instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Note to self
Win an argument, lose a soul. -- Servant of God Fulton Sheen

Disagreement is not an easy thing to reach. -- John Courtney Murray, SJ

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. -- Inigo Montoya
Discussion on the "moral equivalence" charge, here and at Catholic and Enjoying It!, has again brought home to me how hard it is to engage in a fruitful dispute.

The difficulties begin with the fact that participants -- especially self-selected participants in Internet forums -- so often approach the exchange with radically different goals. They can, I suppose, be roughly divided into competitive goals and cooperative goals. Competitive goals include counting coup, crushing an opponent, and getting the final word. Cooperative goals include getting everyone to be nice, or to reach uniform agreement, or to agree to disagree.

Some of these goals can be accomplished by a participant regardless of what other participants do. If my goal is to state my position forcefully and clearly, or to mock another participant, I can meet my goal and consider the exchange a success. Other goals -- complete surrender, for example, or a good time had by all -- require something from others.

Difficulties are compounded by the differences in communication style, experience, background, intelligence, preconceptions, and all the rest of the list we're familiar with. Even the old hands who have piloted through Internet conversations for years can strike unexpected shoals, through inattention or inadvertently pressing someone's hot button or just having a bad day.

As I say, this is all again brought home to me. What's new this time is this accompanying thought:

I need to keep a close eye on my own goals, judging them both on their inherent value and on their achievability. If they aren't worth achieving, I shouldn't bother with them. If they are worthwhile, I need to make sure I'm acting in a way that might possibly achieve them. And I need to revisit these questions frequently, because goals have a way of changing as a conversation evolves.