Encouraging discourse

23 May

The main thing I like about the internet is that it gives me a chance to take part in a dialogue about issues that matter a great deal to me. Most of my life I have not had a voice and my opinions on even basic things were decided for me. Getting involved in political causes and political action has made me feel like I have at least a small degree of power over my environment. Even before I was out about my gender identity I would take part in political action; rallies, protests, committees, elections, and public awareness campaigns that were a tool for finding my own voice. The internet broadened that. All over there were discussions of issues that matter a great deal to me.  I could find discussions of trans issues and feminism, people who helped me put into words the things I knew to be true and people who helped me make sense of the things that I did to hurt myself and didn’t understand. The internet was a space that empowered me and gave me the courage to move forward with being me. I have primarly started this blog as a tribute to those who encouraged this discussion so that I could create my own little place to do the same.

I am sure some of you are thinking that this doesn’t sound like your internet. Civil discussion? Encouraging thought? Isn’t it mostly anger and rants?

You would be correct too. I had a particularily bad experience for me this week with that very thing. I had engaged in a dialogue with a couple people on the internet who I respect a very great deal. People who know me well would recognize at least one name since I babble about the influence her blog has had on my thinking fairly frequently. I should say up front I am prone to a bit of adulation of certain people I admire. I try to avoid it but it can be hard for me since I really have had a lack of role models in my life. I should also say this has been a really really difficult week for me so I may perhaps be more sensitive than usual. These factors may have made what followed more exteme for me than it would have been otherwise but I still think what followed would have been really hard for me anyway.

The discussion kind of went like this:

I disagreed with a blog post by someone I really really respect. I made a comment on it based on my experience of the issue. I then engaged in a discussion on social media with the individual in question with the sincere hope of understanding their point of view and to question my own point of view to make sure I was coming from a position that made sense. The discussion did not stay at that level for long.  As much as I tried to state that I was in no way saying I was right, or trying to make accusations or assumptions about this persons point of view, much of what I was saying was taken in that light. I ended up spending much of the discussion saying things like “No I am not accusing you of that”, “No that is not what I meant by that”, and “Please let me rephrase that”. During the discussion a few other people joined in including the other person who’s opinion matters to me a great deal and the discussion escalated. Some words were thrown around regarding my position that really really hurt me. I left the discussion feeling worn out and battered and like nothing I said was heard. Silenced.

I am quite sure this was not the intention of the people involved. I honestly think that these individuals would want to encourage not supress discussion so I tried to consider what went wrong. I thought back on various discussions on the internet that seemed to spiral out of control to varying degrees and what caused that. I am probably stating things that have been said before but this is what I came up with as a framework for avoiding the kind of conflict that encourages people to continue to participate and understand instead of making people withdraw:

1. Assume the person is friendly and well intentioned until it is absolutely clear otherwise. I aware of the trolls on the internet. They are hard to miss. I just think that most people are not trolls and are sincerly trying to engage in a positive way. We all get “troll guard” up at times and can be extremely defensive when disagreement starts. Trolls are out there but they are not really important in the end. The people who respect and want to engage are important and it is better to err on the side of feeding trolls rather than make sincere people quiet themselves.

2. If something feels attacking, stop, step back, examine it, then ask for clarification. Frequently in a debate something can be taken quite personally, I am very much prone to this. It is important to look at what was said and make sure that it was intended personally and was in fact saying what you think it said. There are limits to language and it can frequently be misinterpreted. The person may have phrased things badly or we may have read it in a manner that it was not intended. Thats why its good to read it again. If it still feels like an attack ask for clarification. If the clarification still feels like an attack put that out there in a way so that the person understands that is how it feels. That gives the other person the chance to answer and explain the intention. If you are the one being called out, stop and decide if this is what you meant and validate that you do not mean to attack if your intention is sincerly to encourage debate not just express feelings.

3. Be careful about language you use. If the person is not a troll, certain characterizations of the other persons arguments will probably be taken poorly and move the discussion into a debate about the characterization instead of the original topic. Also try to take into account who it is you are debating with and what there backgrounds and triggers may be. I will give you an example of this since I am still feeling hurt by some words that were used in my recent debate. In characterizing my arguments words like cissexist and phrases like “not feminist” were used. As a trans woman both those go right to my core identity and hurt more than I can say coming from people I respect. Even if my argument MAY seem to indict something along those lines you should be pretty damn sure you are right about what I am saying before you use those kinds of words in relation to someone with my background. This is not an attempt to stifle language either, you are perfectly allowed to say that, just understand the effect those words will have if you are truly trying to encourage debate with me and not trying to silence.

4. Read carefully what was said and ALL of what was said. It is really easy to get caught up in a  debate especially on a fast moving medium such as twitter. It feels like you have to make a point before the discussion moves past you. I have had to fight this urge myself and step back and take the time to read. People need time to formulate and express what they are saying. A persons intent and argument can be easily lost if a response is made before they are finished the full thought and have had a chance to clarify that thought. If the point of a debate is to come to understanding people need time to make a full argument. This also goes back to point two, by stopping and taking the time to make sure you understand what the person is saying both sides are likely to get to point of mutual understanding a lot quicker with less people hurt.

I am personally going to try to fully implement these ideas for myself because I am in no way immune to these mistakes. I plan to, on my blog and in twitter, use these as my first guiding principles. Debate is important. Everyone having a voice is important. I felt like withdrawing again after my recent debate and I still feel the hurt. I don’t want to inadvertantly cause that for anyone else. People are correct that the internet can be a hostile place where hatred and filth and anger prevail. I think it also has the ability to be empowering for people, especially those who are isolated. I want to work for that kind of internet.



9 Responses to “Encouraging discourse”

  1. willonyx May 23, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

    I am sorry. I said the thing I said to her with no idea that you were talking to her about the post. She mentioned how people thought she was saying “everyone should be pansexual.” I responded to that having no clue you two were conversing already. Your convo didn’t show ip on my twitter feed. I am sorry. It wasn’t my intention to silence. Your voice is important to me.

    • annarenees May 23, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

      It so wasnt you. You made that whole situation bearable. /hugs

      • willonyx May 23, 2012 at 8:20 pm #

        Hugs Anna. I cried a bunch today. I didn’t want to upset you.

  2. Dalillama May 23, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    I feel a bit poorly about not entering into that conversation, having read this. I had arrives after it was already ongoing and wasn’t sure if it would be pushy to step in. I have all the hell kinds of privilege going on on that topic, as a pansexual cis male, meaning that I’m even more inclined to try to avoid stepping on toes. That said, I don’t know if I could have added anything that willonyx didn’t, but I feel I could have offered more support. So , and I am on your side in this one; I don’t pretend to fully grok monosexuality, but I acknowledge that there’s a huge variety of sexual desires and orientations, and basically squat that can be done to change them. Sometimes an individuals oreintation/desire will not be identical to what they’ve assumed them to be, but that’s got nothing to do with what desires are there to begin with. I would certainly encourage people to experiment and find out what works for them for certain, because sometimes things we fantasize about turn out to be not as fun in practice, and sometime we find we like something we didn’t expect to, but if you’ve tried e.g. vaginas and they do nothing for you, then that’s pretty much that, you know?

    • annarenees May 23, 2012 at 11:23 pm #

      Thank you for the comment and its ok to not have jumped in, it would not have likely helped. The argument let me put togethor my thinking for this post so it wasnt all bad.

      As for the debate, I have just always felt that sex should be mutual. Its an important subject to me. Sex can be wonderful or terrible, empowering and disempowering, for me that all hinges on mutuality. I do agree with you experimentation is good too provided you trust the person involved and are ready for it at the moment. You can learn alot about yourself.

  3. Xanthë May 28, 2012 at 12:07 am #

    I think the most frustrating types of debates tend to be the ones where you find yourself at an irreconcilable difference with people you respect, and thus being at loggerheads raises the emotional temperature of debate. I also think there have to be the right conditions for discussion to be fruitful, and the brevity of Twitter seems to work against being able to make a sustained thread of points; arguments break down into snippet form because with 140 characters you don’t have room to add nuance and everything comes over as huge generalisations.

    Another necessary condition for fruitful discussion is the policing of people who are not interested in engaging in good faith, so that the mix of commenters minimises the bad faith contributions. Such conditions I fear were not met over at a certain place I shall not mention.

    • annarenees May 28, 2012 at 12:11 am #

      Yes, that debate has me reconsidering my position on this.

    • Xanthë May 28, 2012 at 1:12 pm #

      I don’t think anything you’ve said here needs particular rethinking because of the experience of the last few days; maybe pointing out not ignoring the trolls fails, and they shouldn’t be rewarded for their bad behaviour. I think you’ve been all different kinds of awesome through the whole sorry saga, and the people who were in engaging in bad faith with you appeared horribly disingenuous by comparison.

      • Xanthë May 28, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

        Whoops, scratch the word not before ignoring. (Damn; can you tell I got interrupted in the middle of thinking through that sentence or what?)

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