A Brief Guide ~ The Imaginative Conservative

The fault of polarization is not in our stars or even our social media constellation of follows and followers. It is, alas, in ourselves. Rather than give people advice about “civil discourse” or “ways to have productive conversations leading to truth”—which might well produce peace, some shared knowledge, or even humility—I want to help Imaginative Conservative readers avoid all that arguing and get down to good, old-fashioned quarreling.

Social media, it is often said, has polarized our country. It’s not exactly false. Neither is it exactly true. Social media amplifies our arguments by allowing nearly immediate large-scale distribution of attacks, counterattacks, and all the heckling commentary you could want. And because people like a good brawl rather than a point-by-point consideration of the truth, the nastier the comments or memes, the more viral they will go. For those who want to be in the public eye, this provides an incentive for the vile and the bilious, who can get their own accounts noticed quickly. This incentive has been here through all of history, but with each technological leap, it becomes more democratic.

There are other aspects of the social media question, but I’m still not convinced that social media causes polarization so much as it amplifies and exacerbates it. The long tradition of angry exchanges, whether in print or out loud, in public or in private, is a persistent pattern no doubt since Adam and Eve stomped out of Eden arguing about who was really at fault about that rotten-apple salesman and why they had to move across the tracks.

The fault of polarization is not in our stars or even our social media constellation of follows and followers. It is, alas, in ourselves. It seems to have two origins. First, all too many do not know how one would even proceed to argue about a subject rather than just owning, roasting, sick-burning, or trolling those with whom they disagree. Chesterton thought that this lack of knowledge was the problem, writing in a 1929 essay: “People generally quarrel because they cannot argue. And it is extraordinary to notice how few people in the modern world can argue. This is why there are so many quarrels, breaking out again and again, and never coming to any natural end.”

I think Chesterton is right about that. Skills for explicit argumentation have never been very widely distributed in the human population. Alas, today, when we have a surfeit of credentials and educational trophies but precious little education itself, even those who get paid to write or think for a living will often be reduced to the use of words of four letters and tu mama quoque’s.

But, to be honest, there is another aspect to all this. For we all, alas, share in what Augustine called the libido dominandi, or lust for domination, that overwhelms our “insatiable human desire,” as Augustine’s intellectual model Cicero said, “to know the truth.” Better we own the libs or cons or in-laws or colleagues or whomever we are engaging than that we come off looking as though we lost the conversation. When the legend becomes useful as a club but the truth is so-so, print the legend. In conversation, correspondence, and the comment boxes, all too many of us follow neither Cicero nor Augustine. Instead we follow Henry Russell “Red” Sanders, the mid-twentieth-century UCLA football coach who opined, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

Of course, who am I to argue with a man who posted a 102-41-3 overall NCAA head coaching record while leading UCLA to four top-ten rankings, two Rose Bowls, and a 6-3 record against USC?

Did you ever see Cicero and Augustine in the Rose Bowl? I didn’t think so.

So rather than give people advice about “civil discourse” or “logic for public disputes” or “ways to have productive conversations leading to the truth,” which might well produce peace, some shared knowledge, or even humility—but will not guarantee that you rest easy either in going viral or in the feeling of domination of others!—I want to help Imaginative Conservative readers avoid all that arguing and get down to quarreling. Might may not make right, but as a song of my childhood put it with regard to illicit carnal delectation, so too kicking verbal patootie and taking names: “How can this be wrong when it feels so right?” Thus, with a brief assist from a recent social media encounter with a classic religious type of quarreler, here is my brief guide to helping readers keep on keeping on quarreling!

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First, some pre-quarreling advice. Quarreling requires somebody who cares enough to quarrel. You can’t always get that when people know you and have learned to respond, “Whatever, Bob.” So, you’ll want to find some people with whom to quarrel and establish the preconditions for battle. That’s what this guy did.

Step 0.1: Irritate people with premature familiarity!

Boomer Catholic (not his real name) contacted me via one of the major social media platforms. A one-time postulant in a religious order who had spent a long time doing honest work in the business world, he had now jumped back into an online theology program in middle-age. The signs of a guy who would be great at quarreling were there immediately. Without knowing me at all, he was immediately very chummy, bypassing any of the formality that one might expect from a correspondence with someone of whom one has never heard until ten minutes ago. This was a good start because while familiarity can breed contempt, it does so almost instantly when produced in less than an hour.

Step 0.2: Establish that you are not just equal but better!

A good quarreler gets close enough to quarrel by literally or virtually wrapping his arm around your shoulder and engaging in close-talking. But that’s not all. A good quarreler will set things up by whispering in your ear or direct-messaging you with the intimation that he and you are on the same level—and perhaps he’s one step up. “Did you know Fr. So-and-so?” he asked me of a fairly well-known priest with whom I had a connection. “Yes,” I answered. He was a friend of mine. Instead of talking about this mutual connection, he immediately messaged me to inquire whether I knew another semi-well-known priest, whose location and activity would give no reason for assuming I had anything to do with him. “No,” I answered. That did it. Boomer now wrote me a note about how wonderful this priest was and all of his connections. It reminded me of Clare Boothe Luce, of whose perpetual schmoozing with bishops and references to them in ordinary conversation it was said that she didn’t so much come into communion with the Catholic Church as that she joined the hierarchy. For Boomer, it was a classic move, for it established that even though I have a Ph.D. and teach Catholic theology, Boomer is really the one who inhabits the papist inner ring. To have a good quarrel, it’s good to signal ahead of time that though all Catholics are equal, some are more equal than others.

This kind of pre-quarreling type behavior sets things up nicely for real quarreling. It’s not quite obnoxious enough to make people you’re interacting with flee, but it sets them nicely on edge. Boomer made a few comments on posts over the next few days. I did the perfunctory “liking” of his comments, which does not mean I am signing on to them, but that they at least made sense. But it was only a matter of time till he got a chance to initiate a real quarrel. His opportunity came when I posted an article about a well-known figure who had come back to Catholic faith after a prodigal youth and early middle age. His testimony was that certain older Catholic rites, officially but controversially reformed after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), have been of much greater assistance to him than the newer versions. This was Boomer’s moment. With the preface, “On the other hand. . . ,” he then linked to an article by a well-known scholar defending the success of the reforms in question. Actually, the scholar was responding to criticisms of an earlier article of hers defending them. The criticisms to which she was responding were made by a scholar who knows a great deal more than she about the topic in question and who had pointed out that her arguments really hadn’t taken into account a great deal of research on the topics that, had she read any of it, would no doubt have substantially changed what she had confidently argued.

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Step 1: Carefully begin with what looks like an argument

Putting something out there about which to quarrel is essential, but if you suspect the other person might not respond, it’s important to make it look as though you’re really going to argue. After reading the article Boomer had linked, I observed that though she made some good points, my judgment was that she really had not successfully responded to the earlier criticisms. This was enough to set him into motion. Boomer immediately launched into a couple of one-liner summations of arguments from the article he’d linked along with the line, “That’s hardly a win for [theologian who criticized his author].” This is very good bait because summarizing complex changes in ritual behavior with very simplistic arguments and then a pat answer gives the appearance that you want to argue about specific points of the argument.

Step 2: Carefully avoid actually responding to arguments

Fool that I am, I wrote out a couple hundred words to explain why the pat arguments he’d put forward in about 8 words really aren’t very good and don’t even address the points with which we started. A good quarreler may throw out an argument, but he will never respond to argument in return. He will never say, “You are right,” “I need to think about that,” or “I never considered it from this point of view.” Instead, a quarreler will shift the ground of the argument from the topic at hand to claims of authority: his and others, usually both in a convoluted form.

Step 3: the authority of somebody else’s personal experience

In addition to the replies to his arguments, I also addressed something that I thought could be dispensed with easily, namely his appeal to the authority of his parents, who apparently told him “life is much better” with the new rituals. I observed that I was glad his parents were doing well and agreed their response represented some part of the Catholic population of the time; however, their particular experience was no answer to the claim that the new rituals did not appear to appeal to the vast majority of Catholics today—nor to the point that adoption of the changes did not spur a deeper faith in Christ or the teachings of the Catholic Church in the following years. In fact, I pointed out, a well-known priest who did not agree with my points asked the same question in the comment box of the article Boomer had linked: why, if these reforms were necessary to reach modern man, did so few modern men or women respond to them? And why do the ones who remain Catholic in some fashion actually believe in the Catholic teachings at such low levels?

Step 4: Double down on appeals to authority—this time with somebody the other person has heard of

Did Boomer respond to this question? No, he assiduously followed step 2: never respond to arguments. Instead, he doubled down, telling me that he himself had sent the article to the priest in the comment box. And further, they had gone to seminary together. So instead of responding to the question the priest and I had asked, he informed me how close he was to this well-known priest—did I not know that Boomer was in the inner ring?—and said that the priest disagreed with me about the bigger question of the reforms. Of course, I knew that, which was why I had cited the priest’s question. If somebody who disagrees with you on the big point nevertheless sees a problem, you cite that person. Well, you do if you are arguing. Which is precisely why Boomer had to ignore the priest’s question and focus on his own closeness to the priest.

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Step 5: Triple down on authority—and change the subject to something extremely broad

When I pointed out that Boomer’s famous priest was asking the same question as I, he reverted to the authority of his parents—and asserted that I could have no such authority because, “You don’t have older relatives that grew up pre-Vatican II and experienced the downright Pharisaism and legalism rampant in those days.” Again, a confused appeal to authority—his authority was greater because he had older relatives and I am a mere adult convert. It was ridiculous. First, because an appeal to authority did not address the question at hand (as I had already noted). Second, even if knowing the views of older Catholics were relevant, Boomer had not cornered the market. As if I had never talked to older Catholics of all opinions in my 25 years as a Catholic. But the appeal to authority was good for quarreling because, like the appeal to his knowledge of famous priests, it is the kind of thing to basically shut people up and make them feel as though they can’t speak.

Step 6: Attack the motives!

Appeals to authority are fun when people respond to them with awe. “Gee, you knew Reagan?” “Your family were on the Mayflower?” “Your uncle was a bishop?” But when people don’t bow down to them, it’s time to really get things going with a solid but snide attack on motives. Politically, this often means an accusation that you are a “hater” or somesuch. Pious people, however, are very good at digging the knife in, too. When I responded that Pharisaism and legalism were no less rampant today, but that other problems were too, the response was, “I pick Apollos” with that emoji of a confused face. For those not familiar with the reference, this is from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In that epistle, Paul appeals to factionalists in the Corinthian Church who have been setting themselves up as followers of Paul, Apollos, or Peter—and not focusing on Christ. Boomer, you see, was not-very-subtly accusing me of choosing to follow humans rather than Christ. It’s always good to sound pious when you are sticking daggers in somebody.

Step 7:  Deny everything and move on

Being an expert quarreler means never having to say you’re sorry. When I wrote to Boomer to say that if he wanted to argue in the future, he would have to knock off the accusations of factionalism and stick to the subject, he replied that I “completely misunderstood” and was a “bit of a hothead.” “Bye,” he wrote, and ended, thank God, our connection. This was great style and makes for a long career of quarreling. If you never admit anything and break the connection, you can move on to somebody else and continue feeling that you’ve “won.” How dare people object when you attack their motives!

There are of course subtleties to this art of quarreling that I have not explained, but this how-to guide will help you keep your quarreling skills in very good shape. And by doing that, you’ll avoid any real arguments. Arguing is hard while quarreling is easy—and you’ll never really lose. Best of all, you’ll likely never learn anything, which is great, too, because we all know that ignorance is bliss.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now. 

The featured image is “Two fishermen conversing” (1880) by Carl Bloch, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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