Many, many years ago, after an extended argument on a ZD thread in which people complained about the contentious turn that a particular discussion had taken, a commenter opined that this was nothing, and we should visit a particular male-dominated blog known for endless debate to see what “real robust challenge” looked like. I was annoyed, of course, by the subtext that the (often female) participants at ZD couldn’t handle “real” debate. But the question I really wanted to ask (but didn’t, because the conversation was going nowhere fast), was something like this: what exactly constitutes “real robust challenge?” Which of the following is more challenging, I wondered at the time: to not back down in the face of vehement intellectual disagreement and participate at length in the back-and-forth of an endless comment thread in which no one changes their mind a whit—or to make an effort to actually listen to and understand what someone is saying, even and especially if it’s not an easy thing for you to hear and perhaps makes you a bit uncomfortable? Which of those involves more risk? Which of these requires more strength? I will certainly concede that it takes a certain amount of confidence and skill to hold one’s own in an intense debate, and I think those are worthwhile attributes. But I wouldn’t mistake them for strength. I think we’re all familiar with blog participants who never ever back down, never walk away, and always have to have the last word. They can be a nightmare if you’re trying to engage in any kind of comment management or moderation, because such people will cheerfully hijack a thread with their very strong opinions about basically everything and drive it as fast as possible toward the nearest cliff. This actually hasn’t happened in a long time, especially as our blog has slowed down over the years, but in the old days when I would load ZD and see that over half of the recent comments were from the same person (and that person was not one of the ZD permabloggers), my heart would just sink, because there are certain participants who will never just let a discussion go. I have to wonder whether they would see doing so as a sign of weakness.
But for all their tenacity, I don’t particularly admire those people; I find them more exasperating than anything else. The people on the bloggernacle I do in fact admire, by contrast, are those who at least occasionally demonstrate that they are actually interested in hearing and understanding what those who disagree with them have to say, and not only in proving them wrong. (Alas, I fear I’m not one of these people very often.) But now we’re talking about something hard. Now we’re talking about genuine challenge of the sort that really requires something of you. In a similar vein, I have so much respect for people who may write heated things in the moment but then cool off and apologize and demonstrate some ability to critically reflect on their own behavior. To this day I remember an instance years ago in which a commenter at BCC came back to the site of an intense and not very charitable debate and said that he wasn’t living up to his own ideals of how a Christian should act, and very sincerely apologized. (His interlocutor, if I’m remembering this correctly, used the occasion to—in a remarkably tone-deaf manner—declare victory for his viewpoint. Sigh.)
I also have mad respect for people who manage to seriously consider and take in new information and alternative opinions, and even go so far as to occasionally change their mind about a previously held viewpoint in light of them. I had a conversation about this on my Facebook wall the other day, and someone made the very astute point that reading discussions can in some ways be more valuable than participating in them, at least in terms of getting you to consider new ideas. Because when you’re personally involved in an argument, the tendency is to dig in your heels and double down on your position, and become even more closed off to anything that might challenge it. That’s the dynamic that has usually governed my participation in blogging arguments over the years, I have to admit. So often in such situations I find myself not really trying to listen to or learn from anyone, but rather in a defensive mode, almost entirely focused on defending the rightness and legitimacy of my views. And I will say that there are positions about which I very feel strongly (like the dignity and worth of all humans, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, etc.) and I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to say that in some instances I’m simply not going to compromise or even seriously entertain challenges. But there are also times in which I’m not actually sure what I think about something, and I find myself arguing about it in a way that hardens my commitment to a position I’m not sure I even one hundred accept, if I stop and think about it. There are times when speaking your truth and defending it against all comers might be a genuine sign of strength. But so often, I think, strength worthy of respect is to be found in being open, in really listening to others, and in knowing when to let go and walk away.