People are Cowards

A title like that will make most people consider skipping this post. If your curiosity made you decide not to, I suggest you reconsider. Odds are you won’t care for what I have to say.

What I have to say is simple: Quit running away.

People disagree about all sorts of things. That’s not surprising. What is surprising is how rarely people actually disagree. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “Let’s agree to disagree.”

My instinct has always been to say, “Why?”

Why shouldn’t we disagree? Why shouldn’t we talk about religion or politics at the dinner table? It may turn out we have irreconcilable differences, but so what? I may never feel the way you feel, but that doesn’t mean I can’t understand why you feel that way. It doesn’t mean I have to dislike you. Even if I do dislike you, it doesn’t mean we can’t have a reasonable conversation… does it?

Is conflict verboten?

It seems that way. When Adolf Hitler decided to conquer the world and slaughter millions and millions of people, who tried to stop him? Nobody. Nobody wanted a fight so they dismissed him. They made excuses for him. They convinced themselves he wasn’t a problem. Hitler made no attempt to hide his plans, boasting about them in speech after speech. It didn’t matter though. Nobody wanted conflict.

The same thing has happened time and time again. The genocide in Rwanda could have been prevented if people had stepped up. They didn’t. Nearly a million people died because society won’t accept conflict. Hundreds of thousands of women and children were slaughtered while people argued semantics because people refused to just say, “This is wrong.”


You may think refusing to discuss politics with a neighbor is not the same as standing idly by while people die. I agree. It’s not the same. The two are very different. They are similar in only one thing: the cause is cowardice.

I’ll always remember something that happened to me in high school. I was walking down a hallway when a teacher called my name, stopped me and angrily said, “We don’t allow that sort of language here.” I was confused. I hadn’t said anything inappropriate, and I had no idea what the teacher was talking about. I just stood, dumbfounded, as the teacher lectured me about using foul language. Suddenly I heard:

Look, Mr. X, I don’t even like Brandon, but he doesn’t cuss.

It was a classmate of mine. We weren’t friends. We barely spoke to one another. He didn’t need to speak up. He could have ignored the situation. Nobody would have known. He didn’t though. For whatever reason, he spoke the truth as he saw it and kept me from getting written up. He prevented an injustice by joining in a conflict.

People don’t do that very often. People’s first reaction when there’s a conflict is to get rid of it. On the internet, that often means leaving a conversation. I discussed a fitting example on this blog just last month. Anthony Watts, proprietor of the popular blog Watts Up With That?, had censored me at his blog after I disagreed with him. His explanation was:

[snip – Brandon, I’m sorry but as stated above I’m not discussing this anymore. We’ll simply have to agree to disagree – Anthony]

He didn’t want to talk to me, so he censored me. He could have walked away from the discussion. He didn’t though. He made sure he got the last word then forced me to go away. And you’ll note, in doing so, he even said we’ll “have to agree to disagree.”

Why? Why should we have to agree to disagree and shut up? Even if the two of us weren’t going to continue discussing the matter together, why should that mean neither of us could talk about it? Watts says:

No, I told you that would be my last comment on the issue, you kept pushing it anyway, demanding a response. #pointless

But that’s completely untrue. I never demanded a response from him. The simple reality is Anthony Watts didn’t like being challenged, and he reacted by shutting up the person who challenged him. He used his power of censorship to avoid conflict. To justify it, he made up an excuse out of thin air.

People can always find an excuse. The excuse doesn’t have to be real. It doesn’t have to make sense. All that matters is it allows people to avoid a conflict. That’s why people love to say you’ll have to “agree to disagree.” It’s not because they think your opinion has any validity. It’s because they want you to shut up.


But that’s not all they want. Anthony Watts could have said we’ll have to “agree to disagree” and walked away. He didn’t. He made sure he got the last word. That’s because leaving would only resolve the external conflict. It wouldn’t resolve the internal conflict.

You see, when a person’s views are challenged, they have to think about a conflicting view. They don’t like that. Watts avoided it by censoring me. That’s more extreme than usual. Most people use a more subtle approach. An example was recently given on this very blog when lucia (of The Blackboard) explained she hadn’t seen a comment I made about moderation, saying:

Brandon,
I suspect I never read that response of yours. I think I decided the argument was silly. I could write more, but I don’t think it’s worth it.

My moderation remark came after an exchange in which lucia had, on multiple occasions, made things up about what I had said. The moderation remark was simply that she needed to correct those misrepresentations. She didn’t. Instead, she left the discussion because she thought it “was silly.” I don’t know why she thought it “was silly.” I don’t think there’s anything silly about telling a person:

To put this bluntly, you’ve misrepresented things many times on this page. It’s to the point you’ve flat-out made things up about what I said. You did the same with grammatical points, completely making things up about a word. And when I pointed that out, rather than acknowledge your obvious mistake, you just mocked me for pointing it out.

I think whether you agree or disagree with what I say, we should be able to agree about what it is I actually said. I think whether you like me or not, we should be able to agree I don’t cuss.

But that’s not the interesting part. What’s interesting is after lucia’s comment about not seeing my previous moderation remark, we both expressed our views about what had happened. I went second, concluding my comment by saying:

But I’m perfectly content to leave these last two comments as the last word on that matter.

We had both expressed our views. The external conflict was over. We could have both walked away. Only, lucia chose not to. She made a comment, asking me questions. I responded. She never said anything more.

Did she read my response? I don’t know. She asked me questions. I’d assume she would want to read the answers. Maybe I’m wrong. Or maybe she just forgot. I have no way to know for sure. All I know is she, like so many other people on the internet, feels free to randomly leave discussions in order to escape conflict whenever it suits her. Naturally, it seems to suit her best after she’s got one last jab in.


I picked these examples for a reason. Both involved conscious decisions to escape conflict. That’s not usually the case. People usually avoid conflict through more subtle means. Ironically, they tend to do it by creating conflict.

Think about the distinction between internal and external conflicts. A screaming match involves conflict, and a fistfight may hurt, but neither requires any sort of internal conflict. You don’t have to think about what you believe in order to call someone names. You don’t have to wonder if you’re wrong when punching a person in the face.

The truth is conflict isn’t verboten. Society loves conflict. People thrive on conflict. They just need that conflict to be external. As long as conflict is external, nobody has to think about it. Hitler didn’t cause so much damage because people were afraid of action. Hitler caused so much damage because people couldn’t reconcile the need for action with their other desires so they ran away.

The people who join mobs are often the same people who won’t have a disagreement over the dinner table. The people who say you should “agree to disagree” are often the same people who will mindlessly hurl invectives at you for expressing your views. The people who want to end disagreements often are the ones most determined to get the last word.


The truth is, any two people can reach an understanding if they want to. Any two people can understand why the other feels the way he feels. Any two people can accurately express the other’s reasoning any beliefs. The only thing which gets in the way is people’s unwillingness to question themselves.

Or to put it more bluntly, it’s because people are cowards.

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13 comments

  1. Brandon, I think sometimes people just suspect that the argument they are about to have won’t change anybody’s mind, and won’t solve anything, and will use up a whole lot of time they’d rather spend doing other things. I really don’t think it’s always cowardice, it’s often just pragmatism.

  2. Johnathon Abbott, there’s nothing inherently wrong with not having a disagreement. There are plenty of legitimate reasons it might happrn.

    But disagreeing does not require arguing. You can say what you believe without getting involved in an argument. You can walk iaway from an argument at any point. All you have to do is be honest in what you say. You can be just as pragmatic and still do that.

    Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Generalizations don’t apply to everything.

  3. Sometimes you just know that a particular disagreement will descend into an argument, and chose to walk away instead.

    You write some excellent content on here but if you publish posts like this you’ll end up in a club of one, no matter how right (or wrong) you may be. If you want to influence people with your writing you can’t go giving them reasons to go elsewhere. I don’t mean Anthony or Lucia, I mean neutrals who don’t care about internet feuds, and find them a turn off.

    I’m not taking sides, just giving well-intentioned advice.

  4. Jonathan Abbott, I have no problem with people walking away (especially when done temporarily to cool down). In my example with lucia above, I indicated I was fine with us both walking away. With Anthony Watts, I didn’t demand he keep participating. Either could have walked away. Neither did. Neither just walked away. Instead, they both ensured they got a last word in then shut the discussion down so they wouldn’t have to hear a response. That’s what is cowardly.

    They could have just said, “I don’t agree with what you’ve said about X, Y and Z, but I don’t see any progress being made so I’ll leave it at that.” I’d have said, “Okay.” It’s okay if not all disagreements get resolved. Both parties just ought to be on the same page about what hasn’t been resolved.

    People often conflate walking away with randomly vanishing. The two aren’t the same. There are good ways to walk away, and there are bad ways to walk away. The bad ones are cowardly and rude. They’re also the ones people usually use.

    You write some excellent content on here but if you publish posts like this you’ll end up in a club of one, no matter how right (or wrong) you may be. If you want to influence people with your writing you can’t go giving them reasons to go elsewhere. I don’t mean Anthony or Lucia, I mean neutrals who don’t care about internet feuds, and find them a turn off.

    I’m not taking sides, just giving well-intentioned advice.

    I didn’t advertise a link to this post anywhere. The only way people would come across it is if they came to my blog and looked around. As I said when I started this blog, I don’t view this as a “blog.” I view it as a journal people can view and comment on. When I write something I think they might find interesting, then I try to get their attention. Otherwise, I’m just writing down my personal thoughts. If people don’t like it, oh well.

    Incidentally, I didn’t pick either of these examples because of feuds. I picked them because they involved people I normally got along with. There’s not much point in explaining why enemies fight. Why friends fight is far more important.

    All that said, I agree with your advice. If my goal was to influence people, I’d follow it. If my goal was to be popular, I’d follow it. If I wanted to have lots of friends, I’d follow it.

    I don’t want any of that though. All I want is the truth.

  5. Most people want the truth. Not all. But most. Anywhere from 51% to some estimate in the mid-nineties. Were this not so, civilization would not be possible at all, nor long endure where it accidentally occured.

    And yet, the search for truth — or for beauty, virtue, and other ideals — is a constant source of disagreement, perhaps especially among those who seek it most assiduously.

    It is a paradox.

  6. You raise an interesting point. Perhaps “society” would fit your thought better than my choice of the word “civilization”. But social insects, in the special case of truth seeking, profit from truth and lose from error and falsity as much as humankind.

    “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise…”

    A true communication is valuable. An ant might want to know: This way, there is a history (scent trail) of ants both going and coming back. That way, and though the scouts may go out, none return. The more valuable way, if there is a choice, is the first way. AND, the hill doesn’t need to have each member of the colony verify that fact individually.

  7. Pouncer, I’m afraid your answer doesn’t do anything for me. Even if what you said in it is true, there’s no way to extrapolate non-sentient actions to sentient actions like you do. The “truth” you talk about for ants has next to nothing to do with the “truth” I discuss in this post.

    Also, I should point out a number of psychologists think self-deception can be a valuable tool. There are also sociologists who have argued society cannot function without dishonesty. I think you’ll need more than an analogy to ants to show such views false.

  8. I don’t disagree that dishonesty, as an option for a minority of the intra-messaging-group (you object to ‘civilization’ and ‘society’, so I’ll try another label for the concept) sometimes has value. For the individual within the group, in a minority of cases, I’d agree that the option of conveying a false message has value as well.

    I’m trying — however poorly — to suggest that communication itself is at bottom an attempt to represent reality. Rather than go down a false trail or make any other mistake; rather than learn from bitter experience rather than the tutorial tales; most of us — ants or humans — most of the time benefit when we can rely on the truth of the message we receive from others in our group. It’s a core reason we HAVE such a group.

    We seek the truth, we expect the truth, we make provision for error and deliberate un-truth, and we, generally, try to offer what we believe to be the truth. Even when attempting to deceive, our group’s best and professional liars — scriptwriters and politicians — tell truths by what they say and, by what they do not say but cunningly imply, they create false impressions in our minds, allowing us to construct false bits to fit into the gaps. The psychologists you mention regarding self-deception … we don’t intend to deceive ourselves, but we do tend to think of ourselves as Sherlock, figuring out the whole from the merest part, when most of us are more Watsonian — oblivious even when surrounded by evidence.

    It’s the less-clever liars who introduce bits that do not fit into our experiential gaps that create the most obvious problems. The problems so created are not always the intended result. If I say that ants trail blaze paths by carving their initials into meter-stones as they pass, and exchange maps of the territories they have explored … well, perhaps I intended the terms allegorically. Others might intend the false bits otherwise. But a very literal person would take those claims, regardless of intent, as deceptive lies. As if the idea of an ant-map were a malicious obstruction to impede understanding, for profit to the liar for reasons unclear, but inferentially existent to anyone in the audience who knows better than to consider an ant capable of drawing, or any other communication but smell.

    As an estimate, which do you suppose is the more frequent instance of communication breaking down and becoming a stumbling block rather than a building block: when a malicious liar introduces a deliberate false fact into a discussion; or when a sloppy speaker with wandering intent allows a false inference to stand in others’ minds? I tend to suppose, from experience and anecdote, the latter is significantly more the prevalent case, but your experience may be quite different. For that matter, do you have data on the topic?

    This, then, goes back to your own anecdote regarding the person who take the trouble to speak up, not for a social reason, but in the interest of pure accuracy, to correct a misperception. Does the scale of the consequences factor into that decision? That is, would a stranger speak up for truth, — regarding the use of taboo words — were the punishments for breaking the taboo not so severe? I suspect many people, in many cases, don’t mind abstract deviations from “the truth” as much as they worry about the effects. But again, your experiences, as you’ve related them, have been interesting so far and I’d like to read more about your take on such matters.

  9. Pouncer:

    I don’t disagree that dishonesty, as an option for a minority of the intra-messaging-group (you object to ‘civilization’ and ‘society’, so I’ll try another label for the concept)

    Huh? I never objected to either of those words. I objected to what you said about the concept of society/civilization/whatever because it seemed like wishful thinking, but I didn’t object to how you labeled the concept.

    As an estimate, which do you suppose is the more frequent instance of communication breaking down and becoming a stumbling block rather than a building block: when a malicious liar introduces a deliberate false fact into a discussion; or when a sloppy speaker with wandering intent allows a false inference to stand in others’ minds? I tend to suppose, from experience and anecdote, the latter is significantly more the prevalent case, but your experience may be quite different. For that matter, do you have data on the topic?

    Neither. Self-deception is the biggest cause. People convince themselves of things that aren’t true then truthfully communicate what they believe. They do this about all sorts of things, including what else has been said in that conversation. If the cycle is allowed to continue long enough without corrective action, communication breaks down.

    Most of the time it begins with a simple mistake. The problem is people convince themselves there made no mistake, often to the extent they don’t even consciously think about the point on which they made it.

    Does the scale of the consequences factor into that decision? That is, would a stranger speak up for truth, — regarding the use of taboo words — were the punishments for breaking the taboo not so severe? I suspect many people, in many cases, don’t mind abstract deviations from “the truth” as much as they worry about the effects.

    Certainly. Consequences are why all deception happens. Self-deception happens as a way to deal with internal stressors. All other deception happens either as an effect of self-deception or as a way of of dealing with (internal or external) stressors.

    Put another way, deception is a tool used to decrease our discomfort. The less discomfort (such as can be caused by reducing consequences), the less the desire for deception.

  10. Very insightful.

    I am reminded of “pecking order”, chickens establish heirarchy by pecking each other. The one that pecks any other, and is not pecked by any other, is “top”. The chicken that receives pecks and gives none is “bottom”. In this manner eventually the order is worked out. I’ve seen this behavior in humans also where an heirarchy exists (certainly in the Navy). George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” also explores this idea.

    A solitary person creates a “disturbance in the force.”

    All will peck him, and he chooses not to peck others, may even say words of praise when appropriate. Following normal rules of heirarchy he would be at the very bottom, and yet his demeanor and intelligence suggests not subservient. He ought to be higher in the heirarchy.

    This is unsettling to the flock. I hypothesize that the flock will become so unsettled, pecking him ferociously trying to get a response so they know where he is in the heirarchy, that eventually the flock will eject him completely if they can and ignore him if they cannot.

    That means banned from blogs, not invited to parties, and any other means by which the flock or herd will exclude you from their pecking order. Can you think of a single blog that does not eventually crystallize around a pecking order, a herd, a set of regulars that establish an order, or attempt to do so, among themselves? It is quite interesting to see happen. Even if the blog owner decides NOT to have just an echo chamber of his very own, his regular contributors will set up an heirarchy of their own and attempt to peck, then eject, other participants.

    Facebook exists to establish a social pecking order. “Likes” establish where you are in the heirarchy. “Pecking” tests your response. If you have no interest in that game then Facebook is useless and boring. What earns a “Like”? Being cleverly mean, cruel or rude to others. My involvement with Huffington Post showed this clearly — the readers with the most followers invariably were the ones with the least useful remarks but also the most wittingly rude. People go there for entertainment and what is entertaining to many or most people is seeing “little people hitting each other” (the Napoleon character in the movie “Time Bandits”).

    It is also the case that multiple heirarchies simultaneously exist, even in the same venue. I will “like” well written, informative commentary that is generally more positive in nature. Consequently, who I follow, and who follows me, will almost be a perfect inversion of the usual social heirarchy (besides being considerably smaller in numbers).

  11. Michael 2, that sounds about right. I think there are some exceptions, but I’ve seen the sort of thing you describe time and time again.

    In fact, I bet it’d be easy to document that exact pattern of behavior. One nice thing about comments on blogs and message boards is they can be checked, something that usually isn’t true for IRL communication.

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