On minding your tongue and
on staying on-topic when
others fail to mind their own
That’s partly because much is at stake. It’s also partly because there are myriad ways to push for change, from “Please stop” to “Do that one more time and I’ll whack you across the head with an iron mace.”
Tend too close to the latter end of the continuum and you can bet that not a few voices will cry, “Can’t we engage in polite discourse?”
The voices have a point—but only to a point.
If you’re the message sender, how you say it matters.
If my objective is to persuade dog walkers to clean up after their pets, I’ll be unlikely to achieve it by calling them disgusting troglodytes. I’d be correct about that, but I would utterly blow my objective. I suspect I’d get further with an appeal to empathy, perhaps using an emotional portrayal of an aging, arthritic neighbor who experiences excruciating pain bending over to clean up a mess. Or I might try an appeal to dog owners’ wallets by pointing out that, since every smartphone is a video camera, the odds of misdemeanor charges and fines have increased.
Likewise in social discourse, one does well to consider objectives and audience before engaging. If your objective is to persuade, hurling insults and expressing rage may work against you. May. On the other hand, hurling insults and expressing rage may be precisely the approach you want. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s approach was effective, but so was Malcom X’s.*
But then, social issues aren’t ads. Which brings me to …
If you’re the message receiver, try letting how it
was said matter less than what was said.
On its face, it sounds so reasonable: “Can’t we engage in polite discourse?” And perhaps it is—except when it becomes a diversion, which, whether or not by design, it often does. The original issue can be shoved to the side as the debate segues to the likes of, “It’s rude to call me that,” “Must you raise your voice?” “Can’t we discuss this civilly?”
Before railing at being called “that,” one might do well to engage in a bit of introspection. Insult and raised voice aside, does the shoe in any way fit? To focus on tone and word choice at the expense of substance can become a refuge for the rightly accused.
Now and then I have been cut down by a sharp, angry tongue. In some instances, the sharp tongue in question had a point.** I would have preferred a gentler delivery, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there would have been everything wrong with being too busy complaining about the sting of the rebuke to think about its meaning.
Deserved or not, no one enjoys chastisement. No one likes owning up to having committed a wrong; having to stop or change a behavior; being told what to do; entertaining the possibility that the The Other Side isn’t just a bunch of whiners playing the so-called race / gender / orientation / national origin / religion card; or conceding that saying “I only meant it in fun” doesn’t wash.
Which means that to give the least amount of ground, even to think about giving ground, is going to take some humility.
It’s also going to take a bit of empathy. Empathy comes more easily to some than others, and always comes less easily the further removed you are from the problem. That’s why mass shootings close to home bother you more than mass shootings in distant countries.
And, it’s going to take some adjusting. If people with antlers decide they don’t like being used as coatracks, you’ll have to give up your “right” to hang your bathrobe on them. Even if you meant no harm by it, even if you wonder why it never seemed to bother them before, and even if you think their complaint is silly.
It may help empathy along to remember that an issue brought to your attention for the first time is new only to you. You may wonder why a given group suddenly complains when everything seemed to be running smoothly. But what seemed to be running smoothly for you and your circle may not have been running so smoothly for people outside of it.
Sounds like real discourse to me.
*Before you point out that they weren’t equally effective or that one or the other had his warts, note that I didn’t say otherwise.
**No pun intended.