Monday, February 18, 2013

How to have a discussion (not how to win an argument)

So often when we try to make a point, if some one disagrees, our instinctive reaction is to defend ourselves. This is fair enough, particularly if it is a point we feel strongly about, or if we are trying to inform or educate others. People need to know! I have to stand up for what I believe! Dependent on temperament and inclination, the way we do this ranges in intensity, from 'sorry you feel that way' appeasement to 'fuck you' aggression.

If what we are saying has an emotional component for us, and some one criticizes it, then it's so much harder not to take it personally, even if the criticism was benign. Still, it's worth considering whether there is something to be learned from the exchange. Are we trying to win an argument or have a discussion?

Similarly, when some one says or writes something that we strongly disagree with, it's easy to launch an emotive attack. But if we choose our words more carefully, and hold back the vitriol, there is a greater chance that our words will be listened to.

When we are criticised, how we react is crucial to whether an avenue for understanding is opened or shut firmly closed. There needs to be some give and take on both sides. If some one is willing to engage with us in a thoughtful, considered way, surely the least we owe them is "I'll have a think about that" rather than "that wasn't what I meant/you're misinterpreting me/I was only joking/you're too sensitive." Because acknowledging another voice does not actually weaken our own argument. It simply says, you see things differently, perhaps I could learn from that. This  point is particularly salient when the person commenting has a lived experience of whatever it is we have said that has ruffled them.

Perhaps many people don't think things through this much: they react emotively, they write what they think, and people can like it or lump it. But this kind of communication, whilst it may take some practice if you're not used to it, doesn't actually require that much extra forethought. Once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature. Illogical responses to dissent such as "if you don't like it, don't read it" make absolutely no sense. For one thing, it's too late, I've already read it. For another, there may be aspects of the argument I agree with and other things I dispute - is it not possible to take a nuanced approach? And lastly, if I only ever read and responded to things I agree with, I would be a very dull person indeed. This nonsensical argument is the equivalent of "talk to the hand."

Similarly, starting or building an argument around the notion that "my parents did x and I'm ok" or "I did x and my kids are ok" is illogical in the extreme. A case study of one does not prove anything (nor, I might add, does it disprove anything). This spurious claim is used to back up any number of ill-conceived activities - lots of kids bounced around in the back seat of cars and are ok, but unfortunately plenty are not, hence the improved car seats and seatbelt laws. When we know better, we do better. There's nothing wrong with stating one person's case, one person's opinion, one person's experience. Of course that is completely valid, and others may feel relieved at finding some one with a similar view or experience. But saying "I did this and I'm ok" is implying that if you do it, you will be ok too, a claim that has no basis in fact. It irritates me when people say this, particularly in regard to say, the use of baby formula or particular parenting practices.

In parenting, as in life, none of us are perfect. And the guilt that's laid on seems to feel like quicksand sometimes, which is why I think people are so keen on defending their own position. But if we back down just a bit, and consider other points of view, perhaps we could take the sting out of those superficially innocuous comments. One person's "light teasing" is another person's trigger. And no we can't stop to consider every single word that comes out of our mouths, we can't be responsible for other people's feelings or whether or not they will be hurt by our words. But we can't dictate other people's reactions either, nor do we have a right to tell them what is funny and what is offensive. That is completely personal. So I think if we do or say something that a person or people try to tell us, in a reasonable way, doesn't sit well with them - and particularly if the comment relates to something that is outside our experience but within theirs - what is the harm in acknowledging their point of view, and giving its potential validity some thought?

Feminism is not static, it's not one idea, it's not cohesive. It never will be. But if we can step outside our own opinion to listen to the effect our words have on others, perhaps we can include something of their experience in the way we approach our next argument. And so we learn and grow. But it needs the person criticising to do it in such a way that they are prepared to allow for the other person's acceptance of their viewpoint. In many cases it is fair for the oppressed to be angry and vocally so, but by hurling insults at those who anger you, there is no room for education. You'll more than likely only get blocked or become involved in a slanging match. If you're the person responding to criticism, think about it this way: what if I give the person the benefit of the doubt, what if I put aside my feelings that I am being attacked and try to think this through logically? If it *still* makes no sense to you, and you can reasonably articulate why, then go ahead. But "don't read it then" is not reasonable or articulate.

Recently I have encountered this type of behaviour in social media. I have seen feminists make statements that I disagree with, and I have spoken up about it. Some of them have graciously acknowledged my points, others have brushed them off in what I feel was a fairly dismissive (although by no means hostile) way. I have also seen other conversations of varying intensity take place, ranging from civil discussion to thinly-veiled (or not at all veiled) warfare. The conversations I like best are the ones that try to find a common ground and use it as a jumping off point. Even if they then don't reach any kind of consensus on the issue at hand, when plain and concise rather than inflammatory or dismissive language is used, it usually ends well.

Feminists who sometimes use their intellect to condescend to others in what I see as a nasty way (Helen Razer for instance) are not doing feminism, nor enagaged discussion, any favours. Feminists who scream and shout and call people names? Again, maybe not going to win you much real influence. If that's not your aim, fair enough. But surely the progress of any movement or idea means getting people on board in order for it to gain momentum? When people feel talked down to, or insulted, they'll just switch off. Perhaps people like Razer don't care, she has her niche and she's sticking to it. That's ok. As long as she knows that she is  missing out on an audience because often, people don't want to hear nasty invective disguised as wit. And this tends to  happens when she is sneering at people whose experience or opinion does not match her own (case in point: mummy bloggers, women in supermarkets with crying children).

It is the same concept with any kind of privilege. It can be hard to take into account a viewpoint that does not include or affect you. But we must try. There is a danger in ignoring your own blind spot, we need to keep pushing ourselves to listen to other voices. There is a parallel between the "nice" white man, who is theoretically egalitarian and supprotive of feminism and racial equality, who still laughs at sexist or racist jokes because he can't see the harm, and feminists who say "surely a bit of teasing is ok" in regards to marginalised groups, or dismiss breastfeeding discrimination as trivial or a "non-issue".  While these feminists are working so hard to get others to see their point of view, and rightfully so, they sometimes struggle to do the same for others. This doesn't mean they don't mean well or have their own set of valid points to make, or that they are not allies (same as the "good" white guys) .I don't think it's helpful to punish people for failing to understand but I do think it's important that they have the decency to listen and acknowledge when this might be the case. Any one who dismisses or attacks some one for "getting it wrong" occasionally is going to be a very lonely human being up there on their high horse. Because when you alienate good people you are polarising debate, not educating. Some people can't see past their own anger in order to do that. And we could look to people like Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr for examples of people who are completely entitled to their rage and yet found ways to better channel it in order to affect change.

Accepting someone's viewpoint or that they feel hurt is not the same as apologising for having a view of your own. In social media, comments get conflated and misinterpreted - there is little room for tone or nuance in 140 characters. And of course we know and trust our own motivations but not necessarily those of others, particularly when we have only encountered them and their views in the process of being questioned by them. I understand that in publishing something into the public domain you leave yourself open to criticism and it can be hard to feel constantly attacked for merely voicing your own opinion, but I would caution against lumping all the would-be "attackers" in together. Abuse and trolling should never be tolerated. But it's a shame to ignore genuine reactions of disappointment that have been eloquently expressed - in this instance, I think it is the writer's responsibility to be open to hearing these reactions.

Similarly, as much as it is helpful to dissect and and examine a particular approach rather than a specific person or comment, we need to be wary of dispatching vague complaints lest the wrong audience be felt as a  target, and hackles rise once more. How is complaining about "all the snark and judgement" useful? Alluding to other nasty discussions or comparing women to "SRC Princesses" smacks of the same "mean girls" mentality you are purportedly complaining about.

No one, particularly not women, should have to play "nice" and agree all the time. Refrains of "why can't we all just get along/be kind to each other" are disingenuous. We are never going to see eye to eye all the time. Ideas should be expressed and challenged, that is how we move forward as a society. One person's "judgment" is another person's astute observation. We all judge ourselves and each other in everything we do. But the judgment goes a step further when we try to prove that our way is better than yours, or that we understand all about your motivations and disapprove. Blame, disapproval and moralising are rarely helpful. And if we can all try to show empathy for another's experience that is a place to start. I can discuss different views and approaches without  losing hold of my own values. I can be a strong advocate for breastfeeding without blaming or disparaging mothers who formula feed. Tara Moss does this exceptionally well. I love everything she writes on the subject.

I find the more about an argument that I can agree with, in the case of Jane Caro's recent piece on slacker parenting- I found much of it funny and light-hearted - the easier it is to engage with the writer and try to explain what about it made me uncomfortable. There are other pieces, of course, such as this one by Michelle Bridges that I find so abhorrent I do not know where to begin, such is my exasperation. That is not to say that I find the writer abhorrent, of course, but I do find her ideas entirely misguided and lacking in empathy. I also can't see one iota of fact or research in her argument. I have nothing personal against her, it's quite probable that in her mind she feels that she is providing a service, it's just that I could not disagree more, and I think her ideas are damaging, regardless of her intentions. It's easier in these cases to not even give the argument any oxygen but I think that is a mistake. There are some positions that are so far apart from your own it feels hardly worth arguing. People against same-sex marriage, climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers fall into that category for me. But of course it is a tricky balance - if everyone found these arguments so ridiculous as to ignore them, would they be allowed to thrive or would they just die a natural death? In that case I suppose it is worth considering what change you can hope to affect, if any, by wading in, and what level of influence the person arguing currently has. Is your comment going to fan a non-existent flame or is it going to help put out a blaze?

This is not about censorship. In fact, quite the opposite. I think that more people should be able to state their views, with less offence taken. But with a little consideration and care, there can be much less bloodshed in the process.

To make a point,and make it well, is to give others food for thought.  Feminists who do this well include bluemilk, cristy clark, mamabook and sunili. Their arguments are well thought out and considered, so that if any one has a dissenting view, they are prepared to discuss it and back themselves up with logic.

Personally, I don't get offended very easily. I try to see where the person is coming from and what might be going on for them to make them comment in such a way. Offence can be such a mealy-mouthed word that gets in the way of telling it like it is. Good satire is clever and funny, and it's good to be able to laugh at ourselves from time to time.

There is nothing wrong with having strong opinions, and sharing them. But we mustn't confuse this with being unwilling to extend our knowledge to include what others are able to teach us either. Of course ultimately it's up to us to either assimilate this new viewpoint into our own understanding or not, but stopping to listen is a great way to start.

As feminists, aren't we asking men to think outside of their own experience, to consider that what matters to people other than themselves is important? Shouldn't we ask each other to do the same? And don't we want to work with men rather than against them, to help those who don't quite understand (but have good intentions) to appreciate our experiences? Shouldn't we give each other the same courtesy?

As I was mulling over all of these ideas and wondering how to best express them, the following two songs came on my ipod, randomly.

The first one is an example of the danger of letting your pride get in the way of allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

Suzanne Vega - The Queen and the Soldier

The second one is a great anthemic track about how we are really all just after the same thing in the end.

Mark Ronson feat Katy B- Anywhere in the World


  1. Having my assumptions challenged is far more beneficial than having them confirmed. I wouldn't say it's quite second nature yet, but I'm trying. I don't weigh into feminist debates on Twitter as much as I would probably like to for a few of the reasons you've mentioned, but I definitely look to the tweeps you've mentioned to broaden my own perspectives since I'm no academic. As for the Michelle Bridges article - Gah!

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