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Agree to Disagree

My brother-in-law, Alex, is incredibly smart. He’s a Harvard-educated banker in his early thirties, and he genuinely loves to debate. His style of debate isn’t to make other people feel stupid, but it’s clear that he loves feeling like he has changed someone’s mind or broadened their perspective. I’ve realized, through many conversations with him, that this is something with which I struggle.

Given the added dimension of him being older and having more life experience, it’s especially frustrating when he says something I disagree with, because I respect and value his opinion. Recently, we were at a playground chatting while watching his son (my nephew) play, and the topic turned to my future. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” he asked me. I’m used to this question. When I told him I wanted to be an author, he didn’t miss a beat. “How do you feel about the likelihood that one day books will be written by computers?” It’s not clear to me whether or not Alex actually thinks the human-authored book will be extinct in my life-time, but he certainly seemed to think that books will eventually be computer-made.

“You want to be a fiction writer, yeah?” I replied in the affirmative, and he said “that’s stories. A computer can tell a story.” Honestly, he may be right, but the question still unsettled me. As he said it though, I struggled with a response. I didn’t feel particularly affronted. In fact, the first thing I felt was anxiety. I’d never considered this possibility, and honestly it scared me. Not just for my future as a writer, but also as a reader. All of a sudden I had an image of me, about 20 years older than I am now, holding a tablet with a book cover. On it are displayed the words “Fiction Story,” by “Storybot.”

This dystopian image was alarming to me because of the ease with which I imagined it. The more Alex talked about the likelihood of this possibility, the less absurd it sounded. The thought remained uncomfortable though, and I wasn’t completely sure how to respond. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but it was along the lines of: “I’m sure people will remain attracted to stories written by human beings, rather than an algorithm.” He agreed, but argued that I’d be working hard and spending years doing something a computer could do in minutes. This frustrated me. “Well isn’t that the same for you?” I said. “Don’t you think a robot could be a banker?” He responded by saying that it’s possible, but that doesn’t make the job not worth doing. He said that there are aspects of his job that require human interaction, but bestselling novels, for the most part, follow the same pattern–a pattern that could easily be replicated by a computer program.

Usually when someone challenges my opinion, I lie awake at night, my mind teeming with clever responses I should have wittily delivered. This wasn’t one of those times, because Alex’s question is still puzzling to me. I don’t think he was necessarily incorrect, but he was so confident in his point of view. I think it’s that confidence that’s so perplexing to me.

As a young woman in a conversation with a grown man, there are identity factors that play significant roles in the dynamic of our conversation. Men are often more encouraged to speak out, and women are often expected to be more submissive and agreeable. Male peers who call out in class are praised as “boisterous” and “excited about learning;” my female peers who act the same way are called “disrespectful” and “loud.” I’m not saying that Alex is the kid who speaks out of turn, nor am I calling him sexist or ageist, but our respective identities certainly played a significant role in our conversation, and I’m confident that this situation isn’t unique.

It’s hard to say if I would handle the situation differently if I could do it over again, but I’m sure Alex will remain an excellent partner for conversation, albeit a challenging one. I enjoy talking with my brother-in-law, but I also see our conversations as opportunities to grow my own confidence as a young woman. I admire that Alex has the ability to make me re-think my own opinions and point of view. We all need those people in our lives who challenge us to think deeply about what we believe, and I’m grateful that Alex is one of those people for me. My goal is to one day be one of those people for him.

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2 Comments

Julia, this resonates with me so much! Your writing is thoughtful, in a way no computer could ever be.

Excellent! I really hope in twenty years I'll still be able to crack open a good book and flip through the pages... maybe one day it'll be your book! 

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How to cite this page

Clardy, Julia. "Agree to Disagree." 15 December 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 25, 2018) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/agree-to-disagree>.

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