Thursday, June 6, 2013

Right or Reasonable?

Certain kinds of conversations with certain kinds of friends always, inevitably, take a turn for the worse. Declamation meets counter-declamation, opinions get shrill and arguments out of hand. Sometimes it seems like the only way to close the discussion while keeping one's own, and everyone else's dignities intact, is to pass around a plate of something to eat - or - much simpler - slink away. 

The quotable quotes cottage industry will furnish us with many cliches and homilies that attest to the power of  dialogue. The ideal conversational exchange opens us up to different points of view and new information. There is give and take and participants walk away, somehow enriched. The assumption being that once opposing or at least differing opinions have been pronounced and facts stated, having done each other the courtesy of actually listening, people will absorb what's been said, re-evaluate their position and potentially  (the chances are slim but never say never) re-state it. 

But some of us travel the world with imaginary soap-boxes tucked under our arms. We have made up our minds, we know where we stand, the ground is firm beneath our feet. It's more important to have our say than to be swayed, to find a version of the truth and stick to it even in the light of conflicting data. Consistency is key. Conversation is combat.  

And what about those who never enter the lists? The ones who are receptive, flexible, adapt to the tides of informational and conversational flow, understand that a particular position is not permanently tenable? The ones who are being reasonable? The non combatants, as it were? Do they simply lack conviction? Is being reasonable an act of conversational cowardice? 

It can seem that way. After all, what kind of person simply changes their mind, particularly in the light of another's rhetoric and argument? 

Being reasonable, looking at an issue from multiple angles and arriving at a supposed ideological middle ground is, for some people, a cop out. It negates the need for constants and absolutes and insulates them from the agitation, anger and despair that accompany moral and intellectual certainty and of which change  can be born. But being reasonable is also perhaps a logical response to the profusion of isms, the many persecutions, the plurality of perspectives that are coming to define the world we inhabit. For one version of any story, there are several others, all competing for validity and voice. Is it really possible to be consistent when many narratives - equally compelling - come to light? Is the reasonable person looking for a way to be hopeful? Is being reasonable an empathetic response to the fact that sometimes, there's no privileging one kind of pain over another? 

The way things are, it's easy to  erect the scaffolding of a particular argument and build, build, build. It takes a certain courage to acknowledge and work with the complexities and realities of our world; to be consistently - and not conveniently - consistent.  

Opinions rock the boat, being reasonable brings us back on - a slightly altered - course. Ideologues take us to the brink, negotiators bring us two steps back and one step forward. In thinking about change unreasonable people use the world as it should be as a starting point. Reasonable people start with the world as it is. They are both architects of different kinds of change - big and incremental - the team we vote for depends entirely on the kind of change we believe we need. Which says something about us. 

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