[personal] On communicating with people you disagree with

I experienced a major insight this weekend.

As I said recently in another context, “Any cause that requires mockery and abuse to advance itself isn’t one I need to engage with, regardless of my basic beliefs or agreement with the underlying goals.” I have too much respect for myself and others to bend before such pressure.

Here’s where the insight comes in. I listened to my own words. As much as I resist being hectored, I realized this weekend that my approach for years to conservative causes has been in part through a similar hectoring, mockery and abuse of their positions. I have failed in my respect for people I disagree with, who if they are bothering to pay attention to me, doubtless resist my approach as much as I have resisted being treated that way myself. Nothing closes even receptive minds faster than harassment for their viewpoint.

To expand on what I said above, anyone who feels compelled to assert their cause through mockery and harassment instead of engaging on the merits of their position either has a weak position or a weak understanding of their position. Any strength or virtue they may possess is eradicated by their choice of vitriol over persuasion. That description applies just as much to my often-aggressive explication of my liberal-progressive political stances as it does to the usual Internet slapfights. (Admittedly, I generally omit the ad hominem attacks and abusive obscenity so beloved of Internet “debates”, but the principle is certainly the same.)

If I want to be listened to by anyone other than those who already strongly agree with me, I need to find ways to temper my rhetoric. Otherwise I’m just stroking myself. When I’m the one being addressed, I find that I significantly prefer engagement to attempts at humiliation. My own experience has shown me how flawed my approach can be to addressing others I disagree with, and how much I owe those others precisely the same courtesy that has been so notably absent with respect to me.

Such a strange, humbling way to learn a lesson. Given the high priority I place on both kindness and engagement, it’s quite surprising to see how wrong I’ve been. Not about my beliefs, but about my tactics.

As for my conservative friends, I won’t stop tilting at you as strongly as I can, but please accept my apologies for attacking you over and over. It’s not supposed to be personal. I hope that I’ll find much better ways to speak across the divides than what I’ve been lately been shown about myself.

10 thoughts on “[personal] On communicating with people you disagree with

  1. Excellent points. It’s VERY difficult to avoid snark and vitriol when opposing certain idealogies, especially when the contrary viewpoint is obviously, painfully wrong. The tea party movement, for example…

    For what it’s worth, I’m going to try your advice. Next time I write something where it applies, I’ll bench most of the mean words. The trouble is, it’s much harder to be funny and engaging without at least a little harshness!


  2. Tessa Silberbauer says:

    Well said. And same here: it’s not that hard to avoid the worst of InternetDebateSyndrome, but it’s way to easy (for me) to indulge in mockery. Especially as I am not good at debates (in person).
    sometimes, it’s the thought that /doesn’t/ count; but how else do you start, other than intending to do better?

  3. I have to disagree here, Jay. Humor and mockery enjoy a long lineage of being used in political discourse. Yes, dipping into the vulgarities of current profanity isn’t always necessary, unilaterally disarming in the face of a strong attack isn’t wise strategy.

    Now, can I agree on keeping the humor on context and not allowing it to become a defacto ad hominim assault (the “and your hair looks funny too” gambit), yeah, I’ll agree that isn’t needed. However, if I can’t point out the absurdity in the opposition’s positions through the use of showing just how absurd it is, then the position becomes unassailable from a “We’ll just have to agree to disagree” position.

    And then for way my opposition makes their arguments (with combining six attacks into one), I believe that sometimes the proper response it just to point and laugh. In the written form that requires pointing out their strategy in their arguments and then using humor to counter it. This is because to correct everything within their statements would require several pages of statement dissection and response.

    So for me, I’ll need to reserve the right to find the crux of the argument and push it to it’s logically absurd, humorous conclusion and to make fun of their argument style.

  4. Hello, Jay! First time caller, long time listener.

    I wanted to post because I’ve been thinking about just this subject a lot lately and you really hit the nail on the head: the futility I see in so many Internet arguments has so much to do with the satisfying and crowd-pleasing nature of snark and dramatic indignation, but I’ve never met anybody swayed by either.

    (Of course, I’m not sure that people can be swayed by ANYTHING except experience, but I know that snark and drama sure don’t do the trick!)

    I love snark, and I love humor, and I love the chemical rush of indignation, and I know there’s a place for them in all debate.

    But you’ve helped articulate a question I need to ask myself before engaging people online: “Am I talking to someone, or am I just trying to sound cool and superior?”

    God knows I don’t want to join the teeming army of the latter!

    So thank you, sir.

  5. Dave Bara says:

    Thanks for posting that, Jay.

    None of us, on any side of any issue we are passionate about, is good at keeping our emotions under control.


  6. Sometimes your audience is not the people you’re talking to, but the people watching and listening. As ever with anything you right, know your audience and know your goals.

    This is why the discourse is so bad in politics in particular. The right doesn’t talk to the right, and the left doesn’t talk to the left. They’re both trying to motivate their own base to vote, and sometimes to reach the independent voters. Those strategies generally pay off better in the end, as speaking to your opponents seriously can also turn off the base. See what happened to Obama over the last year?

  7. pelican says:

    I have to disagree, too- when I’ve read your site, the positions you have mocked have been those where mockery is the only appropriate response (e.g. “I hired this nice young man from rentboy.com to carry my luggage”).

    At this point in history, many political figures are behaving in ways that are utterly ridiculous. Treating the ridiculous as if their absurd ideas and behavior are worthy of our respect, time, and serious consideration is very dangerous.

    To use a non-political example, consider the false credibility foolishly extended to the anti-vaccine movement and all the time and money spent there as a result, as well as the children now dead from preventable illnesses.

    You are not PZ Myers. I don’t see your posts as harassing or demeaning to those conservatives who are not so far out on the fringe that they’ve come completely unraveled and are now shedding fibers all over the floor.

    But, I’m not sure how you could bring more kindness or engagement to your posts without, as Steve says, posting nothing but “we’ll have to agree to disagree.” And, that’s just boring.

    In one-on-one discussions with my conservative friends, their well-placed, humorous, and decidedly-not-respectful-of-my-position jabs have gotten me to challenge ideas that I had not previously examined thoroughly. This has led, on occasion, to my moving closer to their views. I hope I’ve been able to return the favor. For most people, humor connects rather than divides.

  8. See, here, and I just lauded you last week on my blog for being a gentleman! Looks like that assertion was proven correct.

    Jay, as a small-c conservative who follows your blog (and your writing career) there have been times I’ve been greatly put off by some of the “blanket” statements you make against The Right et al. Occasionally I have chosen to engage — always respectfully — and that respect has been returned in kind. I think the key being that I knew you were never addressing me personally when you chewed out The Right on any given issue.

    But I agree, it’s worth it to remember that whenever anyone — you, me, whoever — gets up on an internet soap box and addresses the ubiquitious “them” in certain fashion, there are going to be people — often good people, whom we’d never intentionally upset — who get upset. I’ve learned that a number of times over the last two years, as some of the responses to my own e-ranting have surprised and occasionally saddened me.

    I think for me — having lived half my life in the Pacific Northwest, and now living back in Utah — it’s amazing to see how similar the “strident” people on both the Left and Right are to one another, and how much their reactionary language mirrors itself. Most troubling to me is how both extremes seem convinced that the people on the other side (“them”) are the worst, most awful kind of people. Even the moderates.

    I believe that Left and Right can have honest differences in opinion. And I’m too young to get into dickering matches about, “Who started it first!” Ask a Rightist extreme, and they will say it was the Left. Ask a Leftist extreme, and they will say it was the Right. I was born into this battle and I don’t rightly care who started it, and I don’t think it matters anymore. The older I get, the more I have this sneaking suspicion that a key to America’s future is going to be Left and Right — intelligent people, both sides — re-learning the art of talking to each other without turning everything into an ideological battle where people cease to be people, and become simply targets for rage and anger.

    And no, I am not perfect, I’ve “raged” at a lot of “them” over the years myself, and probably wish I could take a lot of it back if I really think about it.

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