Note: This is part one of a two part post. Apparently I have a lot to say on this topic…
The week of Speak Out With Your Geek Out was a lot of fun—there were articles (and videos and songs and cartoons) all over the place about things that people love to geek out about. And overall, everyone stayed in the spirit of things and we celebrated how cool these varied interests are. As a much needed break from the overwhelming negativity that threatens to choke the internet, it was wonderful.
However, always limiting yourself to saying, “That’s awesome!” to everything anyone says shuts down meaningful conversation just as surely as insults AND YELLING IN ALL CAPS. We need to be able to disagree and to challenge each other’s assumptions or there’s very little point to our discussions. The challenge comes in figuring out how to do that without losing the spirit that motivated Speak Out.
There’s a lot of analysis of why online interactions can be toxic. There’s the lack of visual and verbal cues which we typically use to determine a speaker’s implications and motivations. There’s the anonymity and immediacy of electronic communication which enables people to type things they wouldn’t dream of saying out loud to another human being.
However, in a lot of ways, the internet is a great place to have a conversation. You can find other people who are passionate about similar things, whose experiences are fascinating and informative—people you might not ever meet on the street, and even if you did you’d probably never end up talking about these cool things you have in common. We can learn a lot from interactions with people online. And yet even these discussions so often go awry.
Please bear with me if I get a little teachery, here—it’s not at all my intention to be condescending, but my vocabulary for talking about this comes from the class I taught for nearly 10 years, so if it sounds like parts of it are coming from a class discussion…well, they are. But, while we all know this stuff in our brains, I think these are concepts that are worth reminding ourselves about from time to time. At any rate, I know I need the reminder occasionally.
When I taught rhetoric, the textbook I used suggested that everything is an argument. The first day of class, we’d talk about what “argument” typically means. Unless you’re a lawyer or in some other profession where formal arguments are a part of daily life, you probably think about screaming and yelling until one person retreats. And all too often, that’s how public communication goes—this is why you never ever read the comments. Soon it’s devolved into offensive puns and tired cliches as though the ability to turn a name into profanity somehow strengthens the logic behind whatever point you were trying to make. You may manage to chase people away from the conversation and thus be the last voice standing, but it’s highly unlikely that many people understand the (probably) legitimate point you were originally trying to get across.
In rhetoric, though (or at least in my class), “argument” needs a broader definition. Your argument is the opinion that you’re trying to explain and your goal is to get people to hear and understand you and, if you’re really good, in the end they might even come around to your way of thinking. To win an argument like this, your point needs to hold up, even when you aren’t there continuing to defend it. If the person you were talking to, upon later reflection, thinks, “You know, that person had a good point—I’ll need to consider that more,” then you’ve won that argument. It isn’t glorious and it often doesn’t happen during the heat of battle, but it’s lasting and effective. The ongoing conversation has progressed—something that yelling and insults and snarky comebacks almost never accomplish.
I know that conversation—that civil give and take of ideas where new understanding is forged—isn’t actually everyone’s goal, much as I wish it was. There’s very little we can do about people who really intend to mislead, to rile up, and to insult. And when those people seem to dominate public communication, it’s all to easy to get caught up in it. Some thoughts on avoiding those pitfalls will be coming in another post.