On Opinions and Disagreement

I’ve been thinking lately about opinions. Okay, okay; I’m always thinking about opinions, and I have plenty of them, just like anybody else does. But lately I’ve been thinking about how things go when people have different opinions.

It seems like a no-brainer that not everyone would always have the same opinions, and a further no-brainer that this is okay. To me, it’s always seemed equally obvious that people should feel free to talk about their opinions, including their differences, with each other. I’ve always found it to be desirable and usually even enjoyable. I almost always grow from engaging in a discussion of opinion with someone who feels differently about a subject than I do: I learn new perspectives, question my own beliefs, consider assumptions, rethink givens I’ve never thought to doubt or research more fully, and learn there is always room to grow.

Of course, how that discourse takes place is relevant as well. As Stephanie was touching upon last month, there’s a difference between saying “I feel differently” or “I don’t like pink” or “Man, everybody should be able to drive a stick shift car!” and saying “You’re stupid because you don’t agree with me,” or “Pink is for sissies,” or “Anybody who can’t drive stick is obviously a drooling mouth-breather who probably also lacks the capacity to tie her own shoes.”

But then again, you also have to consider context. Let’s face it: every single one of us has likely referred to somebody or another as being so dumb he couldn’t pour… liquid… out of a boot with instructions printed on the heel. Maybe we’ve said it to his face; maybe we said it behind his back to our closest confidantes. Maybe we got off the phone after a marathon tech support call and announced it to all of our cow-orkers, then anonymized the guy and posted about it publicly. Many of us have may even made such pronouncements about a non-anonymous person in varying degrees of being on the record. And in many, many of those cases, little or no harm is done at all, because everybody is aware of the context in which things get said.

Here’s an example — the example that spawned this whole post, actually. My friend The Redhead and I were talking about spinning a very fine silk thread, and I said “I’d totally do that with a spindle,” and she said, “You’re crazy, and to heck with that idea.”

You see, she doesn’t like spinning with spindles. In fact, she could be said to hate it with the fire of a thousand white-hot suns. In the 5 or 6 years I’ve known her, to my knowledge, she has spun exactly one spindle-spun yarn (and she hated doing it, and complained about it publicly the whole time, which is her right). It doesn’t matter what kind of spindle it is, what kind of fiber it is, or anything like that — she just hates spinning with spindles. She hates it, even though she loves to spin super-fine yarn, and spindles are fabulous for that.

So, if she were to say “Abby, your spindles are utter trash, totally useless, and there is no way I’d ever use one,” then I, knowing her loathing of spindles on the whole, am readily able to laugh and say, “Honey, you say that about every spindle you’ve ever touched, because you’re Little Miss Loves-Her-Wheel and you just can’t hang with spindle spinning.” And then she might say “Oh, this from the chick who refused to use a top whorl until there was a point to be proven!” and I might fire back with “If you could be bothered to practice, you’d probably actually be able to spin with a spindle,” and she might counter with “If I were going to practice, it wouldn’t be on one of your dowel-and-a-drawer-pull el cheapo pieces of crap,” at which point I’d say … well, I don’t know. But the point I’m trying to make here is that she and I can differ dramatically in our opinions, know each other’s opinions, and have no fear whatsoever about discussing those differences, even to the point of stating things in ways that, lacking context and familiarity, probably seem pretty nasty.

The truth, however, is that she and I have tremendous respect for each other. We also like each other. We’re the kind of friends who know we have differences of opinion, and we’ll argue those with each other — passionately, vigorously, brutally and, ultimately, lovingly. Why? Because we know we can, for one thing. For another, every once in a while, it turns out the other person has a point. The Redhead, for instance, actually likes that one spindle-spun yarn. And as she once told me, if I’d give good batts a try, I might like them after all.

For both of us, willingness to be challenged has led to growth, and new enjoyment of things we thought we couldn’t enjoy. But on the other hand, sometimes I’ll grant it’s just not worth arguing a point. Take my son, the world’s pickiest eater. I can tell him a hundred different reasons I think he’d probably really, really like fresh cherries if he’d just pop one in his mouth and eat it. I think he’s nuts to stubbornly insist he won’t even try them because he hates fruit. It drives me absolutely crazy that he won’t eat fruit. But the more I argue, cajole, and wheedle, the firmer he becomes in his resolve to not eat fruit. So, fine: that just leaves more cherries for me, and he’ll have to take a multivitamin. And someday (or so I dream), maybe he’ll call me up, a grown man, and say “Mom, why didn’t you tell me I’d like cherries? I can’t believe I missed out on eating them for all these years!”

At which point, I promise I’ll call my mom and tell her she told me so, she was right, I was wrong, and I’m sorry I didn’t listen, and that in fact there was no point to me arguing with my kid about cherries for all those years. But in the meantime, odds are I’ll periodically still try to talk my kid into eating them. And without a doubt, I have all these arguments coming as payback for the years I argued with my own parents; my son is no more stubborn than I ever was. Or am.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that he’ll never like cherries. I personally believe that’s a silly claim for him to make when he hasn’t tried them; he can’t know for sure, y’know? And how can he make sweeping pronouncements like “I just don’t like fruit,” if he refuses to try it? But ultimately, it’s up to him; and if he wants to feel sure of an untried hypothesis to which he’s absolutely committed, well, it’s his life, and he’s entitled to his opinion.

Even if it is stupid.

There, you see? In the course of rambling on through this, lo and behold, there came one of those sweeping pronouncements that I was just saying were ill-considered. I uttered it, in the heat of the moment, and in the context of this whole thing about opinions.

Shifting gears, years and years ago, I moved from doing system administration work to software development work. From the outside looking in, it was all just computer work. But in simple, broad-stroke terms, sysadmins are the folks who have to solve the problems and make it go and deal with whatever needs handling, and do so on the spot, gracefully, fast. Often without having all the information or the set of tools you’d ideally have. Software developers, on the other hand, make the stuff that sysadmins then maintain. Sysadmins are thus often found saying “I can’t believe this thing has to go live right now, when it’s clearly so far from ready for prime time and riddled with problems,” and contending that developers don’t have to live with the long-term consequences of their work. Software developers, meanwhile, argue that sysadmins are too nitpicky, lack vision, and besides, it’s their job to deal with things, and if the sysadmins also wouldn’t just hack at things then maybe principled solutions would be more possible.

Well, anyway, so there I was, new to development, and another developer had made the assertion that the reason a particular thing didn’t work right was my code. “Oh hell no,” I thought, and went to work debugging, troubleshooting, and fixing the problem. I wasn’t going to be one of those developers, after all. Days of this went by, and then finally, in frustration, I said to a colleage, “What am I missing here?”

“You’re missing a fundamental thing,” he said. “You’re willing to entertain the notion that the problem IS in your code.” I was appalled, but my colleague went on. “If someone’s attacking your code,” he said, “the burden of proof should be on him to prove that’s the case. You get a trouble report, believe it’s your fault, own it, and start working on nailing everything down 100% and making certain there’s no way anybody can find fault with your work. That’s not how this works.”

I spent years and years thinking about that conversation. Probably about five years after it took place, I began to understand that one of the things my colleague was pointing out was simply that the other guy was making a claim, without necessarily having done all the due diligence I might have done if I were to make that claim.

A few more years went by, and I realized that not only was it, perhaps, the case that I tended to want to be absolutely positive I was right before making assertions, but that I tended to leave myself wiggle room when making pronouncements — whereas other people didn’t. And instead of reflecting negatively on them for making sweeping statements without 100% certainty, it reflected negatively on me and I came across as sounding unsure. Simply put, other people would say, “The sky is blue,” and I’d say “During the day when it isn’t cloudy, the sky is typically blue.”

My better half says that the one certain test for Franquemont blood is simple: just ask a simple, straightforward question, such as “Would you like chocolate?” Someone without Franquemont blood, he says, will answer “Yes” or “No.” The Franquemont, on the other hand, will say “Chocolate eh? What kind? Would I like it now, or after dinner? Hey, have you heard about the recent suggestions that people might be able to sell things as chocolate that really aren’t? Man, you should have been there that time in Quillabamba when I got that great picture of my sister standing by the cacao tree. You know, the fruit is quite melon-tasting if you eat it fresh…”

Is he right about this? I hate to say it, but… probably. I mean, he kind of has a point. This very paragraph is clearly an example. As is this whole entire post. I don’t think brevity is a Franquemont trait.

To prove it (as if I hadn’t already), I’ve got another anecdote, this one from my mother’s fieldwork for her Ph.D. She had spent weeks and weeks out with one person, collecting plant samples, writing down names for them, identifying them, cataloguing them, and getting his selection of names. Later, she went out again, looking at the same plants with someone else, getting *different* names and suggested uses and so on; part of the point of her research involved sampling what a range of people said about the plants. She’d come home and say “So get this — all the men say the plant huallhua is an aphrodisiac, and the women? They all say it’s a contraceptive!”

“Sounds like the perfect plant,” I remember my father saying. “Everybody should grow it.”

A few weeks later, I was out with the other teenagers, and we were talking about zits. And an older teen told us younger teens “You should put huallhua on that, it’ll clear it right up.” I was absolutely thrilled to be able to share that one with my mother.

Well anyway, one day she came upon her helper, the first source of names, going through her notebook, erasing and changing stuff. “What are you DOING?” she asked him, aghast. “Well,” he told her, “I noticed while we were all out looking at plants yesterday that the guy was giving you the wrong names for things, so I’m fixing it for you.”

It then fell to my mother to explain that part of what she was studying was not just what the plants were called — but the very fact that there was difference of opinion as to what they were called, and what form that took. She needed to know what different people said; she needed lots of sources, and needed to know about the conflict.

So let me try summing this up. Do I think opinions are harmful? Absolutely not. What about disagreement? Nope, I don’t think that’s harmful either. In both cases, I do feel they can be expressed in ways that can cause hurt feelings, or in ways which are threatening. But I think opinions and disagreement, even when vehement, are preferable to stifling silence or outright dishonesty; and I think direct discussion, absent ad hominem, is preferable to talking behind people’s backs, or indirection.

In the online world, it’s easy to get swept up in a dialogue or debate and end up behaving in ways one wouldn’t in real life. It’s easy to misread, misinterpet, phrase things injudiciously, take things personally, and so forth. And sometimes, it’s easy to forget that opinions, perspectives, sources, and so forth can be conflicting and still be good, just like argument and debate aren’t always placid, but are often very worthwhile.

So, with that said, in the next little while, I’m going to try tackling a few thorny debates in the handspinning world — some classics, like “Spindle vs. Wheel?” and “Top Whorl vs. Low Whorl?” and also a few of the conventional wisdoms out there. Why? Because I’d like to encourage everyone to question the conventional wisdom, seek out multiple sources, ponder the debates, form opinions, argue them, change their minds, and grow as a result of all of it — just like my friend The Redhead helped me grow by convincing me that I could like batts, and I (and a few other folks) have even convinced her to try using spindles now and again. And because sometimes there aren’t really yes or no answers, and you have to go down the long side road to find what you’re after, and whatever it is will be an individual thing. Lastly, like the plant huallhua, sometimes a thing can be many different things to many different people — and that’s okay, and there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with talking about that.

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