I've thought a lot lately about discussion, disagreement and debate. I've never seen myself as an ideologue, but I've wondered recently if others sometimes see me as one. I like to think of myself as a person who is willing to consider all sides of an issue. I’ll be the first to admit that I have strong opinions on some issues, but I’ve never thought of myself as overly political or obtuse in the way I approach them. Several recent exchanges, however, have me questioning whether I am too combative in my discourse. I’m left wondering just what the proper bounds of debate are. Are some divisive issues better to avoid entirely? When should I let comments slide? How can I disagree with someone, even forcefully, without being seen as antagonistic? When should I?
I honestly strive to keep my discourse civil. In fact, I usually go to great lengths to temper my responses. It's a conscious effort. Yet I still seem unable to avoid contention. It’s important to note that I would characterize most of my interactions as incredibly civil, but it's the small portion that is not that gnaws on me. In seeking a more impartial perspective on the matter, I’ve raised this issue with several friends who know me well. One insightfully suggested that the problem may stem from different motives. I may be seeking something entirely different out of an exchange than someone else. For example, I might be looking for a more substantial discussion about an issue, while someone else could be in it solely for the entertainment (apparently pushing my buttons is considered entertainment in some circles).
Motivations, however, aren’t always self-evident. Humor, for one, can be especially complex and difficult to discern because it often involves a considerable amount of substance. To be fair, I’m frequently guilty of resorting to sarcasm and hyperbole in exchanges for entertainment’s sake myself. Where problems arise is when one side is more invested in the exchange than another or the sarcasm has begun to cut a little too deep. I’m often confronted with sarcastic remarks in discussions that, while meant to be funny, are also intended to rebut or counter an argument I’ve made about an issue I care about. Responding to these can be a catch-22. You let them stand and it may appear that you don’t have an adequate response or are ceding ground on that particular point. On the other hand, if you respond to the substance of the argument, people might attack you as overly serious or, possibly, combative.
While I could definitely be better about ignoring the more egregious comments that are sometimes thrown my way, I can’t accept silence as the preferable response in most situations. A difference of opinion is no reason not to speak up, in fact, it’s often all the more reason to speak up. Moreover, I think a robust discussion is essential to the thought process. It’s how we should work out and reason through difficult issues. But what if you’re not trying to work or reason through anything? Even if exchanges are just for entertainment, the whole reason we’re engaging in these discussions is to interact. Silence would seem to defeat the purpose. The real question, it seems to me, is how to respond.
Humor seems like the best out in most situations. If you can come up with a witty retort, it can take the edge off a response, even if it is one addressing the merits of an issue. Humor has its problems though. First off, most of us aren’t that witty, even if we like to believe we are. Second, someone may not want to use humor because they may feel it trivializes an issue they feel strongly about. And third, humor can sometimes fail, especially if it isn’t as funny as you thought it might be. Even if it is funny, some sensitive topics like religion can be difficult to navigate with humor because people may feel judged as individuals if their views differ from yours in a particular area.
The fact that many of these exchanges at issue take place online doesn’t help matters any. As a friend recently pointed out, these online debates may invite contention because of how high the risk of misinterpretation is. Linguists claim that most of our face-to-face communication in nonverbal, which means that writing immediately has some pretty large interpretive hurdles it must overcome in order to be effectively understood. Recognizing this, we would all do well to take Stephen Covey’s advice to seek first to understand before we seek to be understood. Unfortunately, being slow to take offense is some pretty difficult advice to actually put into practice.
In the final analysis, I’m still figuring out how I can come off as less confrontational while not feeling as though I’m compromising what is most important to me in the process; perhaps it will be a life-long struggle, I don't know. I do know there are others who manage to do it, so it can be done, but just how they do it is far from self-evident (at least to me). My best guess is that it’s a combination of being slower to offend, being more tolerant of differing views, and having more of a sense of humor (I should probably squeeze ‘being better at spotting blatant provocation’ onto that list as well). I readily admit that I fail often as I try to incorporate this tempered approach into my exchanges. All-in-all it's a tough juggling act… especially when it seems like others aren’t equally as interested in juggling with you. My only hope is that I'm at least on the right track in the things I'm seeking to juggle.