Hey fucker, let’s talk

ImageThe topic of this post has been covered ad nauseum; nonetheless, I feel it is necessary to bring it up because it continues to be a problem.  I get that people often have strong and passionate opinions on various matters, and it is natural to want to share these opinions.  Discussion and dissent are important, but only when productive.  Too often, disagreements devolve into vitriolic spats with both sides becoming defensive, which defeats the central concept of open dialogue—you know, talking to each other not at each other.

For those of us that aren’t speaking just to hear ourselves speak, communication, particularly in the form of online comments, would be far more productive if people would follow these guidelines when disagreeing with one another. 

Don’t use threats or violent language. I shouldn’t even have to write this, but feel like I need to because of the ubiquity of these extreme types of bullying, particularly against women. Threats and violence should never be used to ‘win’/silence arguments. Don’t be that person!

No name calling, bitch, asshole, goatfucker, bleeding heart, righty, fascist, elitist, misogynist, etc.  This is the lowest form of disagreement and is completely unproductive to open dialogue.  First of all, name calling is a classic bullying tactic.  Basically, the name caller is trying to feel superior by tearing someone else down.  Second, and more importantly, name calling instantly shuts dialogue down by making the recipient (or dissenting voices) feel defensive.  Once you put someone on the defense, they often become closed to your argument, even if it is valid.  So, congratulations. No one is going to hear your valid point, because you shut down the conversation by calling someone a name.

No personal attacks.  Maybe you don’t participate in name calling, but you try to win an argument by attacking someone’s personality traits or character—what are you, five. (See how I did that?  Attacking your intelligence doesn’t open the conversation, does it?)  Again, personal attacks are a feeble form of disagreement.   Whether you call someone inconsequential, or refer to someone’s lack of expertise in a particular topic, you are not actually explaining why you disagree with someone’s point of view.  Instead, you’re implying the person’s argument is flawed just by virtue of who the person is (or what you think they know) which may or may not have anything to do with the validity of his or her argument.  Instead, specifically address the flaws in the other person’s argument.  (Seriously, it would behoove you to check this out).  Calling out minor mistakes in names, numbers, grammar, etc. almost always fall under this category too.

Don’t critique tone.  Disagreeing with someone’s tone is a low hanging fruit and is yet another weak form of disagreement.  You’re not

disagreeing with the content of someone’s argument, but the way they deliver it.  Importantly, this critique is too often gendered—women get called out on tone far more than men—which is really bullshit and needs to stop.  Women shouldn’t have to be perceived as being “nicer” just to be heard.  (As a side note, I’ve also been told by male colleagues that they actually like me more because I swear.  This is a variant of the gendered tone critique).  Moreover, tone critiques are subjective.  People bring different contexts to discussions, so, someone might find a dissenting argument to be neutral, but someone else might perceive the argument to be offensive. For example, some might find my language above offensive and others won’t.  This is especially true in written form, where arguments are often misinterpreted as more aggressive than the author intended.  While we’re on the subject, don’t invoke the tone argument to condone the poor forms of dissent discussed above.  For example, name calling, personal attacks, and other forms of bullying are not matters of taste; they are inferior forms of disagreement and are simply not productive to open discourse.

Additionally, I want to point out that by using these weak forms of disagreement, you can also end up completely turning off bystanders who may not originally have a strong feeling about the topic.  Not only are you failing to get your point across to dissenting voices, but by demeaning or demonizing dissenting views/authors, you’re also losing the argument to people who are ambivalent about the topic.  In fact, if you do end up changing the minds of ambivalent parties, it is usually not in your favor; people (overwhelmingly) tend to side with the underdog, particularly if you’re not clearly countering or refuting an argument.  Basically, you’re defeating yourself.

Make counterarguments that are specific to the central concept of the disagreement.  Too often, counterarguments are slightly (or completely) off-topic, which can lead to people arguing about different ideas with or without realization that the argument has shifted focus.  For example, when I wrote about turning a sexual harassment incident into a teachable moment, some commenters counterargued whether the incident would qualify as sexual harassment in court.  This argument was an attempt to derail the central point of the post—teaching students what it means to be respectful human beings in addition to course content.  So often, counterarguments nit-pick side issues without actually addressing the validity of the central concept.

Refute the central theme of the argument using credible sources.  Try picking out a direct passage or quote that you disagree with (not your interpretation of the argument), and explain explicitly why you believe the author is mistaken.  Additionally, the use of credible sources is important to successfully arguing your point.

You may not always convince the other side that you’re right by refuting (or countering) the dissenting view, but at least you gave it your best shot, which is far better than resorting to weak forms of dissent, which are definitely not going to win anyone over who doesn’t already share your view.

This post is certainly not an end all for constructing productive arguments, but it should be a good start.  Here are a couple additional references for crafting persuasive arguments:

Now, let’s practice productive discourse!


20 thoughts on “Hey fucker, let’s talk

  1. Something I’d like to point out about tone: Demanding that those who engage with you do it in an approved tone for your tastes effectively silences some of those most affected by a charged topic. I can’t talk about certain things in my past – bullying, abuse, and suchlike – without getting heated, because they were traumatic experiences and have a great deal of emotion attached to them. Demanding I speak about it with Vulcan-like emotional repression or not speak at all effectively silences me – on topics where I am a stakeholder. Likewise, I have friends who have been victimized by racism, homophobia, etc, who cannot detach their emotions from their arguments on such topics.

    So, the other downside of the tone argument is that it effectively silences a portion of those who are already further down on the power scale and therefore less likely to be heard and taken seriously to begin with.

    • Thanks for your comment! I absolutely agree. I probably should have expanded the section as to why tone critiques are poor forms of disagreement. Then again, it could be a post on its own.

      • Thanks, and yeah, why argument-from-tone is bad could be its own blog post series – it’s one of those fractally wrong argument techniques, I think.

        I admit I felt a bit of trepidation when I posted my comment because about 2/3 of the time, when I bring up that issue re: tone, I get “Nonsense, there’s no reason why that should silence people, I mean it’s not like I’m holding a gun to their head and telling them to shut up after all.” (degree of bloviation varies according to the person making the comment). I still felt the need to voice it because it’s my experience that I can’t do polite tone on certain issues, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that. 🙂

    • I have sympathy for this argument, but I think it’s deeply, deeply counterproductive not to watch tone carefully. My amygdala goes haywire when people start using certain condescending or indignant tones with me, and I really lose the ability to reason well when I’m feeling socially threatened. A few deep breaths and mindfulness helps, but it’s often not enough. I remember once realizing I was in this zone when someone got very upset about some comment I had made about particular statistical approaches and causality. For my own sake, I try not to talk science with people who bring a lot of negative emotional baggage into the situation–whether it’s outrage that someone else uses a certain method or scorn over someone’s ignorance. It keeps me from thinking, which often blocks progress over the issue anyway.

      When it comes to more obviously emotional and personal matters, it’s important to take things slowly. I never raised my voice or was contemptuous in my last relationship, but I remember my boyfriend saying that on some level he started panicking anyway when our relationship talks went a certain direction. (I read in some book that this is a common gender divide.) What helped was my holding his hand, smiling when I authentically could, and being honest but optimistic, constructive, and open-minded when discussing problems. I basically try do the same thing in professional situations–including in my responses to really horrific and sexist behavior. Otherwise, it’s too easy for both sides to slip into reactive and unthinking exchanges.

      All that said, I understand how hard it is.

      • I absolutely disagree. Demanding that the oppressed “watch their tone” ignores the fact that it is far, far easier for those with absolutely no stake in a discussion to do so. That you prefer a given tone does not necessarily make that tone superior.

        Without going into too much detail: Tone arguments were used to enable abuse of me, when I was younger. After all, if I couldn’t “keep a civil tongue” in my head, anything I said was invalid. At the same time, if I did my best to show Vulcan-like emotional detachment, obviously what I was saying was invalid because I wasn’t upset enough. This set up a catch-22 wherein no matter how I reported the abuse I was experiencing, it wasn’t the right way and therefore I must be lying.

        When someone uses a tone argument on me, what they usually mean is “I actually don’t care what you have to say because it’s too uncomfortable for me to hear it.” They may claim that they would listen better if I was nicer, but that is a lie. What they actually do is use my niceness as an excuse to dismiss or ignore what I’m saying, because if it was really so upsetting, I wouldn’t be so calm in talking about it.

        What I’m trying to say is: I understand that being yelled at might trigger anxiety for you. Please understand that tone arguments trigger flashbacks to abusive situations for me. What you fail to understand is that there’s competing access needs at play – if I absolutely can’t talk about certain situations without getting emotional/heated (and I can’t – even alluding to it above has me fighting back tears), when you tell me to not use a harsh tone, you are de facto telling me to shut up because my words are too uncomfortable to you. How is that fair?

        • I don’t believe in telling people to watch their tone, and I’ve never asked anyone to watch their tone. I was also seriously verbally abused in childhood, and in a way that sounds similar to you. There are topics for which I have a very, very hard time not sounding angry or furious, and I do believe I’m justified being angry about these situations. But another consequence is that I get easily triggered by people who are quite angry or critical–I associate it with I’m-a-worthless-f-up moments from childhood–and I stop thinking. It sets off panic. This means that I’m cautious of inducing similar reactions in others on the topics about which I have a harder time staying calm.

          My point was that I now try to avoid working with people who are inordinately personally aggressive. It’s one thing to be upset with someone because they said something sexist, and it’s another to think they’re pathetic scum because they used the wrong statistical test. I get how the latter might relate to falling standards and so on, but it makes for an atmosphere so charged as to discourage learning.

          I absolutely do not mean to imply that you should not be upset or enraged about certain topics, or that this sentiment should be suppressed when you talk. It is your right and probably a healthy response to a lot of life. For some issues, however, progress (enlightenment of others) might be faster with less tone–others might be able to hear you better. But maximizing the rate of progress is not your personal duty. Indeed, for the things that are hardest for you to talk about in a maximally appealing way, friends and others who are not so directly afflicted should be bearing the burden for you.

  2. How good is the dialog if nobody pays any attention to it? How much progress is made when someone can overlook the true depths of their error or the injury made by their actions or statements? How often does the nicey-nice tepid remark cause instant change?

    Your personal distaste for unpleasantness doesn’t make your assertions correct. Assessment of protracted change and the rhetoric that produced it is far more convincing.

    Out major societal debates over the past 150+ years are fertile ground for education on discourse that leads to fundamental change.

  3. Thanks for writing this, GracieABD. I’m sure it’s going to spawn a lot of great discussion!

    I wanted to push back on a couple of your points. I don’t think calling someone a misogynist or a racist is the same as calling them a goatfucker or an asshole, though admittedly plenty of people do take it that way. There have been some really great comments in other places on what makes effective dialog, and how to call someone out– I can’t think of links right now, but I’ve heard things like “don’t say someone’s a racist, say what they said is racist.” That’s probably a lot more productive as a strategy, I agree, but at a certain point, if someone moves beyond the realm of “mistake” and into the realm of intentional racism, I think it’s okay to call a racist a racist. If someone can’t be reached, and they’re refusing to engage in productive dialog, or listen, then why not say they’re a racist?

    I’ve talked a lot about the Tone Argument before, and I know there is a wide range of opinions on this topic. People in power have policed others’ tone as a way to oppress them for a long time– telling folks they’re too aggressive, or uppity. It’s a very slippery slope when you start to require “civil” or “polite” dialog, because who decides what’s civil or polite? Who gets to be the arbiter of discourse? This can be especially tricky when behavior by some folks (e.g., white men) that’s considered acceptable is not considered acceptable by others.

    I also think that there are different reasons people engage on social justice issues publicly — educating others, raising awareness, venting, creating solidarity, problem solving, networking. If a blogger at Angry Black Woman wants to go on a rant in her space, I don’t think it’s my place to tell them not to be angry, or to use language that offends me. Heck, if I inadvertantly do or say something racist here at TSW, and someone calls me out and uses strong language to do so, I remind myself that there’s a long, deep history and broader context behind that anger, and it’s not my place as a privileged person to tell them otherwise.

    If your goal is to educate, then I can definitely see how there are strategies that are more or less effective. I think if anything, the issue of language just reinforces the importance of having people hold one another accountable and doing self-educating, rather than asking others to educate you. I have white male friends who ask me about feminism or racism because they feel “safe” bumbling through those questions, and I’ll be perfectly gentle with them. In a blog post where a stranger attacks my female friends, however, I may be less gentle. I may even be perfectly uncivil, because at the end of a long day, after many transgressions, anger may be the only thing holding me together. That’s not -my- fault; that’s the fault of a society that wears us down and throws racist, sexist, homophobic, abelist crap in our faces day after day.

    It may be that I’m ultimately more effective in those private conversations when I coddle my white male friends and gently spoon-feed them a little feminism with a liberal dose of chocolate syrup. But some people aren’t going to swallow their medicine no matter how appetizing you try to make it.

    I empathize with people who are turned off by social justice discussions because of the anger. What I’m not okay with is when people in power try to control or dictate how conversations should go; that, to me, is more disrespectful and harmful than saying “hey, you’re a misogynist goat-fucker!” I think the dialogs about how effective we’re being are good– I think they need to happen as inclusive conversations from within, not mandates from privileged folks outside. And because there is such a diversity of experiences, tolerance levels, emotional thresholds, and levels of privilege, I think we should respect that there will be a diversity of emotional responses and approaches.

    Again, thanks for bringing this up. I’m sure there’s going to be a, um, lack of civility from some folks in response. I’m glad we’re having the conversation!

    • I’m very puzzled by the way some very privileged people consider “racist” or “misogynist” to be cruel, malicious, and hurtful insults without giving much thought to how hurtful actually experiencing racism and misogyny is (okay, okay, I’m not that puzzled). Fighting supremacy requires discomfiting the privileged, and to say that we must challenge oppression without making the oppressors uncomfortable is to completely neutralize any hope for change.

      Here’s a link from Jay Smooth on the difference between calling someone a racist and saying what they did is racist: http://youtu.be/b0Ti-gkJiXc. I agree to a point, but like you said Acclimatrix, eventually with enough evidence I think it’s okay to call a racist a racist.

    • Thanks for your response, Acclimatrix.

      To give a little context, many of the opinions I express in this post were especially shaped by the Wisconsin protests a few years back. I, along with many friends and colleagues, argued passionately on one side of the issue, whereas many of my family and some friends argued just as passionately for the opposing side. Arguing without emotion was impossible for most of us. However, whenever one side resorted to name calling and personal attacks, the other side often retaliated and the chance for open dialogue completely shut down. The people I knew who were initially disengaged from the argument tended to side with the person doing the best job countering or refuting their opponent, not with the person who degraded the opposing argument/person. I see this same scenario occur on a multitude of issues in the comment sections of blogs/facebook posts etc.

      With that said, I also realize that sometimes arguing isn’t intended to win over the other side. I totally agree that sometimes people engage in arguments to create solidarity, vent, etc. In writing this post, I hope that people think about why they are voicing their opinion. In retrospect, I should have been more explicit about that. If we are trying to educate or create open dialogue, then we really need to refrain from personal attacks and name calling.

      I’m absolutely not suggesting that calling someone a homophobe, racist, etc is anywhere close to being as wrong as the initial offence. I apologize that I didn’t make that more clear in my initial post. I agree that calling someone a racist or misogynist is far more loaded than calling someone an asshole. Sometimes you might want to do it for the shock factor if you think they might stop and think about what they’ve said. The problem, in my mind, is not that you’re being mean by calling them a name (seriously, who cares if some people think you’re mean), but that they often don’t know what you mean by it. The result is that they basically think you’ve just called them a stupid asshole. I know what I mean by calling someone a misogynist, but the person on the receiving end (probably >90% of the time) doesn’t. Depending on how heated the argument has become, that might be the only thing they hear. If the argument is really heated, name calling is unlikely to provoke self-education.

      It would be more productive to point out why the thing(s) they just said are racist, misogynistic, etc. “That’s a really misogynistic argument because…”. I try to give people the benefit of doubt—that it isn’t malicious intent. Most of us have some sort of privileged perspective on the world (and some have much more than others). Now, I’m not so naïve to think everyone falls into this category. There are some real assholes out there that self identify as racists, misogynists, etc. In that case, they are likely to take your name calling as a badge of honor, so really, what’s the point of engaging? (Again, if you are venting or trying to foster solidarity, that’s different because you’re not trying to engage the other side in productive dialogue).

      In retrospect, I think I was also too concise with discussing the tone argument. I linked to a good resource to provide a much more thorough treatment of the issue. I was inarticulately trying to say don’t call out people on their tone. The tone in which someone says something shouldn’t detract from their argument. I’m not suggesting that everyone has to be polite when arguing their point because tone is subjective. What may be aggressive to me is not necessarily aggressive to the next person, and that’s ok. I believe you can argue your point passionately (angrily, rudely, aggressively, etc) without resorting to name calling or personal attacks, which tends to shut down open dialogue. Your example about the comments in response to “Don’t be that dude” is a perfect example of how arguing against someone’s tone 1) is a derailment of the central point in your argument and 2) is sexist.

      Look, I’m not perfect either. I’ve called people names out of frustration—for myself and in the defense of friends and family—and I’m sure I will in the future too. Some people are real douche-canoes, and I would like nothing better than to tell them that, but that is my venting, not my attempt to foster open dialogue. I think if we are really attempting to foster open dialogue, it behooves us to think before we speak—what is the reaction we are hoping to elicit and how do we best achieve that reaction?

      • Thanks for the response — I suspected that most of this was the case, but I wrote my book-length comment in part for the opportunity for an online dialog for those reading. I think you hit the nail on the head here– it all comes down to what your goals are. It can be worth figuring out effective tools for reaching folks on the “other side” if that’s your genuine purpose.

  4. As a side note (and because my comment was already tl;dr) I struggle with the Tone Argument myself. Because I -do- want people to hear me, and I think much more is accomplished when there’s mutual respect and understanding. But I suspect that the people who are nice and mutually respectful are probably not the ones I want to call douche-canoes anyway.

    Also, sometimes people just don’t like being told they’ve done something wrong, and no amount of niceness will change it. My “Don’t Be That Dude” post had a number of “I’d probably listen more if you weren’t so mean!” comments, and I thought I was really tame! People didn’t like the term “dude,” which floored me, because it’s one I hear ALL THE TIME, and even shows up in popular culture as a term of endearment. So I think people focus on the tone as a way to derail the conversation and distract from the real issue, and the tone they object to may not even seem like it’s negative! Ugh.

  5. Thanks, GracieABD, for your thoughts, and the follow-up thoughts by Acclimatrix and others. There is a recent, and highly relevant, essay on a similar topic: http://quinnae.com/2014/01/03/words-words-words-on-toxicity-and-abuse-in-online-activism/, with a follow-up: http://quinnae.com/2014/01/07/beyond-niceness-further-thoughts-on-rage/. I’m still sorting through my thoughts on that post (and this one). My own philosophy tends to be on the polite/nice end of the spectrum (I think!), but I realize that this is my particular style and not always that of others. Part of the interesting thing about blogging and twitter for me has been observing the different styles of engagement, but this diversity comes with risks. On the one hand, as DrugMonkey pointed out, different types of discourse might be more effective in causing change over the long run. On the other hand, some parts of the community might be alienated by some types/styles of discourse over others, perhaps leading to different outcomes because their voices aren’t being heard.

    • I wanted to open dialogue on this issue, partly because I’ve been thinking about it for a while, but also partly because several commenters wanted to derail discussion past arguments/blog posts.

      I really appreciate these links! I know I’m not an expert in matters of privilege, and I still have a lot more thinking to do on this subject.

  6. One thing to consider is the general validity of your assumption that the purpose of Internet writing–tweeting, bloggeing, commenting, etc–must be to engage in “dialogue” or to communicate specifically with your interlocutors. There are other possible legitimate purposes, and some of those are well-served by mockery, disdain, and other forms of inflammatory rhetoric. Convincing someone else of the validity of one’s rational arguments is only one among many legitimate rhetorical goals.

  7. I like the idea of saying the comment was ‘racist/sexist/downright rude/whatever’ rather than calling the person a ‘name’. On the internet, we really do not know anything about the person writing – even if we think we know who they are, we might be wrong. Even if we think we have sussed out their personality, we might be wrong. Remember the early comic with two dogs, one saying ‘on the internet, no-one knows you are a dog’. So the only legitimate rebuff on the internet is to comment on what people say, not who you think they are.

    This does not stop moderators from deleting posts that ‘say’ something offensive.

    And it does not excuse people who side-step the issue by posting comments about agendas of their own.

    In person, of course, it is a different matter, when you are face-to-face you get a better idea of what the real person is like.


  8. So glad you posted something about this! It’s actually been on my mind a lot lately. It seems like people’s ability to truly listen to the opinions of others has been in steep decline! It seems (in my experiences) that when people seem to ask an opinion, it always comes with an agenda, like they ask for your opinion in order to voice theirs. The best discussions I’ve had about seriously different opinions are when I’ve truly just asked out of curiosity to hear about what someone thinks with no intention of voicing my own opinion, and usually when they do ask for mine later (not that I expect it but they tend to ask since they have enjoyed being thoroughly heard out without any back talk), it becomes a friendly discussion of us discussing our different views. I think the misconception people have now a days is that they think that once they ask you your opinion on something, they think that you are now obliged to hear what they have to say on the issue, when you’re not obliged at all. Let’s learn how to listen to people again and learn from others without becoming rude loud mouths, right?! There is so much wisdom in being able to truly listen to someone 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment, Leightonharris. I completely agree with you. Listening is an important part of keeping an open dialogue. Too often, people are so busy coming up with a response on a topic that they don’t actually listen to what the other person is saying.

  9. I think this style of dialogue only works when both parties are there in good faith. Honestly trying to do the right thing and understand each other’s perspective, and aware of and trying to compensate for power inequalities.

  10. Quick word on tone: tone is a form of communicating that, in some instances, can implicitly nuance an argument. Irony or sarcasm, for instance, can have the effect of dismissing an argument on the grounds of the abject ignorance of the opponent. Not only does sarcasm make an implicit claim, then, (i.e., “your beliefs make you stupid”), but also it makes a claim that is difficult to address because it is conveyed through non-linguistic communication. My point here is not that irony or sarcasm should be eliminated because it “isn’t nice,” rather, that linguistic communication is not the only component of an argument.

    I would argue that tone should be used just as words are: for the purpose of communicating. Tone frames a message, and can communicate a hard line on an issue, dismissal of an idea, or openness to dialogue. There is no question about it: sometimes, a hard line is absolutely the appropriate thing to communicate, and there is much to be said for impassioned resistance. But I want to suggest that both should be used not only (perhaps not even primarily) to convey how we feel about a subject so much as to frame the content of our arguments for our audience and opponents.

    Perhaps, when we are thinking of how to approach divisive issues, we ought to consider how we might use the full range of our communicative skills for persuasion, rather than for simply expressing our feelings. If Ghandi, King, and Mandela have taught us anything, after all, it is that nonviolent resistance and persuasive rhetoric are some of the best tools we have for confronting bigotry and inequality in the world.

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