Conversing on the Internet

Note: this is part two of a two part post. So if it feels a bit like you’re coming in mid-way, there’s a reason for that.

My previous post discussed how online conversations often devolve into contests over who has the wittiest insult. And for some people, that really is the point—they have an audience of dedicated readers/followers who want to see them score points against anyone trying to have a discussion. It’s a game where the point is to shut down conversation.

But most of the people I come into contact with actually do want to have conversations; they want a give and take of ideas. They have topics they want to discuss, issues they’d like other thoughtful people to weigh in on. Why is it that even these well-intentioned discussions often get derailed?

Caveat 1: As I mentioned in the previous post, please forgive teacherish tendencies—these are concepts I’ve discussed in class for ten years, and it’s hard for this not to start sounding like I’m talking with my students because that’s the way I’m used to talking about it.

Caveat 2: As I’ve said several times, there are definitely people out there whose only goal is to score points and derail otherwise civil and useful discussions. Usually they’re pretty easy to spot—they’re pulling out the insults and “clever” names. You can’t reason with these people. I suggest you ignore them. At any rate, they’re not the people I’m talking about.

I think part of it is that the conversations that come to our attention are often the most inflammatory ones—whether that’s due to the original author or the respondents or (often) both. When you see this kind of rhetoric being thrown around, you start to think it’s normal. You start to look for it—even where it might not be intentional. Maybe that’s an understandable defense mechanism (certainly many of us who were teased mercilessly as kids learned to be proactive about sensing insults so we could respond before it got out of hand). It’s how we respond to that perceived insult that determines whether or not a conversation goes off the rails.

Conversations have at least two sides, so there’s only so much you can do to encourage productive conversation. First, try to put yourself in the shoes of your audience (the person you’re talking with, whoever’s reading your blog, your followers on Twitter, the author and other readers of whatever you’re commenting on, or whoever happens to encounter the words you’re saying or writing). What kind of approach will work best to get that audience to listen to you? An argument that makes a ton of sense to you might not actually resonate with them, and repeating it louder and LOUDER won’t change that. On the other hand, there’s also a world of difference between just saying what you think your audience wants to hear (which is disingenuous and doesn’t help the conversation) and saying what you mean in a way that allows your audience to really hear it.

I know how terribly tempting it is to jump down the throats of those who disagree with us. To assume that they’re stupid or prejudiced or close-minded or whatever. To assume that we already know what they’re saying because we’ve heard some of those words before. (And sadly, sometimes that really is the case—there are some awful and stupid people in this world.)

When I was grading hundreds of papers a semester, I encountered plenty of arguments I didn’t agree with—sometimes things I vehemently disagreed with. And although it was occasionally incredibly tempting to slap an F on the paper and write, “You’re an idiot and your parents are wasting your tuition money,” that doesn’t help anything and it’s seldom true. It was my job to help them structure those arguments in such a way that other rational people might understand and agree with them, even if they would never be convincing to me. I had to remember (and it does take some frequent reminders) that intelligent and well-meaning people might have well-supported opinions that run counter to mine.

It’s through civil conversations with people who see things differently that we both learn new things and learn to better support and clarify our own ideas. Defending your argument against a raving lunatic doesn’t take much (which might be why we’re so tempted to dismiss those who disagree with us as raving lunatics). It’s typically useless, anyway, since neither side is likely to listen. But when you have a rational conversation with someone who sees things differently, at the very least you may gain some insight into why sane people might view things differently than you do. Civil conversations require two things from all participants—speaking respectfully and listening honestly. You don’t have to agree with everyone, because that isn’t a conversation, either. But you need to really listen and think about what they’re saying. Then you can disagree respectfully and share your viewpoint more effectively than if your responses are based on assumptions.

So—at least until they have a chance to prove themselves unworthy—maybe we can give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume that perhaps they do have a legitimate point to make, even if we don’t agree with it and perhaps it isn’t coming through as clearly as they’d like. Assume that it isn’t their intention to insult and demean people. Take a few minutes to think things over before we hit “send” or “submit”—especially when it’s something we feel particularly passionate about. A lot of the toxic communication I’ve seen escalates a step at a time, often due to misunderstandings and uncharitable assumptions. We need to learn to step that back.

A week of cheering for each other is awesome and a welcome breath of fresh air. But to truly change the toxic environment so many of us deal with daily, we need to treat each other civilly the other 51 weeks of the year.

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