Butterfly Punch: Shaming your opponent into putting on kid gloves before you knock him out.
Think back to a time when you fought really hard for something. Back then, how sure were you that you were right? How sure are you now that you were? If you’re like me, you pick your battles, and sometimes you pick wrong. You also intuitively track how often you changed your mind later about your choice to fight. I don’t mean meticulously—I probably remember more clearly the times when I was right than the times I was wrong to fight. Still, in some cases I’m glad I stood my ground. In others, I wish I hadn’t. So now when I confront people, I do so under the shadow of the accumulated evidence that I’ve made mistakes. That kind of shadow can cramp your fighting style.
One of the main things we focus upon when we launch into a confrontation is who is the more determined, stubborn, or steadfast. Uncertainty can signal weak resolve, and knowing you’ve been wrong before causes uncertainty.
Ideally we wouldn’t fight. When a difference of opinion arose we would discuss it calmly and decide together who was right or how to handle the situation. If everyone in the world were naturally limited to behaving this way, fighting wouldn’t be necessary. But at least some of us have it in us to fight, so peace, respect, and an open mind don’t always provide the answer. Indeed, all us have it in us to fight—or at least those who don’t (given the numbers of those who do) won’t survive. Fighting calls for closed-minded resolve. Discussing calls for open-minded receptivity.
I’ve been in a few conflicts lately with people who—in the midst of the conflict—coached me to be respectful, not insult, stop being closed-minded, be more generous. I hate to discover that I’m like the people I loathe. I think it’s one of the worst feelings, one that people generate elaborate double standards to avoid. If it turns out I’m just another one of those despicably cocky mean-hearted closed-minded asses, I’m in real trouble with myself. So when I’m fighting and people tell me to stop being closed-minded and start being more generous, I’m of half a mind to back down at once, apologize, and concede that I’ve made a terrible mistake. But I’m of another half a mind as well. In the context of a fight, if my opponent, naturally trying to get the upper hand tells me to be more open, respectful, or generous, that’s a dirty trick. Perhaps it’s not meant as a dirty trick. Perhaps it’s just the solution that seems obvious to any of us when we’re unconstrainedly confident of being right. If you’re sure you’re right and you encounter resistance, well, it’s obvious the resistance is wrong and should be removed. But whether it’s meant to be a dirty trick or just has that effect, one shouldn’t back down in the face of such supposedly high-minded shaming. At the extreme, imagine the recently deceased Indonesian dictator, Suharto, who killed half a million of his own people. To the resistance he would say, “Be more respectful, don’t insult, stop being closed-minded, be more generous.”
My wife and I prided ourselves on being generous, considerate people. When we decided to divorce, we assumed we would do arbitration and that it would be fairly easy because we were both reasonable and would be able to discuss and decide together who was right about what and how to handle the situation. We tried that for a while—but the stakes were high, and neither of us could resist the temptation to demand a bit more, be a bit stubborn, fight for what we wanted. The arbitration felt unrealistic to both of us and gradually by a generous kind of mutual agreement (rather than an escalating nastiness) we signaled to each other that this was a fight and should be treated that way. She got her lawyer; I got mine. They duked it out. Neither of us were outlandish in our demands, but we stood our ground and in the end felt better for it. We enjoyed the civility of a fight when a fight was called for. Yeah, maybe it would have been better to arbitrate if we could, but calling a fight a fight, and not fighting dirty by pretending it was some kind of civilized give-and-take so each could try to shame the other into conceding—that was a kindness I’ve always been grateful to her for, and she to me.