Conflict, consent, and blirtatiousness

My new gentleman friend requested that I write about blirtatiousness. I assumed that he had made a typo, and thought, “What do I have to say about flirtatiousness? Other than how bad I am at it?” Then he sent me this link. So, okay, blirtatiousness. Stupid word, useful concept. The article linked to, after defining “blirtatiousness” (for those who don’t want to click, it’s basically a measure of how quickly and easily you say what you think), talks about problems in relationships where the woman is highly blirtatious and the man is not. But since my relationships tend to be the opposite, I’m not really interested in that, and if I wrote about it I’d probably wind up writing about the insane cultural pressure we put on males and females to act in certain ways, and, um… I write about that a lot.

So instead we’re going to talk about conflict and consent, because I’ve noticed sort of an interesting pattern. It’s related to my recent post about social status updates, and the core question is this: does a person always have the right to engage another in verbal/ideological conflict? Or is there a question of consent and mutual willingness that needs to be considered?

When put in terms of physical conflict, this is a no-brainer. I don’t get to decide I’m going to have a friendly boxing match with you: it’s something we both have to agree on. If I try to initiate a friendly boxing match by hitting you without prior discussion, that is what we call assault, and most of us will agree I’ve done something morally wrong… even if I back off immediately afterward and say, “Okay, no problem, we don’t have to fight, I just wanted to put it out there.”

On the face of it it seems preposterous to draw a comparison between physical attack and verbal challenge. Throwing a punch hurts someone, whereas questioning someone’s beliefs (for example) doesn’t. Oh wait… yes it does. Plenty of people feel acute emotional discomfort when somebody is challenging a cherished idea of theirs. Social conventions aside, a lot of people would suffer less from a moderate-strength punch on the arm than from a bluntly-worded “You’re wrong about this.” The pain of the punch lingers for a few minutes and then is forgotten… the ideological conflict tends to stick in the brain, to keep eating at you. What specifically bothers you will vary: perhaps it’s feeling that the other person thinks less of you; perhaps it’s the niggling fear that maybe they’re right; perhaps it’s the frustration of not having had a good response.

Blirtatiousness, I think, is a good predictor of how much the first and third factors will bother someone who’s been on the receiving end of a verbal challenge. According to the aforementioned article, high-blirt people tend to be less worried about whether others think badly of them, and by definition they’re more likely to be ready with a response. A low-blirt person, on the other hand, is likely to be plagued with anxiety that the other person thinks has a low opinion, and with frustration at knowing they have a response to the person’s challenge, but not being able to access it in time. So a low-blirt person is more likely to view the challenge as an unwelcome assault, and a high-blirt person is more likely to either engage in argument or dismiss it with scorn.

If I polled people on the question whether it’s rude to challenge someone’s ideas in a non-debate forum (i.e. not a blog, classroom, editorial, etc) I’m guessing answers would correspond with the responder’s blirtation level. Overall I think our society comes down on the side of the low-blirters. It was interesting to me, in the article I linked above, to read that high blirters tend to be better-perceived socially: “The high blirters were seen by the others as more competent, sociable, emotionally reactive and extraverted than low blirters.” Since most of the high blirters I know also tend to have strong and controversial opinions, their readiness to say what they think is often a social liability. Our cultural norms act to protect the low-blirters from unwanted challenge, which they feel as a kind of assault.

If this were all there was to it, I’d tend to side with society, especially since I am a mid-to-low blirter myself (although I also have strong and controversial opinions, which is an interesting space to occupy.) But there’s that second reason I mentioned for people’s discomfort with ideological challenge: the niggling fear that the challenger might be right. It’s very easy for a person to protect themselves from questioning their own ideas by crying rudeness when another person questions them. And I don’t think that’s healthy. I think we would all do better in life if we questioned and reconsidered our ideas on a regular basis. (And yes, that is an idea that I have questioned and reconsidered.) So I don’t think “shut up about your controversial ideas unless the other person has indicated willingness to get into a debate” is the right answer.

I have to go back to work now, so I’m throwing the floor open: what do you think? Are you highly blirtatious or not? Do you think it’s rude to challenge someone’s ideas without an invitation? What is your perception of the social conventions around verbal conflict, and do you think they should be different?

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5 thoughts on “Conflict, consent, and blirtatiousness

  1. As the gentleman who requested that you write about this, I have to say, I don’t agree with much of what you’ve said. You reach a satisfactory conclusion, but it’s in a roundabout, complicated way. I think the better point is that while people have a right not to be subject to unwelcome physical pain, there is no corresponding right for emotional pain. This is a fundamental tenant of any society which believes in free speech. The idea is that encouraging the free exchange of ideas is more important than preventing incidental emotional pain.

    Your post begs the question: when person A tells person B that he is wrong, and person B suffers emotional harm, who is at fault? The answer comes down to personal preference. Do you want to live in a society where people are encouraged to share their ideas and to be able to hear others’ ideas without emotional harm? Or do you want to live in a society where people are encouraged to keep their opinions to themselves for fear of offending someone? Obviously, I favor the former. The difference between challenging someone’s ideas and a physical assault is that pain is a necessary result of hitting someone. There is no reason to do it other than to cause pain, and barring some sort of genetic aberration, pain will almost certainly be the result. Challenging someone’s beliefs does not necessarily cause pain. It only causes pain in people who are sensitive about having their beliefs challenged, which, on some level, is a choice that they’ve made. I don’t think it’s up to society at large to accommodate that choice.

    I tend to be opposed to all rules of politeness in general, on the grounds that they are dishonest. You’ve already done a good job of showing why reason #2 (fear that you may be wrong) is not a good reason to shut people up. However, I challenge your conclusion that reasons #1 and #3 are any better.

    Reason #1 is a lie. What you’re basically saying is that, if a person’s opinion makes you lose some respect for them, you should hide this fact to protect their feelings. It’s quite dishonest, and not something I’m in favor of.

    Reason #3 enables irrationality. If a person doesn’t have a good response to your challenge, that’s a good indication that they really haven’t thought their position out enough to be confident in it. It’s a cue for that person to do a little more thinking (and perhaps research) before holding a belief (with any degree of certainly) in the future. This is basically the same as your reasoning regarding reason #2. Failure to come up with a response to a challenge is a hint that you may be wrong.

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  2. I actually agree with Wes here pretty much completely. But, I’m sure Ginny will not be surprised to hear that, since she and I have had this conversation before.

    We have a saying in the gnu atheist world; there is no right to not be offended. Being much higher in this blirter scale than Ginny (although perhaps not as high as Wes, which is a refreshing change of pace for once), I not only don’t care much about offending/hurting them emotionally because of a disagreement, but I welcome people to challenge me.

    To do otherwise is to tolerate immaturity and childish behavior in adults.

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  3. I basically agree with the other commenters. I myself have been severely impacted in my life of having my worthiness (others’ acceptance of me as a person) be determined by how polite I behave. Because I do not believe in (or have ever had a desire to) present a false front to the world – through “politeness” and social formalities, as Wes describes – I have felt pressure to suppress my free expression of ideas (and self, essentially) throughout my life, and I don’t think that that is ever a healthy thing to demand from someone. I agree that having one’s ideas challenged does not in any way necessitate pain, although it can cause pain depending on how it is done.

    I think the question is, are we talking about ideological challenge, or verbal attack? I do not in any way see these as the same things. The former “attacks” an idea, in that someone is stating their own opinion which disagrees with the idea. The latter is an attack on a person. It’s the difference between saying “I disagree with you because I believe X”, and “you are stupid for thinking that”. The latter statement is hurtful, and abusive (devaluing of a person). But if someone hears the former statement and gets offended, it’s because they interpreted it to mean the latter, and that is a choice (even though they might not be aware of it).

    I think the reason why the dominant culture is so intolerant of statements of disagreement, is because it does not promote egalitarian social interactions – where each person has equal innate value (and recognizes each others’ value), and so naturally both will take pride in their own opinions while at the same time respecting the opinions of others’ (even if they don’t agree with them). Being based on hierarchical relations (and relying on that hierarchy for its existence), modern society does not encourage truth-telling, but obedience. It wants people (everyone other than those at the top of the hierarchy) to think and believe only what they are told to think and believe – thus everyone’s opinions are of less value than what we are “supposed” to say – i.e. the “polite” thing to say.

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  4. It sounded to me like the question was not whether initiating verbal conflict is permissible, but whether it is a good idea. I think the wisdom in sharing your conflicting view with a person who may suffer negative emotional consequences depends on the situation. Its your wedding day and your dress looks stupid? Time to keep it to myself. You are an airline pilot and your drinking on the job? You bet I’m gonna let you know what a bad decision that is.

    I think its also important to not confuse being articulate with being right, and vice versa. Having quick witty retorts is socially helpful, but the lack of one does not always mean they have no well reasoned opinion on the matter.

    I think the main utility of the blirtaciousness term is that by having a word for it we can more easily recognize it in our interactions and see how we already naturally tend to blirt more with blirters and remain restrained with non blirters. Or, for the full-time blirters, why ones blirting is better received by fellow blirters.

    So do I want to have people get my “consent” before sharing their opinions? Absolutely not. I want to hear what they have to say. But when it comes to sharing my opinions with others, I try to take into account the circumstances and their social/communication style.

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  5. As an experienced low blirter, I know that my main motivation for not speaking my mind is conflict avoidance to protect myself. Yes, there is the thought that I may hurt someone’s feelings with my comment, but my reason for not saying it has less to do with worrying about how the other person feels and more to do with not wanting to incite conflict and have to defend myself.

    I consider this a personal flaw and I am endeavoring to raise my blirter score (although, it’s probably actually kind of high, because I talk a lot in public…I just don’t debate).

    People’s insecurities make honest communication about controversial subjects difficult, but that does not make it a good idea to never incite honest communication. Insecurities only dissipate when you work your way through them, so if you have someone to challenge you, you should really be grateful.

    Change and resolution is not facilitated by a bunch of people sitting around being quiet, and being polite. I think that just ends up with a bunch of bitter people!

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