Argument as Struggle?

Robbie Gringras
November 22, 2022

At the moment, in the majority of the argument circles I have been present at, I have not noticed many arguments. That is, I have not noticed anyone getting emotional, and where there have been disagreements they have been terribly civil.

This may be a good thing or a bad thing. Or another thing.

Is it a good thing?

It might be a good thing, in that it confirms much of what we learn from the literature about healthy arguments. Researchers are telling us that the more interlocutors are primed about complexity, and address the complexities of their disagreement, the less likely it is that they will end up in a screaming match. Ian Leslie’s book “Conflicted” is big on this idea, for example.

Similarly, the theoretical language of Michael Walzer suggests that conflicts over what he calls “thin ideas” – pure expressions of values or ideals – are likely to lead to fights. But as soon as we address these ideas in their “thick expressions” – the ideals or values played out in the messiness of the real world – then the complexities can lead to more considered tones.

And our stories do live in the complexities. In writing them we deliberately took two values (thin ideas), and sought to find how they might clash in the real world (thick expressions). The argument circles are specifically tasked with addressing the dilemma of the characters in the thick of their challenge, and not to “zoom out” into a valuation of the opposing thin ideas. If this leads to fewer fights, then that means our stories are working!

On the other hand, it might be a bad thing.

Is it a bad thing?

It might be that in presenting real human dilemmas in fictional form, and asking folks to discuss them, we are making the entire process too “safe”. Since the characters are not real, their dilemmas can be viewed with some detachment. Through this detached examination of a fictional situation, participants may be left untouched, disinterested in the dilemma, and so might not learn anything about arguments that are important to them.

They have interesting conversations about the stories. It might be that these stories are a successful way to educate about Israel’s complexities. But they do not also educate about how to engage in passionate constructive disagreement.

Is it something else?

But on the third hand, this might be something else.

In a fascinating conversation with Dr Sivan Zakai, we began to explore the possibility that an “argument” might not only be going on between the participants in the argument circle. There might be an“argument” between a participant and a character in the story. “I didn’t have a disagreement with anyone in my group, but boy was I fuming at the narrator!” It might happen between a participant and us, the authors of the story. “I didn’t have a disagreement with someone else, but if you had been in the room, then we would have exchanged words!” It might even happen between a participant and the given situation of the story. “I don’t know if she should or shouldn’t vote, but I’m so frustrated with the electoral system that forces her into such choices!”

These are, of course, not arguments as we’d originally expected them. Primarily because they are not spoken out loud, and even if they are, they receive no reply. This might be something else altogether, but it might also be related to what we are aiming for. We might say that an argument is a struggle expressed in words. And in that sense, sometimes the stories elicit silent struggles that we need to give space for. It might be that a crucial debrief question would ask not “Did you argue?”, or “How did you argue?” but rather “With whom did you argue? With a fellow participant? With a character in the story? With the author? With the setting of the story? With…yourself?”

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