I can still recall the moment the phrase “oh come on” changed for me. I was at my friend Danny’s holiday party fifteen years ago having a discussion with his sister (Lisa) about the movie Insomnia. I was (and remain) a fan of the film. In particular I felt Robin Williams gave a seamless performance; his darkness managing to be unspectacular without feeling mundane. When I voiced this opinion Lisa reacted in a way which indicated that I might have been attempting to explain to her that the Ramones were really exemplars of a subtle, neo-baroque approach to harmonic vocal arrangements, instead of a fun, primitive punk rock band for whom musical expertise was, well, not exactly the point. When I asked her what it was about Williams’ portrayal of Walter Finch that didn’t work for her she took as condescending a tone as she could muster and said, “oh, come on.” As if that should be sufficient in and of itself to silence me. I don’t think she meant to be unpleasant, I just think that’s the way she is. Previously, I would have launched into an increasingly louder defense of my position, possibly culminating in some not particularly well veiled character assassination. Nothing to be proud of. For whatever reason I didn’t. I suppose the thought of creating a scene at my friends house was part of that decision but truth be told that sort of nod to social grace was not really a featured element of my personality at that time. Which is also nothing to be proud of.
When I look back now I imagine that I realized something then which would always have been obvious to a more mature human being. She didn’t know what the fuck she was talking about. I don’t mean that our opinions differed, and that she was wrong. I mean she was just working without any fundamental knowledge of acting technique. When I asked her for her rationale, I wasn’t trying to be cute. I thought maybe she had an insight I might find interesting. “Oh come on” was a quick way of withering me off of my position and shutting me up. And it worked like a charm. I just let it go. Within a minute or two I let the entire exchange go and walked away. That was December 2002. It is now December 2017 and I don’t think I’ve ever had another conversation of any significant duration or consequence with her. Which is no big deal. I moved a couple of years later and I don’t see Danny often enough, no less his family. On a practical level there wasn’t much impact. And yet it definitely was a watershed moment of sorts.
Since that day I’ve tried not to engage in pointless disagreement with people who can’t articulate the position they’re professing. This is not about needing the world to agree with me. I’ve had more than my share of humbling explanations delivered to me by any number of people who thought I was wrong about something and had the goods to back it up. Learning how much it is that I don’t know about a subject might not be ego inflating but it isn’t enraging either. Being dismissed by a pretentious, brittle avatar of self regard can be. Which is yet again,nothing to be proud of, but there you go.
As a concept “oh come on” can take other forms. “You just don’t get it” seems to be some kind of variation on the theme. So do “oh please”, “give me a break”, and “anybody can see that”. It can even be worked in as a defensive posture, taking the form of a question. “Don’t you see?”, is frequently just a more cunning way of implying that failure to agree is an indication of intellectual deficit on the part of someone holding a different perspective. As a rule the less specific someone is when making a point the more likely they seem to me to be expressing some visceral response to something as opposed to a reasoned stance. Which is fine. We all have emotional connections to (or rejections of) things we experience. I just don’t get the need to present some vague, ill-defined feeling as a scholarly statement. Obviously none of this has stopped me from spouting off like an opinionated gas bag but I have tried to restrict my authoritative emanations to situations in which I can carefully substantiate what it is that I’m making a big stink out of. In lieu of that I’m quick to frame whatever I’m saying in emotional terms and make it clear that I don’t expect any one to validate those feelings.
Being a slow starter it’s taken fifteen years to graduate from a more conscious level of cognitive discipline to actually doing something concrete with all this hard won verbal rigor. Thinking about the bigger picture of my life at that age I guess that the timing was right for me to have made the decision that I did back at Danny’s house. I had (at that time) gone back to school to study ultrasound. Every day of that process was a reminder of how much there was in this world that I didn’t know. Anatomy, physiology, physics; there was no end to the information that I did not possess. The experience had left me, for the first time in my life, comfortable with admitting that there were a lot of things about which I had a great deal to learn. More important, it taught me that there was no shame in admitting it to other people. A lack of data doesn’t mean you can’t have an opinion on a subject, but it ought to give one pause before you try and express that opinion as a matter of fact. In 1964 supreme court justice Potter Stewart, while addressing a case concerning obscenity, wrote the phrase “… I know it when I see it.” To be fair that quote is always repeated as the above cited isolated phrase. The full written decision indicates that justice Stewart was simply working in conversational shorthand, not trying to bully his way through any larger lack of knowledge or understanding in order to win a point. The rest of us might do well to remember that and follow suit. Embarrassing someone into an awkward silence isn’t really the same thing as proving a point. Having the last word doesn’t make you right. Needing the last word is not unlikely to leave you looking like a fool, even if you don’t know it.