When I was in junior school (Singapore’s version of an elementary school), I took the school bus home. I couldn’t have been older than 11 at that time but I remember there was this boy who was in the same grade as me, stayed around the same neighborhood as I did and so would get off the bus at about the same time.
My school was pretty nearby so these weren’t very long bus rides, just 20 minutes or so at the most. But boy, were those the longest 20 minutes of my day. You’d think that boys at that age would resort to playful fistfights and hurl the stray vulgarity when in conflict. But no. In the confined space I would argue with that boy over anything that was worth arguing about. To be sure, we didn’t argue about gay rights or right-wing politics, just pretty silly things that seemed profound at that time. One day we would be arguing about whether a boy in class deserved to be bullied, on another day we would argue if taking a shower in the morning was necessary (he typically showered in the morning, I showered only at night). Bottom line is, we always found ourselves on two different sides of the fence.
I can confidently say that I hated him not just for his point of view, but for who he was as a person as well. That much was obvious. There was just something about the way he was so confident in dismantling my arguments, the way he always had the best comebacks. I resorted to withholding all my best arguments for the final moments before the bus arrived at my bus stop (or maybe it was his stop) before heaping it all upon him so I could get the last laugh. Sometimes he had quick comebacks, sometimes he promised that we’d talk about it the next day. But we usually never carried any arguments over to the next day. There was limited social media in those early stages of civilization, so when someone left the bus it was case closed, mobile court adjourned.
Nowadays there is social media. Twelve years later, I’d like to think that I’m pretty grown up. The topics I tend to discuss online and in person have become more serious, the arguments I form more profound. I still don’t like showering in the morning but you won’t find me getting into an argument about that. But now and then when I’m online, I still get into arguments. This might be a familiar situation to many: someone shares an opinion online, one that you disagree with, and somehow you and the person get caught in a crossfire. It’s your opinion against theirs, and somehow you really, really believe in your opinion. You want to pull this opinion across an imaginary finish line and have the other person concede theirs. You fight at all costs for it.
Sometimes you just know that someone’s opinion is objectively wrong. It could be that they’re being in some way or form misogynistic, racist, sexist, homophobic or just problematic in general with their comments or online content. The liberal mind ticks. It assembles its arsenal of arguments and counterarguments, social rights and wrongs. Your thoughts are primed to oversee the destruction of who you think is less informed, less educated.
I see this attitude pop up a lot in less clear-cut arguments about politics. I see major disagreements and livid personal attacks on comment threads to do with the current president of the United States and his administration. Back in Singapore many of my friends share strong opinions against certain policies that the incumbent party enforces, tearing down arguments of anyone who dares to defend certain controversial actions of the Singapore government. Sometimes the arguments are civil and respectful, but in the seemingly consequence-free arena of social media, many comments serve to mock, demean and humiliate.
But I get it. It’s difficult to be anything but hostile when someone affronts you with a differing opinion that threatens your freedom, identity or way of life. When I find myself arguing with a Facebook friend I try to look past all the intellectualizing and sarcasm to see them as people with lived experiences, as people just trying their best with what they know.
But more often than not I do the opposite. I look someone’s profile picture in the eye and try to tear down their arguments and defend every loophole till they concede. And when I do I feel like I’m 11 again on the school bus. I need to have the last laugh and prove that somehow all these words I’ve committed to the comment thread actually hold up. Not that my point of view is immature, or that my argument is weak. It’s just that I’ve inadvertently confused someone’s opinion for their person. I’ve taken a box of words to define how someone lives and breathes. I’ve labeled them in a certain way and because of that my words turn into venom. I am no longer arguing against an idea but someone’s very being.
Maybe what I’ve just described is how arguments and debates are supposed to be. Maybe I don’t know enough about what it really means to be a liberal, and that to be a liberal is to be forceful and sardonic and witty in order to be heard by those less so. Or maybe I’m just tired. Tired of seeing so many potentially constructive arguments take on a personal sting. Sometimes it feels less like two people are trying to reach a better understanding of the issues that besiege them. It seems more like two people fighting it out so that the Facebook jury can crown the winner based on the number of likes. When our egos are put on display it’s hard to take them down.
When we were in elementary school our parents and teachers probably taught us to respect one another. Just because another kid takes your toy doesn’t mean he is evil or bad. That we can put our differences aside and still play tag at the same playground. In a 2008 presidential rally, then-presidential candidate John McCain answers one of his supporters, who questions Obama’s legitimacy as president given his mixed heritage. McCain could have brushed the question off or supported this opinion to maintain the hostile mood in the crowd. Instead he tells his supporters this: that “[Obama] is a decent person, and a person that you do not have to be scared [of] as president of the United states.” The crowd jeers at this sentiment, but McCain maintains during a later question that Obama is a “decent family man.”
McCain had no obligation to defend Obama. The jeering crowd said it all, that there’s no space for sentimentalism when votes might be on the line. But McCain didn’t care. He knew something that my 11-year-old self didn’t, and that I still fail at now and then: that behind every opinion or way of life is a person who is probably as humane and loving as we are, if not more so.
I know that even as I write this I will continue to make mistakes, to linger on an argument for longer than I should to deliver the sucker punch the same way I did on the school bus all those years ago. But now when I think back I don’t feel accomplished or particularly satisfied that I outwitted this boy. All along I was really arguing with a boy that could have very much been a mirror image of me: determined, stubborn, too young to know that there are greater joys in life than winning an argument. This boy and I still live a few blocks from each other, but we are no longer friends.
Justin Ong | email@example.com