The United States of Gunnysack and Whatabout

March 25th, 2022


(published in The Daily Memphian, March 18, 2022)

We’ve forgotten how to argue with civility. Yes, that’s possible.

Difference of opinion is as natural as breathing, and arguing is inevitable, in fact, necessary in any relationship. But as any therapist will tell you, there are rules.

We’ve forgotten the rules.

So, you and your spouse are having a disagreement that escalates into an argument that moves up in decibels and moves into things flying off tables and dogs fleeing the room … and your spouse is winning … so you reach deep into your shared past and come up with something smelly, or several somethings, totally unrelated to the matter at hand to counter … and now nobody wins.

In short, whether or not we refinish the floors really has nothing to do with the name you called my sister 20 years ago.


So, you’re getting older and the world and your place in it aren’t what you thought they’d be, the times you remember are preferable to what you see ahead, and you feel like the people in charge are – at best – talking down to you or ­– at worst – ignoring you … and now there’s an election … and a candidate reaches deep into your darkest fears and attaches each and every one to an opponent or ominous other along with a strong-arm guarantee to right the world again … and now nobody wins.

In short, the fact that you don’t have enough for retirement and a cup of coffee costs four bucks really has nothing to do with Guatemalans at the border and critical race theory.


Even if you haven’t heard the term, you’ve probably been guilty of it. We all have a collection of real and imagined personal slights and wrongs stored in our subconscious, or ugly information left unmentioned. Gunnysacking is when we draw on those ugly things to win an argument and overcome an opponent, going low and playing dirty. Any merit in the conflict and any true resolution are thereby lost.

I wrote about gunnysacking a few years ago. Regrettably, since then we have gone all the way to the bottom of the gunnysack. If America was a marriage, we’d be seeing lawyers, wondering who was going to get the children, and having each other followed.

Gunnysacking is against the rules.

So, a guy on the next stool, or the woman in the next chair, says something that is undeniably true but unfavorable about somebody or something you like. You respond with:

“Oh, yeah? Well, what about (choose any that apply) ...

... when (pick a name) did (something much worse) in (pick a time)

... when (pick a name) said (something disgusting) in (pick a time)

... when (pick a name) caused (something catastrophic) in (pick a time)

... when the (pick a party) destroyed (pick a cause) and set us back (pick a number of years)

... when (all of the above, separated by “or” and delivered rapid-fire)


You know about this one. If you haven’t seen it across your own dinner table, you’ve seen it in your social media feed and on your TV screen. Today. Whataboutism is the response to any argument with something either barely related or totally unrelated but so much worse, so horrendous, that the original argument will be overwhelmed or, at the very least, the subject changed. A fistfight has the same effect.

Whataboutism is against the rules.

Here’s the thing. If you find yourself the victim of gunnysacking or whataboutism – or both – you’re winning. Both approaches are the desperate acts of people who can’t counter an argument with salient facts or pertinent positions, people reduced to talking points, perhaps, screaming points.

There should be a referee to blow the whistle on off-the-subject and out-of-bounds.

What passes for national discourse is as silly and strident as that argument you had in the kitchen the other night while dinner burned. Cooler heads on both right and left must honestly address what’s happening to our ability to differ and reach common ground or there will be nothing left to serve us both.

Argue is not the ugly word we’ve made it. Honest debate is the basis of democracy and the American experiment. Arguments based on a lie are already lost. Arguments based on deflection and deceit are already irrelevant.

In our country, attorneys argue cases on behalf of their clients according to the rule of law. Those arguments require relevant facts and evidence.

So does that argument in the kitchen.

I’m a Memphian, and we have to talk.


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