The Book of Mormon has a number of not so complimentary things to say about contention. Generally speaking, I have heard this interpreted as an admonition to be nice and change the subject if anything controversial comes up. My problem with this, of course, is that I am not especially nice, and I like controversy. In the interests of explaining away uncomfortable doctrines, I have my own interpretation of these passages. They constitute a commandment that “Thou shalt not identify thyself with thy arguments.”
I think that there is a difference between contention and argument. Let me start with argument. Obviously, this word has a lot of meanings but my favorite definition goes like this. An argument is a series of statements in which some of the statements, called premises, are supposed to provide reasons for believing that one of the statements, called a conclusion, is true. From this point of view, arguments are not something that we have or do. They are something that exists “out there” independent of us. Arguments consist of relationships between different concepts and facts. In this sense, I a really, really like arguments. Indeed, there is a kind of beauty and loveliness to them. They are wonderful objects to look at and play with. They are not, however, us. I am not the arguments that I examine or make. I am a human being not a relationship between propositions.
This last point is a seemingly obvious fact that is generally forgotten in controversial discussion, and I suspect that this forgetfulness is part of what is meant by contention. The fact of the matter is that generally speaking we find ourselves to be much more interesting than arguments. Secondarily, we find other people more interesting than arguments. Hence, I think that a lot of apparent discussions about arguments are not really about the arguments at all. They are about the interlocutors. The point is to establish who is right or wrong, subtle or stupid, sensitive or obtuse. In such discussions the arguments become incidental. They are merely things that we use in order to get down to what really matters to us: Showing why we are better than others. (I suspect that most arrogant people share my secret desire to be thought the smartest person in the world. This is never going to happen for obvious reasons — we are petty dumb and ignorant — but the secret desire isn’t any less motivating for being basically silly.)
I think that the main reason that we shift from arguments to persons, if only implicitly, is because we tend to associate particular virtues with particular arguments. Hence, when someone claims that propositions A, B, and C support the truth of proposition X, we tend to think that the strength of this argument tells us whether the person offering it is smart or stupid or perhaps whether they are honest or dishonest. As a result, people frequently translate “X does not follow from those claims” into “you are a stupid liar.” I suppose that at some level there is probably some truth to these translations. Stupid liars have been known to make bad arguments. On the other hand, extremely smart and good people have also been known to make bad arguments.
If I am right in what I say above, then avoiding contention consists in large part of avoiding a particular kind of intellectual temptation. It consists in avoiding the temptation to conflate persons and arguments.