Confessions of a She-Geek

September 6, 2015

Rules of (Online) Engagement

Filed under: Media — Teresa @ 4:04 pm
Tags: , , ,

Or, You Might As Well Face It (You’re Addicted to Outrage)

Over the past couple months I’ve participated in a handful of Facebook discussions/debates over some pretty weighty topics, including (but not limited to) abortion, gun control, the welfare state, and censorship. They’ve been equal parts enlightening and frustrating, because at some point it becomes less about exchanging ideas and promoting understanding, and more about sweeping generalizations and hurt feelings. This is not good.

A recent vlog entry by Hank Green does a pretty good job of putting my growing dismay into words. You can view it in its entirety here, but for those who’d rather skip that step, I’ll do my best to summarize.  At one time Hank truly believed that stirring the pot was a necessary first step in spurring people to make positive changes, but over time he’s come to change his mind. As Hank puts it, the state of online discourse suggests that overall, people tend to be more interested in disagreeing (and fueling one another’s sense of outrage) than problem-solving. We allow our own cognitive biases to interfere with our ability to discuss issues in a rational manner.

Based on my own experience, I think Hank is probably right. Too many times I’ve seen people accuse one another of “ignorance” as a substitute for explaining why they believe what they do. This strikes me as a pretty effective show-stopper, based on the assumption that if Person A truly understood Person B’s point of view, then there’s no way that Person B would continue to disagree with Person A. I don’t think it’s that simple. It’s possible to understand another person’s perspective and still not agree with it.

Case in point: capital punishment. I do not support it, but I understand how someone else might. I understand, but I do not agree. I am willing to listen to someone else’s reasons, and consider a different point of view, but if the other point of view boils down to, “Nope. You clearly don’t get what I’m saying, because if you did, you wouldn’t keep arguing”, there’s nowhere the discussion can go. It becomes a battle of wills, in which the “winner” convinces the “loser” that they are wrong.

I think the “I’m right; you’re wrong” mindset is a dangerous one to fall into, because it becomes an exercise in venting and name-calling, rather than a cooperative effort to open a discourse that can lead to positive change. People fall back on cut-and-dried responses which essentially reinforce the status quo, and no progress is actually made.

I realize that at some point the discussion may lead to a dead end due to some fundamental differences of opinion, but if you want to explore a topic, then truly explore it, rather than pulling out well-known arguments that don’t leave room for progress. Maybe a starting point is to develop and adhere to some basic principles of conduct; online rules of engagement, if you will. Here’s my first whack at such a code.

  • State your purpose. Are you there to discuss ideas, or just to vent? If it’s venting, that doesn’t really have a place in a debate beyond, “this really ticks me off”. Stating subjective opinions as objective facts is a discussion-killer.
  • No sweeping generalizations. “Members of group X are always Y” is useless as a point of debate. It brings things to a screeching halt, because the only possible responses are, “Yes, you’re right” or “No, you’re wrong”. It doesn’t further the discourse.
  • Cite your sources. If you’re going to say that studies show/suggest that a statement is true (or false), cite your source with a link to that source. If you can’t find the source, then remember to frame what you’re saying as an opinion; not an objective fact.
  • Stay in your lane. By that, I mean keep the focus of the discussion. This one’s pretty subjective, because by definition discussions can meander pretty far afield. But if the original post is about a specific topic, then the discussion itself should be about that topic. If the discussion veers off into a side discussion, then it’s time to start a separate one.
  • Take things at face value. This is tricky, too, because people tend to interpret things through mental filters. That’s a dangerous precedent, because if you read into someone’s statements things they don’t intend, it will get in the way of understanding what the other person really meant. If you’re not sure, ask.

So, there it is (such as it is). My whack at how to keep online discussions moving forward in a positive manner. Now let’s see how well I can do at actually following it.


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