Life seems to be getting more abrasive by the minute. It can be a hostile world in which women have to demand respect. The tricky bit is doing so without demeaning others, especially when discussing controversial or emotional issues.
Almost every conversation is emotional to some degree. Even political ones that revolve around facts, data and statistics are emotional because political issues are intimately connected to our self-opinion. Abortion, child custody, domestic violence ... these are not floating abstractions.
The positions you take are part of your identity and defending those positions is part of defending yourself.
Arguing — the art of exchanging ideas — naturally elicits the full range of human emotion: compassion, sorrow, humor, anger. But being emotional doesn't mean rejecting standards of decency: quite the contrary. It is precisely because human beings are emotional that a standard of decency is necessary.
Arguments usually become verbal brawls for one of three reasons: defensiveness, competitiveness and malice. In some sense, it doesn't matter why the other person is treating you badly: You need to stand up for yourself. But the "why" of the other person's behavior should influence how you do so.
Defensiveness. People often become defensive during even gentle disagreements. There can be many reasons, none of which involve a desire to attack you. The other person may be intellectually insecure or feel so deeply about an issue, like abortion, that she is unable to remain calm.
Be patient. Treat the other person with the same courtesy you wish to receive. For example ...
— Give her time to consider your points
— Acknowledge when you make an error
— Don't respond in kind to personal remarks
— Be tolerant of her small errors or slips of speech
— When you are uncertain of something, say so
— Show an interest in what she says
— Avoid statements that embarrass or belittle
— Acknowledge when she makes a good point
— When she concedes a point, move on
If the courtesy you extend is not returned, stop talking. The other person may be unable to sustain a civil conversation; this is no reflection upon you. Simply state, "There is no reason to continue talking if that's how you're going to behave." Sometimes the best way to stand up for yourself is to turn your back and walk away.
Often you'll be confronted by a different problem: competitiveness. Some people place such a high value on winning that they will argue like a bulldog clenching a bone because, to them, letting go means "losing." You may be unable to walk away. Perhaps the other person is a co-worker or a family member, perhaps the situation requires you to stick it out.
Take control of the argument by asking yourself some simple questions about the disagreement.
Is it over facts, morality or something personal?
Who has made the assertion and, so, assumed the burden of proof?
What would resolve it, what "proof" is needed?
What is the end point so that the argument doesn't drag on needlessly?
Argue aggressively, not by going on the attack but by keeping a tight leash on the topic. Whenever the other person digresses, rein in the conversation. If it continues, ask, "Why do you keep changing the subject?"
Without being combative, ask probing questions. For example, if the other person makes a statement of fact, ask them to state the source of those facts. If she comments on a book, ask if she's read it. Be prepared for the conversation to deteriorate, however, because many people will react to polite questioning with open hostility. She may become malicious.
Malice. We all encounter anger-filled people who enjoy degrading others and are never happier than when someone is miserable. My advice: walk away. The interaction has ceased to be — if it ever was — anything of value to you.
Again, there will be times when you have to stand and defend yourself. But recognize the situation for what it is. It is not an exchange of ideas. It is a personal attack by someone who wishes to hurt you, probably through humiliation.
Never allow an emotional bully to place your worth as a human being into question. The instant you enter a debate on whether you are stupid, for example, you've lost. Never encourage an abuser by continuing the exchange. Turn it into another conversation.
If a response is necessary, ask the person: "Why do you treat people with such disrespect? Are you that frightened of an honest conversation?" This accomplishes at least two things: The topic is the other person's failings, not yours; the topic is her treatment of people in general, not of you.
There are many reasons not to react with hostility, even when you are being attacked. One of them is purely strategic. Malicious conversations most often occur in the presence of others because abusers enjoy inflicting public humiliation. Deny them this satisfaction.
Just as a public debater primarily addresses the audience and not the opponent, remember that others are watching and listening. Don't let abusers harm your reputation as a reasonable and decent human being. Instead, increase it by standing up for yourself without degrading anyone else.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.