There was no debate club at my school. None was needed. Life is a debate club, with numbers and allegiances that are constantly shifting.
People like to argue, is what I’m trying to say.
I’ve noticed this with my parents, who alternate between genial silence and periods of constant bickering, and people talking in the street who, even, when their opinions are in concert speak in argumentative tones as if each daring the other to disagree with them. Even in my own marriage both my wife and I enjoy acting as devils advocates, taking positions we don’t necessarily believe in simply so we can needle our beloved spouse.
Because needles, as you might have noticed, are made to get under your skin.
Contrary to the genteel illustrations on TV arguments don’t end with one person gracefully backing down or storming out with victor yelling at their back. Like storms they persist in a climate of extreme pressure. Even when they’ve blown out there’s a bitter, muttering resentment in defeat that’s all too often rekindled into another row when the last few shouted words are thrown by the victor like sparks sputtered from a dying fire. It’s too difficult to turn your back and walk away–Orpheus couldn’t do it when his wife’s life was on the line so something as mundane as dignity doesn’t make a lot of difference here. Those words–and where childhood arguments end in punches and pulled hair, the winners of the adult equivalent tend to be determined by who has the last say–are taunts coaxing whoever’s taken the high road to come back, get down and dirty. There’s no serenity in walking away, only the horrible sinking feeling that you’ve somehow lost.
I’ve never seen an argument end well. Resentment usually persists for hours, maybe even days until it’s finally buried in the name of getting on with one’s life. If the argument burned too bright for that to happen then it ends in stutters. In the case of our marital arguments those stutters are a game of phone tag, in which my wife and I keep calling one other for the satisfaction of hanging up on the other. It’s not an ideal solution, but slamming the phone down dissipates anger; soon I’ll be grovelling on the handset, begging her for forgiveness.
Saying you’re sorry isn’t a white flag in these wars of words: it’s a peace treaty. It’s certainly better than the resentful attrition that can continue indefinitely, something that would surely drive a couple apart. I’ll admit my faults and she, having none, will at least pretend to be humble so that things might get back to normal. It’s with no little relief when the argument spins dry we go back to being who we are rather than staying as the monsters we can become.
But what if there’s no surcease to the argument, because there’s no other bobbin to spool your anger upon? What if the argument tempered within you isn’t tempered at all but let loose in an unending torrent, spewed into the world at no specific target? What if there’s nobody to back down, nobody to apologise and nobody to shout back?
What if you rant?
Rants are arguments that have become unhinged at one end. They flap and bang like a door in the wind and with no second party to shut them, might do so indefinitely. They often seem better reasoned than your common or garden argument because every facet of the ranter’s personality is trying to find the contradictions and fallacies within it while at the same time wholeheartedly being supportive of the ranter’s cause. When ranting it’s as if all the small voices in your head come together to refine your battle plan, saying things like “Well of course we’re attacking the enemy, but wouldn’t you rather attack around the side where they aren’t so well protected?”
I’m a ranter. I rant about things nobody cares about, that nobody cares to disagree with. This is dangerous both for me and for the listening party as ranters are unhinged–just listen to the angrier breed of stand up comedian, who might begin a rant about something that irks them with moderate theatricality, but ramp toward their denouement with the speed and energy of a runaway train.
I tend to rant about the state of the contemporary world–you’ve read this blog, you know how it goes. I’m actually rather moderate here, fearing if I go off on a tangent about those fucking people I might never come back–and worse, I mightn’t get you back. There are lines for ranters that must never be crossed. Disgusted, we turn on ourselves, saying “I’m even making myself angry” because the alternative–telling everyone how angry they make us–is something people generally don’t want to hear.
It’s unreasonable to hate the entire human race. Down such misanthropic paths lie loneliness and misery, and as much as we hate you–and God knows we do–we need you. Without you we’d be standing on a box in the park serenading the pigeons with our views on the economy. The pigeons couldn’t care less but then, neither could you–and we need you to care, if not about the things we’re saying than about us, the people who’re saying them.
So we rein ourselves in. “Maybe it’s just me,” we say; then: “Maybe I’m going mad.”
Because it’s hard to tell where those lines lie and when we’ve trodden over them. My battle plan for dealing with this, that I’ve forged outside of regular conversation but that I’m doing my best to put into practice is to notice when the eyes of the person I’m talking to start to glaze over.
And they do, and when they do I follow up whatever saying with profuse apology, which isn’t the best way to handle the situation but as I just can’t help myself when ranting, it’ll have to do for now.
I always know when my wife stops paying attention to my rants, and I usually apologise for boring her before continuing on in much the same fashion. Hey, I married her, this is her job now. Her responsibilities include mopping up after my senior incontinence and listening to me blathering about the pointlessness of shops.
In the real world I don’t have that luxury. The only thing stopping anyone I’m ranting at from upping and walking away is societal politeness–they don’t want to be rude. Of course, once we’ve gone our separate ways they can choose never to talk to me again, and do so often.
It’s a fate I share with many of my fellow ranters. Given just enough leeway we plunge on, oblivious to eyes glazed like cracked pottery. In the online arena, unseen, people can and do wander off and the ranter’s unaware of their departure until the bitter end. Blinded by their own fury they end up standing alone, arguing with themselves, just a few more doomsayers feeding pigeons in the park.
And we know this–that’s the worst thing about it. We know rants never end well but impotent with fury we carry on regardless. It’s as if we were born without the valves necessary to let off steam and so shudder like an unstable boiler, coming ever closer to blowing up and taking life’s grand hotel with us.
So please, spare a thought for us the next time your eyes glaze and your ears endeavour to seal themselves shut. We know the problem’s not with you, it’s with us, but we can’t help our righteous fury. Stuck records we might be, but our problems can’t be fixed with a gentle nudge of the turntable.
I’m not sure anything can be done to save us, but please believe me when I say we’re just as unhappy with the situation as you are. Just . . . don’t leave us, okay? Scrabbling at the top of the cliff face, legs spinning in cartoon windmills, without your hands to hold and keep us it would be all too easy to slide and fall away. After all, the word ‘mad’ is used to describe someone in a state of abject anger. It’s not as if we can help ourselves.
If you’re willing to put up with us shitting the bed many years from now, perhaps the next time you see it spilling from our mouths you might be so good as to pass us a towel.