Within or About: Three positions one can take in an argument

Last week I said I envied Obama’s patience in conflict, and this week as promised brings more about what it takes to display that sort of poise.

This discussion also keys into two of the main themes that run through my thinking and writing. One is that the foundation of good behavior is built not from moral principles but from moral dilemmas. No simple, one-truth-fits-all recipes exist. Niceness, honesty, generosity—such virtues are vices in many contexts.

The other theme has to do with the nature of disagreements. In all of them there’s a conflict within which two positions are at odds, from which arises a third position, an outside perspective about the conflict. Breakthrough thinkers from Plato through Gregory Bateson have identified dynamic relationships among these three states (see Triads, Rung Running) and the ways they play out in our lives—and also in life more broadly. These three positions are at the base of the new science of emergence theory, a necessary complement to evolutionary theory in our understanding of how life evolves and indeed how it arose in the first place.

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High abstraction aside, let me apply this triadic relationship to everyday conflict. First take this example:

Mom: You kids stop fighting.
Tim: But she started it.
Sue: No I didn’t, he did.
Mom: I don’t care. I want it to stop.

Tim and Sue represent two sides within a conflict. Their mother is outside expressing her desires about the fight overall: two positions within it and one position about it.

Combine triads like this one and you get trees, branching out to form all sorts of complex relationships. For example, what if more voices enter the scene?

Dad: Honey, let them go at it. It’s OK—squabbling is a healthy part of growing up.
Mom: Well it bothers me, and I’d like them to stop.
Grandma: You know you two shouldn’t be arguing about this in front of the children.
Grandpa: Dear, they’re the parents. They’re perfectly capable of figuring out how to handle their own children. . . .

A conflict between the kids, and about it, a conflict between the parents and about it, a conflict between the grandparents about the conflict between the parents. The complexities just keep sprouting.

Getting back to my role model—Obama stays cool in the face of conflict, picking his battles so carefully that to some he seems to transcend all battles. I’d like to emulate him, but I’m more hotheaded than he seems to be. When I feel attacked, my body takes me into battle faster than is good for me. So what can a guy like me do about that?

When it comes to the conflict triad, Obama’s natural inclination is to play a role more like the mother or father than one of the kids. Like the mother, he warns that the conflict (say, between Red states and Blue states) could be harmful. Like the father he also seems to recognize that contention is part of the democratic system. It’s good for us.

Me, I naturally tend to identify with my position within an argument. I engage in conflicts easily, sometimes with negative effects. I say “sometimes,” because true to my first theme, I don’t think this one has a one-truth-fits-all recipe, either. Some people say it does: always turn the other cheek, always be nice, allow us our differences, be tolerant, live and let live. But none of us can live by such moral principles. Instead we deal with the moral dilemma about when to engage within the conflict and when to comment about it. We all pick our battles.

And how do we pick? Often impulsively. That’s what I’d like less of in myself. At our best we pick the battles that proved worth fighting tomorrow. That is, ideally we defend positions within the conflicts that will in the long run have proved both worth winning and winnable. And since the definitive authority of future consequence isn’t available today, we are left with more or less educated guesses as to which battles will have proven both worth winning and winnable.

When should you defend your position? When should you adopt the conflicting position? When should you stand outside the conflict altogether, letting it wash on by? That’s a recurring puzzle, not just in politics, but in love, careers, family life. Coming weeks will present a few more articles on this theme. For example, next I’ll talk about a technique I’ve found for deciding a little more calmly, not letting my instant visceral response decide for me.

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