I’ve noticed something going on for a while now, and I think it’s time I brought it up in a post. It occurs when I talk to people. When I say “people,” I mean anyone outside of my family with whom I do not have a longstanding or close relationship. You may be experiencing the same thing although in a somewhat different way, especially if you have teenagers at home or family members who love to process things. When I say things, I mean everything (e.g., emotions, events, comments, sideway glances) ad nauseam or, as my grandmother liked to say, till the cows come home.
What am I talking about? Think of a situation in which someone asks you what seems to be an innocent question (the lure). You answer as honestly and directly as possible. Then they pose a counter to your answer, which you are then required to explain in greater detail, leading to another refutation on the questioner’s part. This leads to more explanation and detail until you want to vomit and/or throw your shoe in frustration. I call people who do this “whackers,” because they lure you in and then suddenly whack you over the head if you step out of line or do not follow the script in their head. Think of it as a psychological sucker punch.
As they say in the textbooks, let’s look at an example: “Can you tell me how to get to the art museum?” “Sure, take Main Street down to the train yard, cross over to North First, and you’ll see it on the right.” “Wouldn’t it be easier to take the expressway?” “Maybe, but at this hour there’ll be a lot of traffic. That happened to me the last time I went to the museum.” “Oh, when was that?” “A couple of months ago.” “Well…it’s different now, you know. They opened an HOV lane.” “Okay, take the expressway.” “But what about all that construction on Exit 18?” “Try Exit 19.” “Really? That would take me past the museum. Why would I do that?”
I don’t know what you would call this kind of nitpicking, tit-for-tat, know-it-all one-upmanship, but it can occur over just about anything. In fact, the more complex the issue, the deeper the sinkhole you can fall into. I have had conversations following this structure on theology, liturgy, the Second Amendment, DEI, inflation, water runoff in the Sierra Mountains, the war in Ukraine, and how to make potstickers. That last one was really a moot point, since I don’t cook.
But the basic structure is the same and, oddly enough, reminds me of graduate school when I studied St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae in which Aquinas explores fundamental questions in the format of a quaestio disputata. In that format, he poses a question (e.g., Can good be the source of evil?), followed by what appear to be obvious objections to it (e.g., No, it cannot). He then lays out the logic of his eventual argument in a “yes, but” phrase (sed contra) before finally refuting each of the objections.
Sound familiar? The conversations I have been getting into lately haven’t followed this format to the letter, but that’s only because I don’t know many Scholastic scholars or medievalists. Still, they can get just as convoluted. I’ve noticed that they have their own sed contra equivalent, too. The tip-off that you are about to fall into quaestio quicksand and eventually get whacked over the head is when the person who originally asked the question pauses and says, “Well…”
I can’t tell if they do this on purpose or out of some unconscious drive to be antagonistic. Note that “antagonistic” comes from “agony,” which, in turn, derives from the Greek agōnía (i.e., competition, struggle. See Jacob Wrestling the Angel above). It would be easier to deal with if unconscious, I suppose, since the person doing it might be open to correction once you bring it to their attention. If they’re doing it on purpose, then realize that you are grappling with an opponent (or sociopath) and exit as quickly as you can, stage left. Get yourself to the art museum whichever way you can.
Now you know why I never ask for directions.
Image credits: feature by Sinitta Leunen; A Disputation between Christian and Jewish Scholars (1483), woodcut by Johann von Armssheim, Public Domain; Jacob Wrestling the Angel by Wayne Forte, used with permission. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”