by Ian Tingen
Today’s stage is social media. The plot? Keyboard cavaliers, jousting in modern discourse, have to find a way understand each other before it’s too late. The cast: Rhetoric, frustration, opinion, and facts. Run time: 20 minutes, give or take how addicted to Facebook you are.
Editor’s Note: For a small-but-fierce snippet cut from this piece, check here.
Sometime between feeding the cat when it was dark outside and feeding the cat when it was light outside, a left-leaning social scientist friend (let’s call her V) messaged me: “How do I meet middle ground with someone who doesn’t believe racism is real?” Having just spent 12 hours writing, I decided that fixing myself an old fashioned was the best way to deal with her query.
The first sips coated my throat, and a question soaked my mind: How can you find middle ground with a racist? Across the first of two fingers’ volume, I considered which anecdotes, studies, and articles might be useful. I recalled @EmmettRensin‘s thoughtful article about liberal smugness (1). I paused.
Had my friend said she was dealing with a racist? I looked back at her message. She had not. Fuck. Why, then, was I calling the other person one? The final finger served as a single-sip salve to my wounded logic. As I prepared to sleep, I knew that the misstep was not attributable to liquor or exhaustion: it was a product of my bias. I had assumed someone questioning racism was an active racist (2).
The next morning, cat fed, I asked my friend for the source of her question. She pointed me to a comment thread on her Facebook. In just 14 hours, the thread had garnered 46 replies. It was in response to a Mic article about Beyonce’s latest contribution to the Carter family coffers… I mean the controversy of “Becky” as a racist slur in Bey’s recent album Lemonade.
I started chatting with V, having found paydirt by the 7th response. Contextual reminder: that’s 7 of 46 posts, about 15% into the conversation.I pasted the comment in my chat with V, and asked what she thought of it. Here’s what it said:
Before I continue, I’m going to do a magic trick. It requires a bit of reductionism, but bear with me. Based on your stance (left or right) on social justice issues, I know what you’re thinking right now. I can even tell you what you picked up on!
If you’re a social lefty, you’re thinking: this is clearly a man, probably white, and this post is BRIMMING with privilege. What an asshole. This is the problem with America. This idiot has no clue. Someone else I can ignore.
If you’re a social righty, you’re thinking: PREACH! Here’s a guy who knows to tell those self-righteous hypocrites where to get off. God, I’m sick of being told how I’m wrong EVERY time a liberal opens their mouth.
Cool trick, right? Here’s another prediction: if you’re invested in these kinds of things, you looked at the ‘opposite’ perspective, and dismissed it. You’re focused on you, the clearly-reasoned nature of your position, and your justifications.
There’s nothing uncommon about this; what you’re doing is eminently human. It’s what the other side is doing, in fact! It’s also destroying your ability to have a discussion.
I asked V what she saw in the passage. Her response was thorough:
“I see… someone who isn’t affected by any sort of discrimination so they feel it’s a non issue. A lot of hypocrisy about violence. Someone who doesn’t know how to formulate a logical argument; many red herrings. A disregard for research.”
I agreed; many of those things were noticeable to a social scientist.
She concluded: “I’m really not sure why he’s so angry.”
V’s bias had invisibly slipped into her assessment, just like my bias had blinded me the night before. After getting V’s permission to be pedantic, I told her: “You do know why he’s angry. Look at it again.”
I clicked back to V’s page. No new input. There sat the 7th comment, truth plainly bare: “… all you guys have been trying to do is shove these things down our throats. That’s not how you spread a message all you’re going to spread is more hatred and violence by blaming and telling us what to think.”
A moment later, V replied: “Yeah. You’re right.”
As our conversation continued, V didn’t rely of the self-important, terrible things humans sometimes devolve to when we fight on the internet (3). We knew: this person’s hurt is real. That’s where to begin the discussion. Not with tomes of data. We have to treat him like his experience matters. Social justice needs more orators than warriors, these days.
If you find yourself in a situation like V did, and if your goal is dialogue, persuasion, or communication of any kind, there’s a secret technique to ensure the best chance of success. Well, three techniques. They are:
1) take all your fellow discussant’s words at face value – all of them
2) strangle your biases before you strangle anyone else – especially when you’re angry
3) remember knowledge is not the core of persuasion – understanding the other person is
These rules apply to liberals, conservatives, and the grand diversity beyond that binary. Anyone can apply these rules (4). You can. Right now. You won’t be perfect at it (I know I’m not), but personal and rhetorical growth are guaranteed.
Now go change some minds, while you open yours.
(1) A note on the biases & mechanisms at play supporting smugness. People have a tendency be oblivious to how they know what they know, blind to the depth acquired when we repeat a task or a line of thought over and over. If I asked Steve Nash to describe how he shot free throws so well, he’d likely give broad strokes: square up, have a routine, concentrate. What he wouldn’t be able to recount are the details of how he refined those things for his own ends, nor the exhaustive ways he failed while refining his technique. You’ve experienced similar dissociation when you’ve driven from your job to your home for the thousandth time, and are surprised that you’re parked. You know that you arrived home, and that you started at work – but are relatively unaware of the in-between. You just ‘are’. Often, liberal / scientific ‘argumentum ad factotum’ (if that’s not a rhetorical fallacy it needs to be) forgets that in order to respect the authority of research, one must first have YEARS OF TRAINING to understand it. Chances are not everyone you meet on social media has the same training as you. In short: you need to learn to argue better, scientists.
(2) My misstep here is a very specific instance of what I described in footnote 1. I relied on my experiences, knowledge, and stereotypes, just like any human would. Luckily (for once?!), I caught my error before it caused bigger problems. Watch out friends: our minds are fraught with such peril.
(3) BLOWING OFF STEAM: If you read the passage on hurt and focused on the form (it’s inarticulate!) before the function (I am tired of getting beat up!), check your educational privilege. If you summarily dismissed the passage because of how you feel about the person who said it, go refresh yourself on ad hominem fallacies. If your reaction was JUST PROVIDE MORE EVIDENCE! DOGPILE!, then you should review Footnote (1). If you based your rhetorical strategy on stereotypes you thought about the author, just… stop. Don’t assume you know his experience any more than you’d allow him to assume he knows yours. People are people before they’re arguments, damnit.
(4) See also this article about what science knows about effective argument. Meta, right?