“If you’re not having arguments, you’re not making a difference.”
That’s what my hero, Harriet Harman, says. And what Harriet says goes. Even if that’s probably the last thing my boyfriend wants to hear mid-row. As I’m sure you can imagine, quoting a feminist MP in the middle of a fight about who started the fight, which has inevitably derailed from the original subject of the fight, which neither of us can now remember, goes down like an absolute dream.
My ex-boyfriend and I didn’t fight. Ever. And, in hindsight, I can see this was problematic. Annoyances, irritations and issues were buried under an effort to keep the peace and avoid confrontation. Now, I can see fighting is a healthy MOT. “And another thing…” comes streaming out of my mouth seemingly by its own accord, as I follow the poor man around the house like a yapping dog who can smell bacon. And while this isn’t always the most tactical approach, it means we’re working things out, dig by dig, fight by fight, stroppy silence by stroppy silence. We’re doing our figurative dirty laundry (often over the actual dirty laundry).
My rows with my mum are the most dramatic. And this is because they always involve wine. “YOU ARE LETTING DOWN WOMANKIND!” she once exclaimed with a straight face. If there was a feminist police, she’d would have called them that very minute. And there are some things that are just guaranteed to get us both red-faced with raised voices, like Israel and Palestine, or Prince Harry and "TAXPAYERS’ MONEY", or how much of a pushover she thinks I am. (Trying to prove how “tough” I am in a fight has some pretty unhelpful consequences.)
'And another thing…' comes streaming out of my mouth seemingly by its own accord, as I follow the poor man around the house like a yapping dog who can smell bacon
In these sorts of arguments, I’m all passion and no thought. I go from nought to sixty in half a second. I wheel out my side of things with the drama and obnoxiousness of Nigel Farage with a passport on a televised debate. No wonder rows escalate.
And it’s because I can. Because I know that after we’ve stormed off to separate rooms or slammed doors, there’s an unconditional love that will catch all the anger, accusations and drama. It will soak it all up, like cleaning away a knocked-over wine glass, carefully wrapping shards of glass in newspaper, out of harm’s way.
But what about arguing with people who won’t necessarily forgive you? I’m SO very good at arguing with people I love, but I’m useless arguing with strangers. I don’t even yell at the zombied commuters on the train each morning to MOVE DOWN, for the love of God, because I can’t get on and there’s clearly loads of room. I don’t complain if a £9 glass of wine is a bit warm or if someone pushed in front of me. I don’t go to town on the men on Twitter who repeatedly tell me that an issue I’ve written about “has nothing to do with gender”. I don’t write back when women on the internet tell me that Johnny Depp is an “innocent man” and this is a smear campaign. See? My mum’s right. I need to be tougher.
Yet the thing is that I just love people with the courage and conviction to have arguments. I don’t mean the private-schoolboy jeering of Westminster or the nastiness of trolls on Twitter, but the Harriet Harman ability to stand in front of a room of people and go head to head, able to fight your corner with a grace and articulation and power and a belief in fighting for something important and bigger than yourself. And I also don’t mean the neat, scripted victories of Alicia Florrick in a courtroom scene with hair so glossy you can see your reflection – I mean the passion and urgency of utter conviction. Like when Jess Phillips talks about domestic violence, or Michelle Obama talks about the next generation, or when Nimco Ali talks about her niece and FGM, or when Laura Bates talks about inequality. And often these women do it in a four-minute segment with a camera in their face. (And, yes, I know men are great arguers, too. I grew up learning to love the dogged determination of Jeremy Paxman and the quips of Dennis Skinner.)
For my 30th birthday, my best friend framed a picture of my late stepmother, a documentary-maker and journalist. It's my favourite picture of her. She’s standing opposite a police officer and you can tell by the body language that they are having an argument. She’s looking in his face (well, slightly upwards; she was small in statue, mighty in spirit) and one hand is lifted in a pointy gesture. I love to remember her by the fact that she was never afraid to have the fight.
And that’s the thing about arguments with both total strangers and with the people we love – they mean embracing fear. They mean putting yourself on the line. They mean capsizing a boat of comfort and security, and putting difficult ideas and feelings and thoughts out for everyone to deal with, and possibly reject and disagree with. An argument – not a spat or an insult – but an argument, an articulation of competing, conflicting ideas and beliefs, means you have to be brave.
And, as Harriet knows only too well, you have to be brave to make a difference, and that’s why arguments are good and necessary and brilliant – even when they involve too much wine, and you can't remember how they started and you promised yourself you wouldn't cry again...
And I’ll be sure to remind my boyfriend of all this the next time my arms are flung in the air and words are streaming out of my mouth as we sort through our dirty laundry.