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The art and craft of disagreeing without being disagreeable

While others may have some Big Thoughts on civility, I wanted to talk about some of the nuts-and-bolts ways to engage in more civil discussions. I’ve had the good fortune to have learned some lessons in interpersonal communication that have served me well over the years — and are applicable to online discussion and debate. So here goes…Assumptions about other people’s intent
In my experience, when people appear to be causing problems or disagreements:

  • Typically, they’re trying to be helpful, even if doesn't seem that way. (For example, when my Mom asks for the nth if I’ve met someone nice.) When I’ve ruled that out…
  •  Typically, the remaining people are just plain oblivious to their actions. (For example, as my friends well know, I’m prone to pontificate on things I’m really interested. I just get on a roll and fail to notice the eyes glazing over.) When I’ve ruled that out…
  • Typically, the remaining people may just have goals at that are in opposition to mine. They’re opponents, but ones who aren’t acting out of malice. (For example, when haggling with the auto dealer over buying a car.) When I’ve ruled that out…
  • Then, and only, then is it a safe bet that someone’s acting antagonistically.

This process doesn’t require Mother Theresa-esque patience — usually you can assess this quite quickly. But it’s important because each case is best handled by difference responses.

In personal life, oblivious is often the easiest to deal with. Gently point out what’s going and people are often mortified and stop/change what they were doing. In spaces like this one, it’s a thornier problem, since often the oblivious actions are tied to someone’s obliviousness about their privilege – and people often get pretty defensive when they privilege is pointed out.

(For what it’s worth, having “privilege” doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person, or that you’re actively engaged in oppressing others, it just means you’ve benefitted from outside forces. For example, among my privileges, I had a proverbial rich aunt leave me some inheritance money that allowed me to go back college and change careers. Did I work my ass off in college and in my new career? You bet. But the fact of the matter is that the opportunities that I was able to make the most of stemmed from that inheritance.)

Dealing with people are trying to be helpful is similar to dealing with oblivious people: point out how what they’re saying/doing is counter-productive from your POV. Though I’ve found it helps a lot to acknowledge their good intent. Is that giving them a cookie? Possibly. But I’ve found people are often more receptive to changing their ways if you do so, and it helps focus both of you on what you want to happen. On the other hand — particularly in activism, and in spaces like this one — you both may discover that your goals aren’t the same.  If the goals are opposed, then you’re in a situation where you’re opponents — but it’s possible to compete without being antagonists. More commonly, you’re at least have some common goals and you can figure out how to work together on those.

If someone genuinely hates you and is hostile to your interests, then they’re an enemy you’ll need to fight — and fight hard if need be. If I’m taking on the wingnuts, then the gloves are off. But it seems like too often people go straight to the attack without considering whether it’s any of the other cases.

Please don’t let me be misunderstood
Conversations have a lot of places where they can get tangled up, so it’s useful to break down how conversations occur — since normally it all happens so instantaneously we don’t even think about it.

You say something to me. What you actually said may not be what you meant to say. In one way, online discussions are clearer because everything’s in written, but they’re also missing the important bits of meta-communication that occurs in face-to-face conversation, where for example you can tell that someone’s joking.

What I hear may not be what you actually said. In face-to-face conversation, I may having trouble hearing. I might not understand, or I might misinterpret, the language you use. You might (unintentionally or intentionally) be using language that causes me to feel like you’re being irrelevant, so I don’t pay close attention, or that causes me to go into “fight or flight” mode where I stop listening. Or I may have my own issues and biases that cause me to close my ears.

From what I thought I heard, I form a conclusion, partly based the message itself, partly based on my own experience and my past experience with you. (When we talk, we often omit important information and rely on the listener to fill in the information from their own experience, which usually works, but sometimes listeners fill in different information that we expected.) I may — or may not— reach a reasonable conclusion (i.e. if a dozen people heard the same thing, would the consensus interpretation match mine?).

I then react emotionally to that conclusion. The emotional significance is not just about the message itself, but how it relates to my goals, concerns, broader feelings, values, past experiences and what else is happening around me. I also decide (usually unconsciously) whether it’s OK to feel what I’m feeling. It’s not a question of whether the feeling is pleasant, but rather whether I’ll allow myself to that particular feeling at all. For example, I may have been punished in the past for feeling angry, or may have been taught that I “should” or “should not” express certain feelings in certain situations.

Based on all that, I start thinking about possible responses. How I respond may be affected by “rules” I learned about how I “ought” to do so. For example, I was taking BART back home from Pride, when a drunken guy tugged on my wig and wanted to know if it was my real hair. If he’d tried that with my drag mother, she would’ve decked him — she grew up in a tough urban neighborhood where she and others were expected to deal any disrespect like that immediately and violently. I come from a white, middle-class, suburban background, so my response was disdainful snark and the Stare Of Death. Those “rules” may be appropriate for the current situation, they may not be.

I respond — saying something that may or may not be want I meant to say — and the cycle starts all over.

All this occurs in a blink of an eye, and we rarely give any thought to it, and most of the time it works fine. But each step depends on the prior step, and so things can quickly snowball. True to Murphy’s Law, it’s usually in the middle of stressful conversations when things get tangled. So often it’s good to take a step back and consciously walk through these steps.

Asking yourself: what am I trying to accomplish?
Are you venting, trying to convince someone, or trying to prove that People Are Wrong on the Internet.

Just as in personal relationship, sometime people are frustrated and/or hurt and/or angry, and need to just vent. And sometimes the people who are the target of that anger need to shut up and just listen, and try to understand what’s driving that anger.  

Much of the anger being vented by trans people over 101 questions derailing trans discussions is that expecting us to educate others means that all-too-often all the air gets sucked out of room, leaving no discussion of the original issue at hand.

That said, venting often isn’t sufficient to change someone else’s views.  Convincing someone is essentially selling them on your POV, and that means focusing on communicating things in ways that are meaningful to them. I’m definitely mindful of oppressed minorities being expected to be deferential to the majority, as well as being expected to educate the majority about their own oppressing. That said, it’s a not an either/or situation between spoon feeding people and telling them to just frakkin' Google it.

When I was journalist one of the professional adages was: never underestimate your readers intelligence, nor overestimate their education. News, by definition, may involve subjects your readers are unfamiliar with. So it’s standard practice that when there’s an acronym or term that may be unfamiliar, to insert a brief parenthetical explanation the first time it’s used. Likewise to provide a “nut graf,” a sentence or two after the lead that quickly explains why the story is important, or a brief summary of context or background info. (Just like I’ve done here.) The web has the added advantage over my days in print because it’s easy to link to a definition or resource. Is it pandering to the majority to do these sorts of things? Possibly. But I find it really doesn’t take much extra effort — and if nothing else helps head off well-intentioned-but-clueless 101 derailing because you can point people back to the definition or resource link.

But too often in online communities of all sorts, I’ve seen people who aren’t really interested in convincing others, but rather want to prove that they’re right and other people Are Wrong. Put a couple of these people with differing views in the same discussion and it almost always ends a pissing match that sucks the air out of the room. So when I get into a heated argument, I try to take a step back from time to time to assess my intent.

Recognizing the difference between a failure to communicate and fundamental disagreement
On a related note, often argumentative death matches seem to occur when the people involved fail to recognize that they have a fundamental disagreement, not a failure to communicate their arguments clearly. How can you tell when this is the case? When each side can summarize the other’s arguments in a way that the other side agrees accurately states those arguments. If you can’t do that, then further discussion may change people’s minds, since they may not have fully understand your POV. But once a fundamental disagreement has been reached, often further discussion makes things worse — because each side feels the other is talking past them and tends to feel “I get your point, whatya think I am, stupid?”

At that point generally you either have to agree to disagree, or reframe the issue. Thomas Friedman had a great example of reframing: When talking with the Chinese about global warning, invariably someone  insisted that they shouldn’t have to reduce their greenhouse gases, after all the West didn’t have similar constraints during its development. Which Friedman agreed those constraints were unfair. Then he said, pollute all you want because in the years before you get serious about this, “America will invent all the clean-power technologies you Chinese are going to need as you choke to death on pollution. Then we’re going to come over here and sell them all to you, and we are going to clean your clock.” Needless to say, the thought of missing out on the next big global industry caused them to rethink the issue.

Anyway, as I said earlier, I can ramble on… so I’ll stop here.

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