I’d try being patient with him, and made some short replies to him to the effect that if he would be patient, he would see that his assumptions were off track. Big mistake. Lesson learned. He just interpreted my lenience as an invitation to attack further, and became so desperate to find a reason to snap at me that he offered wild — and wildly inaccurate — predictions about what I was going to write in the future so he could attack his own predictions.
I mention these two episodes because they illustrate four important points about confrontationism. First, it’s essentially a proactive rather than reactive mindset. Confrontationists may claim that their nastiness is a response to something that someone else has said or done, but it’s usually an aggression rather than a defense; and to the extent that it may be a response at all, it’s usually vastly overblown and altogether inappropriate. John and the reader may have convinced themselves that they were arguing with me about something or other, but the former was arguing against a straw man, and the latter against himself.
Second, while attacks like these are generally, to quote Ambrose Bierce, “merely stupid, although a few add the distinction of silliness”, one can’t always chalk them up to ignorance or ineptitude. John and my reader were both rather bright and very well-educated fellows; clearly, then, their combativeness was a matter of calculated intent rather than unwitting default. Hell, maybe even the two drivers I mentioned were brilliant guys.
Third, they all indeed were guys — and it would be hard to imagine otherwise. Confrontationism is unmistakably linked to the Y chromosome. There are certainly exceptions, of course. In the verbal arena at least, Ann Coulter can Hulk-Hogan with the worst of them. And in peer pressure settings — e.g., schools — there very well might be as many female bullies as male bullies, verbally if not physically. But in the vast majority of cases, this is a behavior mode that goes with being male, not female. Which suggests that maybe one cause might be body chemistry or cultural conditioning. There’s a reason verbal assailants so often use “pussy” as an insult (“dick” is also sometimes pejoratively, but the contexts are very different.) And it’s interesting to note that John’s first vicious missive included a demand that if, in the future, I had any reading matter to send his wife, I instead should send it to him for screening.
The fourth and most important point is that these confrontations are counterproductive and stifling. As you can see (I hope) the antagonism that these two gentlemen chose to vent toward me totally quashed any chance for fruitful dialog. And that, mind you, is the best-case scenario. Quite often, as we’ve mentioned, such incidents escalate into pointless violence.
Does confrontationism serve any useful purpose at all? It’s difficult to see what that might be, aside from its cathartic value — which, as we’ve noted, can be satisfied through other means. It’s possible that some people use it, even if subconsciously, as a way to test the mettle of a potential ally. It’s possible that if I’d been as nasty toward John as he was toward me, he would have had a great deal more respect for me. Even so, it’s just not worth it as far as I’m concerned. If I have to kick someone in the crotch to win their respect, they’re probably not the kind of person I’d want to deal with anyway.
Many people seem to think confrontationism is really cool and empowering. For my part, I just wish I could make it go away. But I can’t. And it won’t.