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Poem of the week: Differences of Opinion by Wendy Cope

Our columnist William Sieghart in his 'Poetry Pharmacy'
Our columnist William Sieghart in his 'Poetry Pharmacy' Credit: Illustration by Wesley Merritt for the Telegraph

William Sieghart’s poetry pharmacy prescribes the perfect words to help you through your problems. This week: being browbeaten

Wendy Cope is the most remarkable observer of human nature, and in this poem she perfectly encapsulates the experience of arguing with someone whose intellectual confidence makes them impossible to persuade. I think we have all been in this position, arguing with a person who simply could not admit that they were wrong, and who used their eloquence as a shield against honest engagement. My own father was an excellent example – a fiercely intelligent human rights lawyer who never knowingly lost an argument, whether or not he was in the right.

At their worst, disagreements like these can make us doubt our very sanity. The situation Cope outlines is the definition of gaslighting: dishonestly seeking to convince a person that their most fundamental certainties are wrong, and that their perceptions of the world cannot be trusted. Making them feel as if they are mad. It is important to recall, as Cope reminds us, that skill in argumentation is irrelevant to the truth.

If someone tries to make you feel small in a dispute, it is because they are on some level afraid that you are too big, too right. If they squish you, it is because they are, on some level, worried that they cannot defeat you using fair means. Some people use their performance of confidence as a bludgeon, but their seeming self-belief does not make them better than you. Your argument – if it comes from an earnest belief – is just as worthy of being heard. Most importantly of all, their refusal to be convinced doesn’t make them right.

Take a step back, if you need to. Abandon them to their own closed views. The world will go on being round.

Differences of Opinion by Wendy Cope

He tells her that the earth is flat –

He knows the facts, and that is that.

In altercations fierce and long

She tries her best to prove him wrong.

But he has learned to argue well.

He calls her arguments unsound

And often asks her not to yell.

She cannot win. He stands his ground.

 

The planet goes on being round.

The Poetry Pharmacy Returns is published by Particular (£12.99)