Prometheus brought fire; I give you this.

When exactly did we forget how to argue?

Because we have forgotten. It seems like the goal of most of the arguments I’ve heard or seen lately haven’t had anything to do with hearing multiple sides of an argument, or solving a problem. Instead there’s been a single objective: to shut down the opposition.

I don’t know if this is an outgrowth of the fear, anger, and divisiveness that blossomed in our country after 2001. I don’t know if this is the fault of the Internet, where anonymous comment boxes routinely turn human beings into trolls. But whatever it is, as a culture, we’ve forgotten how to argue. We only know how to invalidate.

And so, because I’m a patriot and a humanitarian, I’m going to solve this problem for everyone right now. And, I’m going to do it with three little words:

Arguing on the internet, trolls

No need to thank me. It’s in the best interest of our civilization that we all put on tee shirts bearing these words whenever we’re feeling argumentative from now on. And, if we’re arguing on the Internet, we should consider using these words in our thumbnail photos as well. If we’re arguing in Congress we should scrawl “You’re Valid Too” on our legal pads and hold them up so that everyone can see then while we’re delivering our remarks — no matter how venomous they are — because if we can’t recognize the validity of other points of view in conversation, we can at the very least do it by the use of a visual aid.

How can You’re Valid Too help? Below are a few examples:

1) Consider the people who say things like “If you’re not a [parent, teacher, veteran, member of ethnic/religious group, etc.] you can’t say anything.”

What is that? Of course people can still give their opinions if they aren’t insiders. Their opinions may not be interesting, useful, insightful or welcome to you, but there’s no call to invalidate such speech before it even happens. My first instinct when someone says something like this is to call her a censoring bully and to walk away, which doesn’t solve anything.

But if someone wearing a “You’re Valid Too” tee shirt delivered this remark, I could look down at her shirt and be reminded that this person may have forgotten momentarily that I’m valid because she is angry or afraid of criticism, and that can remind me, in turn, that this person’s anger and fear is valid, and then maybe I can remember that when I respond. Instead of the knee-jerk response, maybe I can give a rational one.

2.) Consider people who threadjack on the Internet. Consider the following fictional conversation:
Facebooker One: Whew. Bad day at work. Pass the scotch.
Facebooker Two: You think YOU had a bad day? Call me if you want to know what a REAL bad day looks like!

Now, Facebooker Two, there was no need to invalidate Facebooker One’s bad day. Your bad day was valid, too, Okay? And, if Facebooker Two’s profile picture was just the words You’re Valid Too, maybe he will look at that thread, remember his own validity and that of Facebooker One’s, and have the decency to delete his comment or at least ask how Facebooker One’s day actually was before jumping in with the horrors of his own day.

3.) Trolls. You should never engage with a troll (someone who posts hateful or inflammatory comments on the Internet just to get a reaction) on the Internet. You should always ignore them, despite the fact that they tend to hurt feelings, cause incoherent rage and raise blood pressure.

Now, if — by some magical Internet law — trolls all automatically had thumbnail photos bearing the words “You’re Valid Too,” we might be more likely to identify them as the pathetic attention-seekers they are. We might feel pity rather than rage. Pity is much better for your blood pressure.

4.) Some people in Texas, unhappy with the results of the presidential election, want to secede from the union and petition to do so. Some might think that this is the political equivalent of “I’m taking my toys and going home.” That’s a valid interpretation.

But if this petition were sent to the White House on letterhead reading “You’re Valid Too,” maybe the request would be taken more seriously as the recipient considers that the Texans are afraid and upset, but do realize that the rest of the country had a valid election. And maybe if the refusal were sent back on the same letterhead, the petitioning Texans will realize that though their request was rejected, their worries were seen as valid, and maybe they’ll be slightly better disposed toward the current administration. You never know. But this can’t hurt.

You’re welcome, Earth.

Your tee shirts are here and here.

Go forth, and be reasonable.

Taking a shot at relentless optimism.

By Arthur Waley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

I like positivity as much as the next person, and I try to stay positive on social media, because, well, it’s social media. If you have a Facebook account you’ve seen the virtual train wreck that happens when people go negative: grown-ups posting anonymous, passive aggressive messages as statuses, private grievances aired out before 500 of one’s closest friends, obscenity-laden messages to people you’ve never met who blast loud music or cut you off in traffic.

But you know what’s equally horrifying? The cult of relentless optimism. You know who I’m talking about: the people who profess to never say anything negative, for whom affirmations are a way of life and who repress their negative thoughts until, presumably, they go around grinning grotesquely, like victims of The Joker in the 1989 Batman movie.

Why bash positive thinking? Well, I’ve tried it. I self-helped for years. In that time, I self-affirmed and envisioned and made vision boards and sent good, warm, rose-colored energy out into the universe.  I’ve self-hypnotized. I’ve tried to banish the word “should” from my vocabulary. And, as someone who is despite my best efforts, still on Tony Robbins’ mailing list, I can tell you that not only does relentless positivity not work, it’s also annoying.

Enter a breath of fresh air.

NPR’s All Things Considered ran this interview on Tuesday, making my evening. The gist? Author Oliver Burkeman has written a book that states the opposite of what most self-help books tell us: that relentless optimism actually makes people more miserable.

The book is called The Antidote and the message is refreshing, even if it seems like common sense.

Here’s a quote from Burkeman’s interview with NPR’s  Audie Cornish:

I think that what is counterproductive about all these efforts that involve struggling very, very hard to achieve a specific emotional state is that by doing that, you often achieve the opposite.

I’m someone who is irritable a lot, and I kind of enjoy being irritable. Being ecstatic 24/7 is not my natural state. So I agree that denying ourselves the full range of our emotions by concentrating only on the positive would be like trying to exist by eating only carbohydrates.

You might love carbs, but your body can’t exist without fats or proteins, and still remain healthy. Speaking for myself, I cannot live on happiness alone. I need rage, nerves and a side of the blues to be mentally healthy, and I doubt I’m alone in this.

Check out the NPR link above for more info. Burkeman’s put the crosshairs on both self-help and the cult of optimism, and that, ironically, makes me happy.

My fiction: Where the boys aren’t.

UPDATE (9:32 PM, EST): Rebuttal time! Read Phil Lemos’s take on our meeting, our disagreement and on writing women characters here.

Yesterday, I met with one of my writers’ groups and was accused of misandry.

My piece – a short story about a woman who becomes obsessed with a man who has disappeared – was up for discussion.

One of my fellow writers – the estimable blogger Phil Lemos – was deeply unhappy with an element of the story: the unnamed husband of the protagonist.

“I hate your husbands,” he said, smacking his palm on the table. “They’re all meat-heads.”

He went on to suggest that I only included the husband because I need dialogue in certain places in the story, and told me that the main character’s unnamed meat-head husband might be tolerable if the third major character in the piece, who is a woman, was made into a guy. Then it would be okay, because there could at least be one redeeming man in the story.

Phil was pretty fired up. He looked mad. Righteously indignant. Angry, because the sole representative of his gender in my piece was, to his way of thinking, a stereotype.

All in all, his reaction was pretty awesome. Validating, even. Why? Because I’m angry like that all the time.

I’m almost always furious in that exact same way when I see women portrayed in literature, film and music. I’m mad like that so often, it’s ceased to be table-smacking rage and morphed into a permanent state of indignation. I’ve been angry since the age of 12.

Recently I re-read my favorite books, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and I was mad. I was mad that one of the main female characters is thousands of years old but is protected by her father as if she’s 16, and  doesn’t get a line of dialogue until the end of the final book. I was mad when the bravery of  Éowyn, who does one of the most heroic deeds in the series, is downplayed. She was only interested in going to war, Tolkien tells us, because a bad guy was filling her with lies and making her discontent in her role as a woman. I was mad that there were no female dwarves. 

And then there is the Bechdel test, about which I recently learned. The Bechdel Test, named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel who popularized it in a 1985 cartoon, is used to judge women’s presence in film.

To pass the test, the movie must 1) have at last two named women in it who 2) talk to each other about 3) something other than a man.

Here’s how the films honored at last night’s Academy Awards stand up to the test:

Yeah.

So back to writers’ group. It was nice to see a guy as indignant as I am every day, but Phil had a point: I do often write men as jerks, or as ciphers. Recently, two of the husbands in my short stories have started off their lives as nameless characters. All of my protagonists, but one, are female. This does reflect a issue on my part: At this point in my life, I am not willing to write men as major characters in my short stories.

As a feminist, I don’t see it as a problem: My short stories are about women and often about women’s issues. I don’t think that, as Phil said, my story needs at least one sympathetic man, because the story is not about men at all. This particular story is not even about gender. It’s about a character who happens to be female, and all the other characters are incidental to her and her problems. And why should I pander to male readers by throwing them a nice guy that they can relate to? How many bimbos and good wives and princesses-in-need-of-rescue and hookers-with-hearts-of-gold and passive-aggressive old women have I had to suffer as I’ve read my way through classic and modern literature? Can’t guys just shut up and endure my series of meat-heads and dullards and blustering old men?

No. No, they can’t, for lots of good reasons, but mostly because I’m an artist first. Being angry and making good art is not always the same thing. In the case of this story it’s definitely not.

Not an hour before Phil’s critique of my story, I came down on him – hard – for his treatment of the female characters in his novel.

“If I were reading this and the two major female characters were stereotypes, I might not finish reading this book,” I told him, “and it’s a book that deserves to be read.”

Another guy in the group spoke up: “Yeah, but how many women are really going to read this book?” Phil’s book is about football.

I then argued that lots of ladies would want to read it, and thought to myself that even if 70 percent of women don’t want to read a novel about sports, every novel deserves a cast of well-rounded, non-stereotypical characters – not just for the ladies who might read it, but for the education of the gents as well.  No need to continue writing stereotypes.

*Cough, cough.* Well. I guess that applies to my work as well. Will loads of straight manly men want to read about the internal struggle of a passive aggressive dental hygienist who wants to escape her marriage and her life, and resorts to stalking a stranger? Probably not. (It’s possible that women won’t want to read that either.) But whoever does read it deserves a cast of three-dimensional characters.

Don’t get me wrong; I hope someday I can write something artistic, which makes many men aware of how I feel when I see female stereotypes blithely inserted into fiction. But until that day comes, I don’t want to cheapen my writing with two-dimensional stereotypes.

With that in mind, Phil and I are going to be challenging each other to writing exercises. I will challenge him regarding writing women, and he will send me exercises aimed at improving my men.