The Value of Conflict or In Defense of Opposition

Author’s Note: It seems I’ve fully given in to my philosophical tendencies with today’s post, so I hope you’ll forgive me. While I typically like to keep things here focused on questions about the narrative arts, and writing in particular, I have been reading a lot of the great philosophers as of late, and I guess it was only a matter of time before I felt the need to express some of those ideas divorced from any discussion of art.

So often do we forget the many pleasures life offers us. When we listen to music, whether a rock song or a symphony, we leave it on as background noise, something to cloud the outside world so that it becomes a little less distracting, a little less distinct. We ignore the beauty of a sunrise. We read a book to find meaning rather than to appreciate the charm and magic of the prose. These are simple things, little things, all as valuable as those greater pursuits we strive toward. Yet there is a dark side to anything human. As Aristotle demonstrates in his concept of the golden mean, there are two sides to every coin, an excess and a deficiency. In today’s world, and maybe since philosophers began philosophizing, there is one virtue that seems fundamentally misunderstood: conflict. Any sign of nuance or consideration is tossed aside for unequivocal damnation, especially when it comes to violence and aggression. We act as though, through sheer willpower (and activism) alone, we can frolic in the meadows hand-in-hand, all of us, committed to a peaceful cohabitation. It is a nice ideal to strive for, a utopian paradise, one that is kinder, gentler, and better overall than the world we have and have had in any time before us. That does not mean it will ever happen. And though I’m not fond of shutting down possibilities—it is, after all, theoretically possible—it is very, very unlikely. Such ideals fail to recognize the benefits of conflict and its myriad manifestations.

It typically starts with offense, conflict’s instigator. We are all prone to take offense with some idea or another. Sometimes the offense is benign, a simple statement of preference—I’m a vegan, I’m a creationist, I’m a smoker—which causes the listener to create a conflict. This is probably a matter of projection more than anything, where the very admission makes us question our own assumptions about the way we live our lives. This type of offense mostly stems from misunderstanding more than anything else, and it would be easy to dismiss this as unworthy of our attention. I disagree, however, since such statements make us dwell on our own ideas and offer some kind of defense. This is worthwhile indeed. If we are going to believe in anything, those beliefs should hold up to scrutiny. They shouldn’t, if we believe in them strongly, crumble at the first sign of opposition.

I’ll give you an example. When I was younger, I didn’t think that prostitution should be legal. What my reasons were, I did not know, and if you asked me, I would have probably explained that it just was or some other form of circular reasoning. It wasn’t until, late one night, I saw one of those panel-driven talk shows did I realize how arbitrary my ideas were. The panel was discussing prostitution and its illegality, when one of the comic’s said that she believed that there was no reason for such a legal imposition on women’s choices. She said that if a person wanted to, they should, and that, furthermore, this would afford those people access to basic modern necessities like healthcare. I was, at first, dismayed by her comments, offended even, just because the comic stated her opinion, but when I listened to her reasoning, I quickly changed my position. Her reasoning, to me, was quite sound, and I couldn’t think of any cause to dismiss her. It made me realize that my ideas where based on nothing, that they couldn’t be assumed but must be considered. The conflict here was small, but it’s effects were infinitely enriching. Conflict made me better, smarter, and most of all, more empathetic.

Now there are, of course, willful acts of conflict, times when offense is properly given, when the speaker makes an attack intending to hurt. I know I’ve done it, and I have no doubt that you have done it as well. We say things like “People who eat meat deserve to die” or “I hate such-and-such.” These statements are explicitly designed to judge, to belittle, to exert power or mastery. I would even say that these admissions are not necessarily bad, merely an expression of resentment for some slight, real or imagined. It is a reasonable thing to do, especially when you meet someone who embodies those things you hate. However, it is not necessarily conducive to a productive and stimulating dialogue. It causes the discourse to stall, as name calling begets name calling, but what happens afterward? Sometimes, we entrench ourselves further and confine ourselves to others who subscribe to our beliefs, which allows us to avoid any more conflict. This is, overall, a bad thing as an echo chamber does little to identify solutions, but I don’t think it wholly bespeaks the possibilities. We are going to find points of disagreement, always, even with those inclined to agree. We could go on shutting out others until we are as lonely as can be, alone with ourselves, trapped in our own minds. Few, if any, I would think, would allow things to get so bad. More likely, there will come that epiphany, that visionary moment, when we recognize that our ideas must be tested, that we must fight back on equal footing, not through name calling or other acts of pettiness, but through reason. We can consider those flaws that others point out. Even the pettiness helps us to get better. We set out to find answers to prove the other wrong. Sometimes, we discover that our ideas are arbitrary; other times, we learn how to fix them, to fortify them. That, I would say, is a worthwhile endeavor. We need opposition. We need to suffer. This is what allows us to grow.

But what of violence, what of aggression? How can we rationalize something so irrational? We assume that ideas can only be defended and tested by reason alone, that they must, when brought up against opposition, seek the better way. Why? We assume that everyone can be swayed to rationality, but is everyone so capable? Think about how many times you’ve been in a situation when some tough guy decides you or someone around him has caused him offense. Maybe you spilled a drink on him accidentally. Maybe you bumped into him because the crowd was so thick, and everyone was so rambunctious. Maybe he just didn’t like the way you looked at him. He invariably starts to shout or maybe even push you. What should you do? What do you do? You probably walk away. That’s the right thing to do, after all—isn’t it? You choose to diffuse the situation, robbing him of his victory. You’re the bigger man. Or are you? Aren’t you also submitting to his will? Aren’t also you letting him dictate your actions, however small they may be? Your choice to be non-confrontational is submission, and the balance of power clearly shifts in his favor. He’s allowed to continue along unchecked. But what if you strike back? What if, when he pushes you, you knock him cold? Doesn’t that have a beneficial side effect too? I think it does. He may have to reconsider his own behavior, worried that people exist that are not so quick to fold, or he may shoot up more steroids and hit the gym a little harder. Regardless, of the consequences, he is improved. And if you run into him again, he may be more apologetic, but just as possible, he may return stronger. It is those simple verbal slights, those disagreements we have everyday, made physical.

Now, this isn’t an endorsement to start bar-fights, even if in the name of self-improvement. There are, of course, other factors to consider, especially somewhere crowded: This is collateral damage. We have to recognize when and where to engage as much as what type of engagement is necessary. Of course, collateral damage is unavoidable, especially in today’s mechanized world of assault rifles and nuclear bombs. But each opportunity presented to us should be carefully scrutinized, especially when those horrific side effects can be minimized. These situations dictate our recourse and must be judged from moment to moment. But again, there is a clear benefit. The bully, the tyrant, the asshole comes in many forms, and when we engage them, we are granted a chance for reflection in the aftermath. We can recognize the flaws in our tactics, the people who we hurt by accident, the amount of force applied. Sometimes, this is enormously regrettable, horrible in fact, when we go too far, but sometimes, it is not enough, for we played things too safe and only made matters worse. And on the rarest occasions, we have weighed our options equally and met the threat with that golden mean of conflict. However, the biggest mistake we can make is to avoid the conflict altogether. If you want to change something, you have to resist. Passivity is just as bad as the barroom bully.

It is all a matter of judgement, of what tool is appropriate. Violence isn’t always the answer. That much should be obvious. But we shouldn’t take anything off the table in regards to meeting opposition. Conflict is necessary for progress, however slow and non-linear it may be. We learn through conflict how to conduct ourselves. We discover that golden mean in imposing our own will, in wielding our own power. When the American colonies revolted against Great Britain, they met force with force. When Socrates saw a man in the market claiming this or that, he struck back with reason. These conflicts make us better and worse. Every action has side effects, and it’s nice to think that logos will always win out. Unfortunately, as long as evil exists (and evil people, as rare as they may be), the pathos of violence will always have a place in our repertoire.

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