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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.

26 thoughts on “On Opinions and Disagreement

  1. I do the *exact same thing* when answering questions. It’s really a problem at work, where I need to look at least as competent as I am… It’s nice to know it’s not just me. 🙂

  2. All that to tell us you’re just going to be picking fights next week? 😉

  3. Picking fights? I would NEVER! 😉 Seriously, it’ll be fun and friendly. You’ll like it.

  4. Lordy. You’re so right about the on-line capacity for people to misbehave. I just unsubscribed to my neighborhood’s yahoo group because of a rude and obnoxious neighbor who I’m sure would be perfectly pleasant if I met him face to face. Some people can’t see the shades of gray and make no allowances for those who can.

    Let the debate begin! heh

  5. yo’re just gonna die, but the thing i took from this the most was the thing about your son & cherries. i have a culinary arts degree, and as such, we eat all kinds of “weird” stuff in this house. it’s been my policy since the kids were little that they always have to take a “please, no thank you” bite, unless there’s allergies involved. what that means, is they have to take a taste of whatever it is i want them to try.

    this has let to some interesting data. i have 4 kids. of the 4, one is damned near a vegetarian, one eats some interesting stuff, but mostly sticks to “american” food, one will eat anything that doesn’t bite him first, and one that varies wildly between wanting to try everything, and sticking with tried & true (we just recently got off a bacon cheeseburger kick). and i don’t think any of my kids lose out on this, because at least they know they do or do not like something.

    don’t take this the wrong way, as far as making your son try cherries. each kid is different. as are we all. and opinions vary, lol.

  6. Bring it on…I’ve got a bowl of cherries by my wheel just in case.

  7. Extremely well put. I think that should be posted on just about every list I’m on. I think I may have Franquemont blood coursing through my veins. My husband says I can never give a yes or no answer. And he is right, there are just too many things to consider for a simple yes or no.

  8. What’d I say? 😉

  9. Oh dear, my father and I are your long lost cousins!
    I can’t wait to see the articles.

  10. Ok, a couple of comments from my perspective. Like Minnie, I got something out of this and the cherries. Tell your son those are YOUR cherries, and he is NOT to have any of them. Because you are going to make something special for someone else, etc. When I was a kid, I’d sit, crying for the longest time, because I didn’t want to eat my mom’s Brussels sprouts. They were horrible and mushy. It wasn’t until I was an adult and learned how to cook them to MY liking that I finally love them. My mom is actually appalled that I LOVE making Brussels sprouts. I told her she just didn’t know how to cook them properly. We laugh about it now.
    And spindle versus wheel, I don’t see anything to debate. They are both viable tools to achieve a common goal: to make yarn or spin fiber. Now, for ME, the issue are those electric spinner things. Pfffft. What’s that about??? Why not just buy store bought yarn? lol

  11. You mean people who drive automatics can tie their own shoes?!? I’m shocked and amazed.

    Opinions are great, aren’t they? I think those are the things which make life interesting – we’d be an awfully boring, uninspired lot if we all engaged in groupthink. It is always a pleasure to disagree and debate with you. Entertaining *and* educational – how can you beat that for fun? Of course, I grew up listening to my atheist Dad (The Col.) debating some of the fine and not-so-fine points of Catholicism with one of his best friends Father D (a highly placed jebbie) around the kitchen table. The nuns at the Roman Catholic girls school didn’t appreciate some of my ideas so much.

    ” 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.”

    Other people don’t think like us – no matter how much we’d like to think so. You and I approach things in an extraordinarily similar manner. There’s a lot of logic involved, and we do our homework first. Others, however, make claims draw conclusions based on little tangible evidence. For some it’s a form of camouflage.

    For the most part I do a good job of seeing things from another’s point of view, but stumble over this occasionally. How in the *world* can someone think whatever insane idea they’re spouting?? Those uninformed, crazy people can go piss up a rope! Followed by snortiness (and a Guinness if I’m lucky).Yes, sometimes people do need to prove their claims.

    As for your responses, that isn’t the Franquemont blood. So you don’t have a corner on that market m’dear 😉 Ooooh – was that a definitive statement? 😉 You and I grew up in very similar situations – raised by highly intelligent people who expected us not only to know an answer but also know the whys and wherefores. If we didn’t know, they would explain it to us. The Col. expected me to be able to back up whatever notion I was going on about as a kid (even with the horses, which he neither understood nor liked). I can still give a pretty good explanation of why grass is green and the sky is blue 😉

    Not that I think a bit of back up & discourse is bad. This is the very thing that got me accepted to the Blue Schoolhouse (and the Red Schoolhouse and all the others). As an undergrad I was absolutely *brilliant* at boring the pants off my eventual Ex by drawing the cell cycle, the social opportunity cost of the water in the Bellagio fountains, or whathaveyou on napkins at the local pubs here in The People’s Republic. I was excited – I knew what I was talking about and had all the tools to explain it. I would go on. One year for Christmas he gave me an Etch-A-Sketch and said “If you can draw it I’ll look at it. Otherwise I don’t want to hear it.’ Heh. Those stupid test scores and grades helped, but the Etch-A-Sketch got me into grad school. ‘Cause you know there had to be a story and hand waving…

    I will point out that I have several lovely high-end spindles. Not to mention being on the tooth list. Fine tools are a wonderful thing, to be appreciated on their own. I’m perfectly happy for them to be small pieces of art in their own right. Decorative is a purpose, right?

    The drop spinning affliction some of you suffer from is pure craziness. I’m sure, with the right medication… Just take a look at some of my wheel spun silk. I’d put it up against your drop spindle stuff Any Day.

    Don’t tell anyone ‘cause it will ruin my rep, but I’m almost finished with the second ounce of that yak/silk/merino on my spindle. I figure I’ll end up with enough of that ~ 65 wpi cobweb for a proper shawl. It will just take a Really Long Time.

    I’m looking forward to future postings. Especially ‘Wheel vs. Spindle’ 😉 And, despite my dislike for the drop spindle, I actually do know a fair bit about the different types, physics, yadda. So that should be fun too.
    Your father was a wise, wise man. I’m sure he and The Col. would have gotten along famously. And had a great time sitting at the kitchen table chewing the fat.

    That would be the fire of ten thousand white-hot suns, thankyouverymuch. Tho, it’s the blue supergiants like Betelgeuse which…

    -the redhead-

    PS – just give those batts a try, you might like them.

  12. I read this whole post with my head nodding like one of those stupid little bobble-head dogs. Except for the parts where I disagreed… 😉

  13. I’ve always believed you learn something from everything. There’s a reason something happens, you may not know it at the time, but you will learn something from it. Life wouldn’t be interesting if everyone had the same opinion about everything!

    My family tells me I over-analyze things, too. I don’t make quick decisions, because I’m always thinking of the “what ifs.” Ok, so I like to know as much as I can before entering into something, and while it’s not always possible, it’s usually at least enlightening. =)

    Thank you for giving us food for thought and debate. =)

    (Oh, and I wanted to make sure you’re getting your emails, as I’ve sent a few to your ebay account and through this blog – have you received them?)

  14. Oh good grief. I will go spin on a spindle now. Happy?


    I’ll really try to like it this time. I promise.

  15. The advantage of knowing (and owning) a stick shift is that you don’t have to loan your car to others because they don’t know how to drive a stick shift. My daughter learned this well in college and thanked us for making her learn.

    I’m not a spindle fan as I believe I can produce more with the wheel rather than the spindle. But I did learn spindle spinning and I can do it. It is, in my opinion, easier to learn spinning on the spindle first. Then one can transition to the wheel. Patting my head and rubbing my tummy was difficult for me – so maybe that’s why I believe spindles are easier to learn.

    I’m also a member of “there is no one-way to spin” club, the only time I get really irritated with another opinion is when it causes a third party to have problems. The best example is a person who taught another to spindle spin. The newbie was having a terrific fight with some very nice roving. The reason? No one showed her how to draft the fiber down to a size her hands could manipulate more easily. So I showed her how to draft. Her teacher showed up later and appeared to be irritated at me for changing what she had taught.

    I look forward to reading your blog – whether or not I agree with you. I enjoy seeing other viewpoints and, who knows, you may change my opinion.

  16. Abby, at the first SOAR I attended (not “participated in,” I’ve never done that) just after I became editor of Spin-Off I was given the job of moderating a panel “discussion” on woolen and worsted.

    I am a profound introvert (occasional appearances to the contrary) with an entrenched ability to see most sides of nearly any question (may have been my saving quality).

    The panel consisted of between six and eight of the most knowledgeable and opinionated handspinners the English-speaking world has ever produced.

    Let’s just say (1) I was still standing at the end of the evening (miracle) and (2) there were no definitive answers, although there were a *lot* of opinions expressed and most of the folks in the room (which was packed) thought a lot about yarn while the conversation(s) went on. Whew.

    So: Are you going to add “woolen/worsted” to your list of topics?

    At some levels, it’s quite straightforward. . . .

  17. Both the spindle and the wheel can be both aphrodisaic AND contraceptive. That’s what you’re saying, right?

  18. Do you really want to do that in a week with a string of 90 degree days?

  19. I’m not sure who said this:

    “Sacred cows make the best hamburger, but at times the meat can be hard to swallow.”

    Occasionally I will read a book that goes 180 degrees against my beliefs. Why? To keep myself from being stuck in the tunnel vision mentality I saw so much when I was growing up. I don’t know how my parents managed to raise two open minded children, but they did.

    In geology one can never speak in absolutes the way chemists and physicists can. Vagueness is our friend as we stand on a hill and expound the virtues of a kame. We draw on our imagination to view an area as it had been 12,000 years ago or even older.

    Arm waving professors aside, spinning is a matter of degrees, of saturation and of the source of the material we work with. I have a long standing discussion back and forth with Sara von Tresckow about coated vs non coated sheep. We agree to disagree on this point as I prefer corridale and finer fleeces while she prefers coarser fleeces.

    Flameproof undies are at hand here 😉

  20. Yeah! lets stand up for the minority! I prefer spindle spinning (both on drop spindles and on spindle wheels). The charkha is my main wheel for producing singles and I like the control I have over my yarn and the portability of both the charkha and drop spindles. My “traditional” wheel (can newer technology be called traditional over older technology?) is used mainly for plying.

    I took a class in silk spinning at the Contemporary Handweaver’s of Texas conference this year and sat down and spun my silk on my charkha, and I don’t think the teacher knew what to do with me. She kept telling me how I really couldn’t get a good spun silk yarn on a charkha. The irony was, she was the handspinning judge and she gave me first place in handspun skeins for a tussah silk skein spun on a charkha. Go figure!

    By the way, I can’t really drive a stick shift because my legs are too short, so it is not all stupidity.

    Okay, back to the Grad School grindstone (after Thurday I get a break!)

  21. I’m looking forward to reading the coming posts.

    I enjoy your input on the spin-list (I’m whistling_lass) and your videos on You Tube are amazing! If I ever end up with even 1/4 of your talent, I’ll consider that a blessing.

  22. Well put Abby. And don’t worry, brevity isn’t nearly as entertaining!

  23. In personal and businees relationships, I follow “choose your battles” for two reasons. It gives me time to consider and think about what they are really saying. And I get a perspective, when not in the heat of the moment. The second reason: it gives me time to develop a battle plan if one is needed. (please note that the word politics has been left out of the above.)

    As far a spinning is concerned, I am to much of a hack and noob to discuss it intelligently, other than to say I like the wheel better, but have several spindles knowing they will come in handy in the future.

    I am really looking forward to these discussions. I know I will learn a lot.

    One question…where can I get some of that huallhua?

  24. I’m a seamstress and writer, not one of you fibery-types, so what I got out of this was the software-developer bit.

    “If someone’s attacking your code, […]the burden of proof should be on him to prove that’s the case. You get a trouble report, believe it’s your fault, and start making certain nobody can find fault with your work. That’s not how this works.”

    That’s also true in fiction writing… sort of. It was a very liberating day in my development as a writer when I realized that A) everybody brought their own baggage to a story, making it more of a Rorschach test than a pass/fail, and B) some of those people were just never going to be happy, no matter what, either because they didn’t like fantasy stories, or they didn’t like me, or were jealous of my ability, or I hadn’t written in the expected tropes that tickled their particular fetish.

    That doesn’t mean, however, that I can simply say, “Well, he’s a moron,” and ignore him, because that’s ignoring part of my potential fan base, and ghod knows as a neo-pro I can’t afford that. Besides, if one person in five says that, that expands to a potential 20% of one’s audience who may feel the same way. What people enjoy in entertainment (music and books, especially) is often startlingly specific and inflexible, rather like one’s–ahem–personal sexual preferences.

    So I’ve learned, gradually, to speak to the broadest possible audience in the most open-ended terms: to make the Rorschach as interesting as possible without boxing it into a definite form. I’ve learned to mimic the conventions in tone and structure of the different genres. I’ve learned just how much detail I can give about subjects that I am not an expert in–just enough to acknowledge the rules, but not enough to risk exposing my ignorance. It’s not quite the same as giving the audience what they want, it’s selling them what I’m making, packaged in such a way that looks like something they can use. I think of it as writing the story I want to tell in, say, the classic structure of a sonnet.

    Beyond that, I can’t allow myself to get too upset if it doesn’t fit into someone’s narrow little ignorant brain.

  25. Hear! Hear! Tolerance of others opinions is getting hard to find. I can disagree and still be friends. I value hearing other views. I might learn something new or change my mind about something. Can’t wait to see the new posts. And you’re not the only one, I find it hard to give a straight answer too. Where a simple “yes” might do the trick I tend to give people way more information than they wanted. LOL!

  26. Very interesting. I look forward to further discussion.

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