Culture Of Confrontation

Argument clinic

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.


  1. Excellent essay, thank you. This culture of confrontationism has me scared, even as I sense it has you a little scared, too. In combination with an almost militant anti-intellectual attitude, it bids fair to do enormous damage.

    With respect, however — it was Monte Python and the Holy Grail, not Life of Brian.

    Feel free to delete this comment, since it really adds nothing to the conversation.

    • Oops. You’re quite right, of course. And I definitely should know better, having just watched the clip in the course of researching this piece. Thanks for keeping me on my toes; I’m making the correction. (Note to other readers: the text originally incorrectly identified the scene as being from Life Of Brian.)

  2. ” it was a reference to Life Of Brian, in which one combatant gets all his limbs whacked off by the other, and agrees to “call it a draw”.”
    Are you sure?
    It sounds like a scene from The Holy Grail to me.

    Anyhow, we are not like that in Canada.
    Here we insist on apologizing you to death.
    Oh, I am sorry, I have to go now.

  3. The tendency toward confrontation has many facets, one of which(probably the strongest) is the ego component. Nothing scares people—especially men, and especially in Western societies—more than being “wrong” about something, no matter how trivial. Here in America, to be ‘wrong’ is to be less of a man. I’ve even mused that we would do well as a society to stop using that adjective, because it always serves as a pejorative, which I think has its roots in our unfortunate Puritan legacy and is inextricably tied to notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, so that when a person is wrong in his/her assertion(s), it’s like being ‘in sin’. It sometimes seems that an American would rather be criminal than ‘wrong’, and some have probably ended that way in the process of avoiding that most horrible of fates. Americans need to learn that being ‘wrong’ about an issue isn’t a commentary on our personal worth, but, instead, see it as a learning opportunity. But, in a culture built on ego aggrandizement, I don’t see that happening—at least not in my lifetime.
    Just some musings.

  4. I’ve got to compliment you, POP, for choosing a great topic to post here.

    Most of us today, are quick to claim that the world is going to hell in a handbasket right before our eyes, and the reasons so many of us eagerly go for the literary jugular in any argument, has something to do with the need to be right, in an era, when truth and objectivity have been transformed into a relative commodities. Thus in order for any of us to truly feel secure in a puzzling world, we must fight to the death about having the “right ideas,” the “right God,” or the “right political ideologies” However when on reads about the plan for political domination called ALEC, one has to wonder if, in the world of politics, there really is an ideological villain on the loose. Most of us are quick to point to the transgressions of either liberals or conservatives, but pundits, like Karl Rove, seem to be deliberately fueling conflicts, so that they might fire up the anti-intellectual sentiment one commenter previously mentioned.

    In all other arenas, I am able to perceive the way myself and others, filter through what we hear and see, using our own perceptions, and biases, while often missing the reasons why our opponents feel as they do. But with the advent of the Tea Party, Citizens United, the anti-voter discrimination protections nullified by our courts, the attempt to inhibit voter turnout with photo IDs, and the frequent way that propaganda promoting groups edit and cherry pick information, while creating misleading videos, I know longer believe that both parties are equally to blame for legislative dysfunction. Unfortunately, we must embrace some conflict to set this right, while maintaining the most constructive attitudes we can muster.

    But, lest I be accused of not being a liberal, I do think that the litigious society we have created, is also adding a lot of pressure towards making us all way too loony for fear of doing something wrong.

    In my parents day, it was not only common, but welcomed by them, when little Johnny’s teacher would grab him by the collar and march him to the principal’s office for disrupting a classroom and inhibiting the process of teaching. But now, all any teacher needs to do is simply brush against a student accidentally and the poor little dears find themselves being defended in court at the whim of their parents. I am not saying that sometimes discipline is never really overdone—just that sometimes we are much too hyper about preventing lawsuits to even see the truth about human reason and compassion, and the way it is being diminished by fears of offending another. We truly miss seeing the forest for the trees!

    Another conservative belief I endorse is that there has to be some limit on the amounts awarded in malpractice suits—(perhaps with exceptions in obviously extreme cases). In truth, many Doctors are subjecting their patients to expensive and unnecessary exams lest they be accused of not leaving any stone unturned, and thus become liable in incredibly punitive and expensive lawsuits, while driving up the costs of medical care. To me this unfortunate reality is one more example of how self defensive societies like ours unfortunately, create violent and unintended confrontations when promoting extremely punitive measures.

    It’s great of you, POP to make the observation that conflict is commonly the result of the Y chromosome and involves the expression of aggressiveness. In America, and other parts of the world, masculine privilege has too long been held up as a virtue, and egotistical forms of self-esteem have encouraged bullies seeking to dominate. I don’t know what the answer to such problems is, other than the massive edification of all of us. We need to relearn exactly what it is, and is not, required to be a man, as well as what it is to respect women. But in that scenario, it’s dubious at best, to expect that most of us are going to change.

    As differences of opinion arise, creating mistreatments of one group by another, (such as black residents being shot by over-reacting policemen), many of us are using the first amendment to justify all kinds of ugly behaviors, and like the person who almost ran you over, many of us actually feel justified in thinking that the 1st Amendment exists, to give us the freedom to do anything we damn well please—(I mean how dare any pedestrian or bike rider get in the way of a speeding motorist)!?

    the more we seek the supposed freedom and security that supposedly justifies us to oppress and repress others, the more we don’t get that satisfaction, while it becomes more important to be “right” or to have the “right thoughts and opinions.” In fairness, this false thereat, has probably existed during many different eras. But when combined with self justified lobbyists, ridiculously stringent anti-liability disclaimer forms that schools and corporations expect parents and investors to follow,(or at least intimidate them not to seek justice), our world has become particularly infected with self centered pursuit of security obsessions. And like the illusion of animosity displayed by one group against the other in the movie, “CRASH,” which temporarily vanishes in a moment of bravery and compassion, when a white cop rescues a black woman from an about to explode wrecked car, I think most of us are actually aware of how racial, religious, and political hypes, mostly have nothing to do with reality. Yet we are currently using many of these unreal attitudes to fuel aggression, intended to prove which group is right, or which group has the best philosophy etc. etc. What is particularly disturbing though, is knowing that spin doctors and lie creators like Rove, limbaugh, Palin and just about every Republican politician today, are using discord, divisiveness and brazen propaganda to add to the illusory ideological paradigm which is turning our democracy upside down. Yes liberals also populate the pages of, but Conservative propagandists are making liberal deceptions seem like child’s play next to the ruthless cleverness they all too often employ. I wish this matter could be resolved without fueling further conflict but unfortunately, these antagonistic ploys seems to be the norm by which our world operates today.

    My favorite scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” is the one where opposing forces, start catapulting stuffed bunnies at the knights, and they scatter like frightened school girls screaming, “run!, run away!” Perhaps we’d all be better off if we were less reliant on macho, mindsets, and honestly feared the results of even minor conflicts, even in this laughable way.

    Hopefully, POP, we can continue having constructive dialogues with others on this forum—without resorting to throwing viscious, vitriolic and self-defensive barbs at others. It seems that, when we are safe behind miles of cables and millions of megabits, most of us use this opportunity to insult others in order to aggressively defend the ideas that make us feel the most secure, and the most self-righteous. We grow angry when our own security is threatened, even though going on the offensive, often makes our current world and society all the more dangerous, threatening, and insecure!

    Thanks again for another good thought provoking article POP!

  5. POP,

    This is irrelevant to the topic, but have you ever considered using a commenting program with editing features which easily allows commenters to correct their own mistakes?

    I appreciate the auto-correct red underlining type of program you use, but since I turned 60, I haven’t been able to write more than a couple hundred words without making some dumb errors. /But some other websites have such good editing features, that, if I want to, I can correct mistakes I made two weeks ago or more.

    Then again, perhaps it is useful for commenters to be more aware of how their comments are being written, and thus be able to devote greater attention to what and how, they write?

    Just something to consider. And of course, I will continue to enjoy your comments no matter what editing features are, or are not, available on this website.

  6. I also wonder if you have seriously considered posting an article about the conspiracy theorists who believe that the World Trade Center, was brought down by the actions of an insider government group or Cabal? I have debated with such people for extended periods of time, and have debunked everything they claim merely by visiting reputable debunking sites, and approving of the arguments there, based on my fair amount of knowledge about science, and not the mere wish that a sinister massive conspiracy exists.

    Of course 911 was a false flag operation, but one that made use of this tragic opportunity to win an oil rich ally in the middle east. And of course GW made good use of deliberate lies, but I refuse to believe that any president would help aid in, or allow, the financial center for much of the world to be destroyed. Nor would GW’s administration conspire with top military brass to destroy our own Pentagon–both of which easily could, and almost did—result in near global financial collapse. And I can’t help but believe that the arguments or”truthers,” as they are called, are dependent upon their ignorance of science and the dogged belief that because nothing on the scale of the WTC attacks has happened before, then it could only have been the result be a well orchestrated and massively participated in, plot. Conspiracy believers make frequent use of logical misconceptions and the myth that no one else dares come forward to implicate our government out of fear of being hurt or killed by the powers that (may) be. Yet they and thousands of other like-minded individuals have written, talked about, and created debunking of debunking Internet websites for years–and so far the government has done nothing to prevent their free expressions of their doubts? I would be interested in hearing what points stand out to you, and how you would evaluate this sinister conspiracy theory, since I believe the 911 conspiracy myth would be an interesting topic to cover in future posts.

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