Party of One: Is It Worth Arguing About?

Several years ago there came into being a new miniscience known as microbehavior, the study of little things that people do that tell something about themselves. Professor Erving Goffman, who was its inventor, collected many examples. If two strangers find themselves walking side by side for more than a few paces, their parallel courses become uncomfortable to both of them, and one inevitably drops a step behind. A motorist, trying to edge his way into a moving line of cars, catches the eye of the oncoming driver and concludes that he has a go-ahead; drivers unwilling to give way don’t let their eye be caught. Detecting such unspoken exchanges shows the wit of commonplace occurrences freshly observed, though I’m afraid that some later contributions by Coffman’s followers are such exercises in trivialized pedantry that they read like parodies of scientific observation. Still, I’d like to suggest a field of study to Professor Goffman: the social art of veering. It too has its superficial aspects, but something more.

First the superficial side, best seen at cocktail parties. Watch the expert thread his way through this minefield, ever alert, as he inches through the crowded room, to the risk of running into someone he dislikes or thinks a bore. Sometimes, for all his wariness, he is blindsided; he finds himself stuck, and must veer. If the person he had hoped to avoid is a woman, a man then has an unfair advantage. “Let me freshen your drink.” he will say, and hopes by the time he gets back he can make delivery on the run, while she is talking to someone new.

But when male meets male bore, there is no such escape route, though sometimes by a clumsy bump he can find himself in another conversation, as if accidentally cut off from the man he is avoiding.

The essence of the veer, however, is that, though a doubt may linger, rudeness cannot be unmistakably evidenced. For this reason I think of veering as essentially an American trait, involving a democratic guilt in not finding all of mankind to be of equal worth and interest. A certain kind of Englishman takes a craftsman’s pride in making clear that he finds no need to suffer someone’s unwanted conversation, just as the English are masters at letters-to-theeditor controversies, in which a steely politeness never fully hides their intent to wound.

Those who ride cabs in New York City have long training in the art of veering and can often gain their end, which is silence, with minimum effort. Cabdrivers are notorious talkers. The tabloid New York Daily News, pandering to this vociferous lot, long ago created the legend that your average hackie is really a profound popular philosopher. Luckily, some of the newer generation of cabdrivers —blacks, Latinos, or young white dropouts—tend to keep their thoughts to themselves. Their silence almost, but not quite, tempts one to explore whether their thoughts might in fact be superior to those garrulous and crabby cabbies we are painfully familiar with, who are argumentative, frequently racist, and aggressively misinformed. Subjected as a captive audience to such an opinionated fellow on a long ride in from the airport, one learns to delay as much as possible those noncommittal grunts that indicate that one is paying attention, though barely. It wouldn’t do to say, “Never mind the talk, I just hired the ride,” for the rest of the trip would then be spent in wordless, oppressive tension. And even noncommittal grunts must always be placed with care, whether you are responding to a hackie or to someone next to you on a sofa or at a drugstore counter. For the second law of veering is that in trying to change a contentious topic, you must never in the process assent to an opinion you disagree with. Good conscience requires of you at least a minimal “Well, I’m afraid I don’t agree with you there, but anyway . . .” Changing the subject of course requires a quick aptitude in thinking up a new one, which isn’t always easy. Simplicity usually works best: a pause, then, “My, isn’t it hot! Too hot to discuss politics.” Such a veer puts equal responsibility on the other party to think up a new subject.

Families are so well trained in avoiding touchy subjects that only occasionally do emergencies require new ground rules. In the winter of 1956, for example, English opinion was so divided over Anthony Eden’s invasion of Suez that many families canceled their Christmas holidays together to avoid nasty scenes. A similar situation might have come about here had not the evidence of Nixon’s wrongdoing become suddenly so overwhelming. By declared pact or by unspoken understanding, families learn to avoid discussing subjects where disagreement is total and usually generational (“You know how it upsets Father”), though I remember the doggedness with which I once thought honesty required me to make my unpalatable opinions lengthily clear.

Among newly met strangers, when neither party wants an awkward situation, minimal strategems of veering work well. But there have been dangerous times when I have had to apply what I regard as the full 180-degree veer. In Texas, or in Rocky Mountain country, I have on occasion found myself seated at dinner beside a hostess I do not know. Drinks have made us congenial; the hostess intends no argument. But she is accustomed to speaking forthrightly, and with friends of the same mind-set and prejudices. With full confidence that I feel the same way, she delivers herself of views of such ringing obtuseness and economic primitivism—sometimes with passing reference to Jews, blacks, or to all those shiftless people in the cities, or those horrible “kids”—that I foresee an evening ahead when good food will find a troubled passage down my throat. I must either demur or argue. Only a full veer will do. Mine goes like this: “I don’t agree with you, I’m afraid, but I don’t think you arrived at your opinions in twenty minutes, and I know I didn’t mine. Nothing we could possibly say in the next twenty minutes would change either of our minds. So I’d rather we talk about”—and then comes a desperate whirring of computers in my mind, scanning about for a new subject, and finally lighting on—“what it’s like to spend a winter on a Wyoming ranch. This may be my only chance to find out.”

My choice of topic is perhaps a little lame and desperate—involving what a friend of mine calls a necksnapping transition—but what saves the occasion is the fact that both my goodwill and my curiosity are genuine, for I often find such doughty and independent people to be full of lively character. Not many are really bigots; it is just that their downright views about distant classes of people have not been subjected to the modifications and shadings that actual exposure would give; one can forgive them that. Knowing neither family, I’d rather spend an evening at the Barry Goldwaters’, for example, than at the Nelson Rockefellers’. (I grant you that between the Reagans and the Rockefellers, I’d incline to dinner with Rocky.)

The prevalence of veering suggests that people who really differ basically in their views do not want to argue them all out. Whether this attitude is more common than it used to be, whether the change is in the times or only in me, I do not know. Telltale clues soon establish, even in nonelection years, the presence in someone else of a whole cluster of antithetical views, best left unprobed. In more conventional times, rigid social rules once put many inflammatory topics beyond drawing-room conversation, but the inhibitions of decorum gave way long ago to the new freedoms. The only escape is the veer.

I wonder whether our present great gulfs in outlook, not to be bridged by easy agreement, and our fatigue with argument after all the emotional set-tos of a few years back, haven’t drastically changed our zest for contention. People don’t so much argue any more as exchange signals of their positions, then proceed with caution. As a result, I think most of us concentrate our friendships among those whose general views are easily compatible with ours. I am not much traveled in those suburban circles where conversation. when it is not about schools or golf or prices, is bland and circumspect out of guarded, career-minded prudence. I live among people whose views are decided, strongly felt, and pretty much like my own, so that with fundamentals already agreed upon we can despair over or cheer the latest turn of events. (“Seen any Democratic hopeful you can stand?” “No, but I’ve seen a couple I might get used to.”“Guess we’ll have to.”) And I wonder whether this trading of compatible opinions of whatever kind is not more and more the case among those who live retired, segregated lives in high-rise condominiums in Fort Lauderdale, go bowling together in Queens, or loll around swimming pools in Santa Barbara. Each to his own. Was it always like this? It couldn’t have been, when one thinks of the small-town America that once was, where only an occasional brave soul dared challenge views considered correct by those who ran the town. In urban living, one usually finds his friends less among neighbors than among those who work in the same field, or in some sport or interest mutually enjoyed. And thus we segregate ourselves by ways of thinking as well as by ways of living.

I suspect, too, that television has professionalized argument, and debased it. We delegate argument, as we delegate athletics, to specialists. Program directors like to pep up news and comment shows by matching presumed antagonists, labeled left and right—a Nicholas von Hoffman or a George Will in mock debate, like those bloodless bullfights in France with filed horns, and no fight to the finish. The purpose of this kind of debate is theater, not argument; hackles are not raised because each man breezily talks past the other to the camera’s eye; they are hired guns who agree to fire blanks. Or consider those panel shows on public television where people presumably more knowledgeable than the rest of us maunder back and forth for half an hour, after which the host finds it necessary, but sometimes difficult, to recapitulate what the circle has just banally agreed upon. Consider, too, television interviews, which a BBC producer once described as a way of eliciting information on a subject in twice the time it would take to state the facts.

Sometimes, when I do find myself caught in an evening’s testy disputation, I later hear a playback in my mind, and wince at the recognition that in points more strongly pressed than I really felt, in tiresome iterations of secondary matters, in diversionary avoidances of the other fellow’s soundest arguments, the evening has been as inconclusive, pointless, and numbing as most televised discussions. I took no pleasure in it at the time, nor pride in it afterward: I had been a one-man panel show that scored badly in argument and low in entertainment.

This leads me to a conclusion I think to be true, but not reassuring, about the art of conversational dispute. Nowadays I get my argumentation chiefly in print—from newspapers, magazines, and books—and react carefully to contrary positions, eliciting from the other fellow, with no need to combat him, whatever he has to offer; absorbing what he has taken time to formulate deliberately and not on the wing; taking it in at my own speed. In this way, on many topics, I find my views quite different from what they were five or seven years ago. But not as the result of oral debate: when I see one coming on, and each of us reaching for his scabbard, that’s when you’ll find me shifting into a veer. Not out of cowardice; more like energy-saving.