On power and disagreement

I’ve been thinking lately about–and feeling troubled about–how women handle conflict. It’s as if we’ve been raised to believe all disagreement is inherently bad, and that it’s our job to stop it the moment it arises–even when it’s necessary disagreement, or when useful debate is resulting from it.

One example of many: On a list I’m on, we were having what seemed a useful discussion, with many points of view, not all of them agreeing. Which meant, inevitably, someone jumped in with words to the effect of, “Can we please just stop fighting and move on?”

I hear variations of this from women all the time. The moment women disagree, the moment a hint of conflict creeps into a conversation–we grow uncomfortable. The soothing, the making nice, begins before the conversation is through–before it can go anywhere useful or productive.

Sometimes this takes the form of “Now, now, let’s not fight.” Sometimes it takes the form of “Well, we all have a right to our opinions, so let’s stop debating/discussing at all.” Sometimes it takes the form of other women simply not hearing the conflict, pretending it doesn’t exist because it’s that uncomfortable to be in the presence of people who disagree.

It’s as if we have to halt real and productive debate in order to say, “But you know I like you, right?” It’s as if we need reassurance more than we need to accomplish something real. It’s as if we’ve been trained to believe, uncritically, that all conflict is bad, no matter how mild. It’s so bad that I’ve seen people forget the content of a debate entirely and only remember that there was conflict, because the mere presence of disagreement overpowered everything else.

I’m tired of it–tired both of those times when I find myself soothing someone and trying to “make nice,” even when they’ve just said something that genuinely needs to be challenged; and–even more–tired of those times when I do speak up, and other women either derail the conversation or pretend it isn’t happening.

Disagreement and debate are useful tools. They’re not always personal. They are often a means of wielding power, of getting things accomplished. Certainly, there is such a thing as an unproductive debate–it’s a poor use of energy to try to debate every last person who is wrong on the Internet, after all. But by denying ourselves the power of all debate, of all disagreement, we’re denying ourselves of some part of our ability to accomplish meaningful things in this world.

There are enough external pressures out there encouraging women to give up their power and their agency. We need to stop doing it to ourselves as well.

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