When to Walk Away from a Fight

Followup: I’ve started a civil email conversation with Stacy of Accepting Abundance, and I’m hoping the answer to the title of yesterday’s post (“Can I have this fight productively?“) could be yes.  But if I end up blogging about our discussion, I’d like to do some civility housekeeping first.  So here goes…

I am really bad at walking away from a fight.  In college, there were several people I had a tendency to end up in long, LONG arguments with and, even if I had work I needed to do, was going to be late to an appointment, or was up way past my bedtime the night before 8:30 am glassblowing class (which usually resulted in burns), I didn’t disengage.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that leaving was losing, even if I’d given up on having a productive conversation and the argument had hit a loop.

I don’t know exactly what I imagined, that my friend would email everyone the next and say “I was having an argument with Leah about whether Sondheim’s Assassins falls short in its representations of women and then at  2am she went to bed! What a coward.  Anyway, long story short, I won and we should all think less of her.”

Obviously, this never happened and was never likely to happen, but although I’ve described this problem in the past tense, I still fall into this trap more often than I’d like.  Knowing I do it, and visualizing the ridiculous scenario I was trying to avoid helps me do better.

Now, I know it’s different having an argument with a friend or a classmate than with pseudonym on the internet.  Your interlocutor is likely to do exactly what would be bizarre in the real world: trumpet your silence as concession.  After reading through comment sections for the last few posts (including one that went after bad behavior in comments) I still want to urge you guys to think about backing down some of the time.

Basically, if you’ve reached the point where you’re commenting primarily so that you won’t be the first one to disengage.  STOP.  This can apply even if you’re still providing reasonable critiques of someone behaving trollishly.  Not every bad argument needs an answer; crazy can be its own rebuttal.  More commonly, both sides have thrown away the chance to engage each other several posts ago but haven’t stopped talking about how much they hate each other.  I don’t have to look back very far to find an example:

No, I enjoy using guys like Crazy Fred (and young Gilbert and little Brian around here) to publicly illustrate mental pathology. They, alas, often find the experience less than enjoyable

I’m not attributing the quote here, because I don’t have a single problem commenter or even a bunch of commenters who tend to behave badly.  There’s just a common tendency to keep talking about an argument and about opponents after we’ve exhausted the argument.  When all you’ve got left to say is that you can’t talk to someone, just don’t talk to them.  It’s cool.  I can’t promise anything on behalf of the other commenters, but I will not email all of our friends to complain.

Desiring Abundance of Life, Not Just Absence of Sin
Cultivating Openness to Truth During Fights [Radio Readings]
Contemplation and Comment Moderation for Lent
Why Not Refer to ISIS by an Epithet?
About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011 and lives in Washington DC. She works as a news writer for FiveThirtyEight by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com/ Brian Green

    Glassblowing is awesome.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12909360575166964668 Joe

    I would just like to say that I enjoy this blog a great deal. I have not interacted a great deal with atheists and I enjoy learning about their worldview as well as having my own views challenged. However I have to say that Mark Shea is probably on to something when he describes evangelical atheists as Napoleon Dynamite with a mean streak. See this article http://www.ncregister.com/blog/hu/. Leah of course is a happy exception. By the way can anyone tell me how to make a hyperlink using a mac?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12714581082612893449 Colin

    It's basically impossible to "win" an argument on the Internet.

  • http://www.soulsprawl.com Matt DeStefano

    I have to say I'm terrible at walking away. I just don't know how to do it. It's a miserable trait and I need to change it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13958697088282913961 Dave

    Churchill: "a zealot is someone who cannot change his mind and will not change the subject"It seems to me that the more important question is about the apparently compulsive need to engage or to "win" an argument. Why is it so important that everyone agree? Sure there are those rare occasions where discussions are productive, in the sense that one party changes their mind and behavior, but in my experience that only happens when that part is already open, doubting their current views and seeking an alternative. Not the case here.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15222328459836041333 Gillimer

    I have tried to cope with people who ask, e.g., "Whoyavotingfor?", and then proceed to go on and on browbeating me for giving the "wrong" answer. It occurred to me that they are not looking for information, but trying to force me to say a particular something that they will consider "winning". I tried to deal with it by saying "OK, you win…." but they throw tantrums over THAT. I also find that much of the problem seems to come from people (and definitely not just online!) who think they have some kind of RIGHT to the last word. Thus, every time somebody replies to them, they repeat the same "You're wrong!" talking points.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10019240793982424774 Christian H

    Thank you for this. I do find that I keep returning to discussions I'm finding circular because I don't want to give the impression that I'm just walking out on people. Your permission to leave does help.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03615608336736450543 Hendy

    @Joe: Use html tags (regardless of the platform you're using). For example:This:,—| Google`—Becomes this:,—| Google`—I'd suggest using the Preview button vs. posting just to check your tags. You can use the same for markup as well (google "html markup tags" or similar for sites like THIS if you're unfamiliar).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12909360575166964668 Joe

    Thanks Hendy!!