SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen The Princess Bride then do not read this if you don't want plot twists exposed. In addition, what's your problem?! Go watch it. It is a great movie that gets better and better every time you see it.
Inigo Montoyo is part of a group that has kidnapped the Princess Buttercup. Westley chases them down in the guise of the Dread Pirate Roberts. Vizzini, the leader of the kidnappers, cuts the rope that Westley is using to climb the Cliffs of Insanity in an effort to kill him. It doesn't work, and Westley continues to defy all things conceivable in his pursuit of his true love Buttercup. Vizzini and the giant Fezzik take Buttercup away, and Inigo waits behind to kill Westley. (With his left hand, it is the only way it will be a challenge)
Inigo gets impatient and looks over the cliff edge at Westley climbing and hollers down to him, “Hello there! Slow going?”
And here we see one of my favorite aspects of Westley's engagement style. His answer is, “Look I don't mean to be rude, but this is not as easy as it looks so I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't distract me.”
Inigo apologizes to which Wesley responds with a polite, “Thank you.”
Westley gives us a model of something important; how we start a conversation matters. Throughout the film, most of the people that Westley encounters intend to kill him, but he rarely lets that fact impact his impossible cordiality and manners. Inigo is admittedly only waiting around to kill him, and yet Westley still sees no value in rudeness. He is polite to the albino in the Pit of Despair and cleverly charming to Humperdink after he and Buttercup emerge from the Fire Swamp.
Angry questioners often rear their heads during the Q&A portion of a presentation. Sometimes I see them stewing during my talk, glaring at me with their arms crossed. They can be both insulting and embarrassingly wrong in their arguments.
One young woman recently stood up, crossed her arms, and said in an aggressive tone, “If you can't trust me with a choice, how can you trust me with a child?” The audience of 400 students immediately got restless and ramped up their emotions to match hers.
Bad attitudes left unchecked can infect a conversation from the outset. Our goal is to dial down emotions and replace them with thoughtful arguments. We must intentionally communicate respect with tone, words, and even our body language. We tend to mirror the gestures of the people with whom we are talking, Try it some time. Start touching your face and the people you are talking to will often do the same. Cross your arms and they will do the same. This young lady injected hostility into the discussion and it immediately transformed the audience.
I studied martial arts for years. One aspect of training was deescalation; how to avoid a fight. Body language and position are crucial to successful deescalation. Viccini holds a dagger to Buttercup's throat and Westley approaches with his hands open in front of his body. That is exactly what we were taught in training. Hands out, open, and in front of you. Slide toward angles that would be difficult for people to hit you from while assuring them you do not want to fight. It's amazing the impact this simple technique has on angry and aggressive people. I have seen someone seemingly intent on violence get confused, calm down, and then just walk away.
In deescalation, the correct posture communicates three key messages. (1) I don't want to fight, but I won't cower away. This is important because the person hoping to scare you or bully you sees that it won't work without you having to immediately match his rage in order to get that point across. (2) It communicates that I don't want to fight, but I do know how to if you force the point. Sliding into bad attack angle is key to delivering this message. Most untrained fighters want to load up and throw a haymaker. When you slide into a place they have trouble accomplishing this from, a person who genuinely wants to hit you will usually attempt to move to a better position. The more you move him into a bad place the more he begins to understand you know how fighting works. This is not a welcome message. (3) Finally, all of this sets you up to be in a good position from which you can defend yourself should it become necessary.
Obviously these techniques do not directly apply to arguing. It would be bizarre to position yourself to physically strike those who disagree with you, but the correct body language combined with a gracious start accomplishes many of the same goals.
Back to our angry student; I immediately asked the audience to please quiet down a bit with my hands in front of me and open. I informed the audience that I wanted to respectfully answer her and that would be hard to do so without their help. This calmed the audience down. I then repeated her question and asked her if I correctly understood her. She confirmed that I did. I affirmed that I absolutely respect and trust her with all sorts of choices, but that we seem to disagree on the nature of the choice in question. By this time, the audience was respectfully listening and her arms were uncrossed and open. Perhaps in response to the openness that I brought to our conversation, or perhaps she just relaxed a little, but the end result was the same. Our pleasant and respectful exchange was up and running.
Some students approached me after the most hostile Q&A audience I ever talked with. They said the following, “That was great. So many people just tell us what to think and that we are wrong. So many people seem to be lecturing us. You talked to us, laid out a case for your position, and challenged us to think about it. You even told those pro-choice students the best people to read to see counter arguments to the position you argued. From the beginning you were respectful.” (Emphasis mine)
Next, we will talk about Westley's respect during confrontations and his willingness to recognize the good points of those with whom he is locked in a life or death struggle. Or in Westley terms, “Truly you have a dizzying intellect.”
(Post Script: The rest of my answer to that young woman went as follows: I asked her if she thought it would be OK for her to choose to walk across the room and seize any item she wanted from one of her classmates. She objected that this wasn't the same thing as abortion. I pointed out that she is correct in that, but I wasn't claiming it was. I simply wanted to determine if she thought that taking anything she wanted from a classmate was something she could choose to do. She said no that would be stealing. I said I agree that taking in that sense falls into the moral category of stealing. And now we both recognize that there are choices that we cannot legitimately make due to the moral nature of those choices. There are reasonable limits on what we can do even with and to our own bodies. So both of us respect the legitimate free choices of others while recognizing that some choices are not legitimately ours to make, like the choices to steal or rape someone. What we do not agree on is whether abortion is a legitimate choice or whether it falls into the category of those choices that ought to be reasonably restricted. I pointed out that I used science and philosophy to make the case that abortion is objectively immoral. If she wished to counter those arguments she needed to address the scientific identification of the unborn as human beings from fertilization or the philosophical case identifying them as morally valuable. I pointed out that David Boonin offered what I think are the best arguments for her side in his book A Defense of Abortion. As much as I learn from Boonin, I still think the counter arguments offered by philosophers like Kaczor and Beckwith ultimately carry the day, but she was free to make up her own mind on that. I closed by cautioning that what both sides can't do is replace the hard work of arguing and understanding each other with slogans.)
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