– The Lost Art of Disagreement

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Lately I’ve been disagreeing with people.  Well, more people than usual.  One of the main topics on which I’ve been in disagreeing with people is – disagreeing.  Some disagreements are rather simple.  “The Yankees are better than the Red Sox.”  However, most people can recognize when opinion comes into play, and they can walk away from that and have a beer.  However, other disagreements are based on fact, meaning one person must be right and the other wrong.  The beauty of that situation is when one person eventually realizes that his or her thoughts are inaccurate, and they must now cross over to the other side.  Unfortunately, if the “wrong” one either refuses to acknowledge that one is wrong or lacks the ability to grasp one’s wrongness, then the disagreement isn’t going to be much fun.  What I can’t seem to get anyone to understand is that disagreeing is not only acceptable, but it’s actually quite healthy.  There are two things that prevailing thoughts and attitudes have taken away from us:  the ability to disagree and the right to be wrong.

Before you even have a chance to think about disagreeing with my assessment of disagreeing, let’s keep in mind what disagreement brings.  Without disagreement, the Pilgrims wouldn’t have left Europe.  The colonists wouldn’t have been inspired to rebel.  The Colonial Army wouldn’t have fought so hard.  The North wouldn’t have kicked ass against the South.  There would not have been a reason for the American troops to storm the beaches of Normandy.  Oliver Brown would never have stood up to the Board of Education of Topeka.  If everyone agreed, we would be little more than warm-blooded robots, Stepfords, or Kool-Aid drinkers in line for a cup.

I understand and greatly promote tolerance.  I teach kids to understand that someone who is gay isn’t chasing them, so there’s no need to run away, and that being gay isn’t a choice, and that those who are gay are not as scary as Boy George.  I teach them to understand that the only difference between black, white, Asian, Mid-eastern, Hispanic, and others is that we’ve got different amounts of melanin, languages spoken, and shapes of noses.  I also teach that the only differences between most religions are what our Supreme Being looks like and whether or not to embrace or kill those with a different idea of peace.  There are some disagreements that we must tolerate, but we don’t have to tolerate everything.

One of my more simple disagreements was with a good friend on Facebook.  He had posted something to the effect that he does not, nor should anyone, ever judge others.  I replied by wondering, “What’s wrong with judging someone who assaults women or beats children?”  He responded very coldly as if I had insulted him, and it escalated into a tennis session of not-so-nice messages.  In one reply he said that I was writing mean comments and making myself “look bad.”  I couldn’t help but answer that it was rather ironic to have someone make the judgment that I was making myself look bad by judging others.  Once I pointed that out, the discussion stopped, and just maybe the friend realized his error.

Another friend, in the same week, also wrote about how wrong it is to judge others.  I answered by saying that everyone judges others.  Every time we think about how someone should have done something differently or how we would never do what they have done, we are judging, and that’s okay because judging is also learning.  If a friend is struggling with finances, comes into some extra cash, and blows it all on a birthday party for himself, then I’m going to judge them as irresponsible.  I’m also going to learn to come up with an excuse if they ever ask to borrow money.  If a friend’s child acts up in a restaurant, and she responds by slapping the kid in the face, I’m going to judge her as a poor parent.  That judgment will teach me never to ask her to babysit.

Where judgment goes too far is when we broadcast our thoughts the wrong way.  For several years I’ve been contributing my writing and photography to a literary website.  For years this site has had space for people to leave comments about others’ writing right after each story.  Most people left rather innocuous and useless comments like, “Great job.  Nice story.  Loved your poem.”  I however chose a more practical route, with comments like, “Question mark needs to be inside the quotes.  That’s an adverb, not an adjective.  You need a comma there, not a semicolon.”  Practical and useful comments, in my opinion, are much more valuable than a comment like, “Great story.”

Other writers, not usually the author of the piece for which I had made the comments, were not happy with me.  At first the response to my comments went like this:  “Who are you to tell anyone how to write?  To which I would reply, “I’ve taught English for over 20 years, and I probably know more about language and grammar than anyone you will ever meet.  I’m not bragging.  It’s just a fact.”  To which they would reply with great hatred, spewing insults, accusations, profanity, and a lot of not-niceness.  They would tell me that my comments were cruel and inappropriate.  No matter how much I tried to show them that I very politely showed them their errors, their hatred had gone down a road of no return.  It was like trying to argue with a staunch Right-wing Republican who accused you of liberalism in a debate, despite your record to the contrary, but he’s forced you to spend your allotted time defending against what did not exist.  I dared and challenged any of them to show me one negative word directed toward any of those writers, but they had already convinced themselves that I was guilty and had no intention of proving themselves wrong.  I had also made the assumption that writers on this particular website were going to eventually submit their work for higher publication, such as something in print, which is a little more prestigious than a website.  If they submit their work, more precise grammar and language will definitely make a better presentation.

Sometimes, like it or not, people – all of us – are wrong, and it is perfectly okay to point it out – politely.  We don’t have to accept kids with “creative spelling,” and you are not entitled to your opinion when you misuse a semicolon.  Wrong is sometimes wrong.  You can invoke the “opinion” clause when you choose either “lightly” or “softly” to describe snowfall in a poem, but your opinion is meaningless when you incorrectly punctuate a compound sentence.  I don’t hesitate to – politely – point out errors in one’s writing for two reasons.  First, I want to protect them from someone who might read that writing and think, “Oh, does this writer know how to punctuate correctly?”  Second, many people, including principals and superintendents, ask me to proofread their work.  I’ll offer to show them not only the corrections but WHY I made those corrections.  They show no interest, other than having a better essay.  They don’t understand that if I show them the rules behind a particular error, then there’s a good chance they won’t make that error the next time.

At work recently I had a “disagreement” with someone who outranks me.  She told me I was “defiant and sarcastic.”  No I wasn’t.  I was disagreeing.  However, when one person outranks the other in a disagreement, you can end up being both right and unemployed.

5 thoughts on “– The Lost Art of Disagreement

  1. …and you are not entitled to your opinion when you misuse a semicolon..
    I got to this statement and thought to myself what a bunch of crap comment to make. Who are you to say someone isn’t “entitled to an opinion” just because they misused a semi-colon? Are you the “writing police” just because you are an English teacher for 20 years? That doesnt give you the right..maybe someone that does something “other” than English really doesnt care where he puts his semi-colon. I understand the English launguage has gone a bit south but still no reason to come off as a big time snob know-it-all. No wonder you are “disagreeing” with everyone. You should be thankful for the “Good Story” just as much as “Practical and Useful” comments. Regardless of where, when or if they use a semi-colon!
    I’m sure you will find something to nitpick, critique and “disagree with” with this comment.

  2. no no no. i didn’t say that if you ever misuse a semicolon, you have then lost your right to ever have an opinion. what i said was that there are rules as to when you can and cannot use a semicolon. there are no “opinions” allowed on when you can or can’t use a semicolon. some people think you can use a semicolon the same way you use a comma. it’s not true, and it’s not an opinion.

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