The Mannerly Art of Disagreement or Jeffersonian Debate is Alive and Well on the Internet A companion piece to Peg Robinson's "The Mannerly Art of Critique"; both essays are posted monthly to alt.startrek.creative as part of the newsgroup's FAQ Macedon c1997 Table of contents: I. Introduction II. Rules of Engagement III. What If One Participant Refuses to Play Fair? IV. Is It Ever All Right to Break the Rules? I. INTRODUCTIONAmong the greatest problems faced in a public forum is how participants may disagree without descending into either personal attacks or not-so-witty one-line repartee. There are certain "rules of engagement," if you will, which can prevent name calling and other debate no-nos. But first, we must dispel the myth that polite equals namby-pamby. In fact, it is possible to disagree--even to disagree significantly--in a civil manner. Disagreement is never comfortable, but if we refrain from permitting it to become a war (or, on the internet, a flamewar) we might learn something and keep our blood pressure down at the same time. Disagreement can be fruitful. But it will be fruitful only so long as certain guidelines are followed. II. THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT 1. THE paramount rule of Jeffersonian Debate: Grant your opponent respect. This means you must allow that he or she can examine the facts and come to a different conclusion from you. This is harder than it sounds, particularly for those who view disagreement as a personal affront, or a sign of stupidity. Persons who hold such views cannot engage in fruitful debate. 2. Which brings up the second point: Learn objectivity. Be able to separate others' disagreement with your ideas from attacks on your person. Beware of the overly subjective individual who identifies with certain ideals/ideas to such an extent that disagreement is considered to constitute a personal threat. Such persons hold to the perception, "You're either with me or you're against me." Should you meet with such a one, disengage immediately unless you enjoy being subjected to Scream and Leap. 3. Part of learning objectivity means recognizing the difference between a fact and an opinion. 2+2=4 is a fact, more or less. That John Mellencamp writes great lyrics is an opinion. In order to disprove a fact, one MUST present contrary evidence. Just saying, "That's wrong!" isn't good enough. It's an opinion, not an argument. "That's wrong because..." is an argument. When presenting an opinion in a debate, it's usually a good idea to indicate in some manner that you realize it's an opinion. "It seems to me..." or "It's been my experience..." or (in nettese) the ever-popular, extremely useful IMHO (in my humble opinion). In short, avoid stating your opinion as if it were a fact: e. g. "Romance stories are gross," or "Action-adventure is boring." Likewise, another's experience or feelings cannot be "wrong" or "right." Don't confuse the existential with the objective. My experience (the existential) is MY experience and no one else can gainsay it because no one else is living in my head and body but me. What someone else might justifiably do is question my interpretation of my experience: "Well, it didn't strike me as...." Now for the fine point: While experiences can never be right or wrong, opinions arising from incorrectly interpreted experiences can be. When dealing with fiction, in which opinions and interpretation come from the experience of reading, this "fine point" is more than splitting hairs. Without encroaching too much on Peg's "Mannerly Art of Critique," being able to recognize that interpretation of fiction is opinion, not fact, is as essential to productive feedback as to productive debate. 4. Refrain absolutely from ad hominem attack. What is ad hominem attack? To criticize or belittle the one who holds a certain position rather than the position itself. Example: "How stupid can you be?" or "That just goes to show you don't know anything." Attacking your opponent rather than your opponent's ideas merely indicates a weakness in your position. It wins no brownie points. 5. Absolutely. Never. Use. Invectives. What's an "invective"? A verbal attack, often one that employs obscenities. No matter what your opponent says to you, do not respond with obscenities. Doing so shows deplorably bad manners and convinces any onlookers that you were raised in a barn. Locker-room talk doesn't belong on the debating block. There's simply no excuse for it. Period. It doesn't matter who started it. (Incidently, there is a difference between obscenity as invective and simple adjectival use: "**** you" is invective; "That's a hell of a note" or "You know damn well" is adjectival.) 6. Avoid irrelevancies and non sequiturs. Perhaps that goes without saying, but be sure your points relate to the topic. If your opponent (or someone else) says, "What do you mean by that?" or "Your point/parallel/example doesn't seem to follow," you must be able to explain how it does. By the same token, think through points and parallels before you make them to be certain they DO relate. A good way of weakening any argument is by using non sequiturs or bad metaphors. 7. Remember that there may be more than two sides to any debate. You may find yourself agreeing with neither debater, or agreeing with some points made by one, and some points made by the other. Polite debate includes frank admission of where one may agree with an opponent. It's a debate, not a war. Insisting, "You're with me or you're against me" merely points to the lack of objectivity mentioned in point #2 above. 8. In any debate, even polite ones, there is always a certain degree of side-taking: onlookers who are convinced by, or agree already with the arguments of one participant or another. Onlookers who choose to speak out should obey the same polite rules of engagement as anyone else. Also, it is helpful to state why one agrees. "John's right and you're wrong" is neither convincing nor helpful. However, "I find John's arguments persuasive because...." can contribute to the debate in a positive way. It also prevents "side-taking" from becoming mere ego-massage, which in turns helps to keep the focus on the matter at hand, not the personalities involved. It IS permissible to disagree with a friend. This goes back to being able to separate subjective from objective. I may like you very much, but still disagree with your position. 9. Persons who have tender egos should think twice before leaping into a debate. As Apollo advised, "Know thyself!" If you have a tendency to take disagreement personally--stay out of debates! People have skins of differing thicknesses. What may strike you as insulting may have been meant innocently. Assume ignorance, not malice, and inform your opponent if he or she just said something which struck as hostile or personal. Allow the other the opportunity to qualify remarks which may have been innocently meant. If your opponent says, "I didn't mean it that way!"--accept the refutation. Don't insist otherwise! 10. By the same token, recognize that phrasing is everything. Bluntness can be plain rude, not charmingly honest. If you are one who does have a thick skin, realize others may not and take some care with what you say and how you say it. Such simple things as noting that your opinion is an opinion (the "In my experience" or "IMHO" mentioned above) can go a long way toward keeping feathers smooth and unruffled. 11. Don't be afraid to employ humor, as long as the humor is not a cover for personal attack. Humor in debate keeps blood from boiling. 12. Don't use religious principles or canons as absolutes. Recognize that not everyone may hold the same beliefs. Some debates directly concern religious points, but introducing them into an otherwise unrelated issue is inappropriate. "The Bible says..." is not an argument unless all participants agree on the Bible as an authority, and on a particular interpretation of the Bible, to boot. Otherwise, the reaction will--justifiably--be, "So what?" The use of religious principles or canons in debate must be treated as opinions, not facts. 13. Be man or woman enough to concede. If one's opponent convinces--admit it! Those who can never admit to being wrong show fragile ego structure. The real point of any debate is not to win, but to learn. If one enters a debate merely to win, one has entered for the wrong reasons. Whatever the ancient Greeks thought, life is not a continual contest. 14. Know when to quit. There is a point in any debate when continued discussion ceases to be fruitful and becomes mere argument. Graceful closure is as important as graceful conduct. One does not have to have the last word, and it is permissible to say, "I'm sorry, I'm just not convinced." Agree to disagree. 15. Finally, watch grammar, especially when debating in written forms such as that found on the Internet. This is not a petty point. One cannot convince others of one's glittering wit and clever insight if it's delivered full of misspellings and grammar errors. Instead, participants will wonder how one passed eighth grade English. More, bad grammar or lack of clarity will contribute to misunderstanding. One may say the opposite of what one means, or say something that is unintentionally amusing. ("Except" means the opposite of "accept," yet I see the two all-too-commonly confused in internet posts--with sometimes laughable results.) If these simple rules are followed, even extremely controversial topics can be safely discussed. If these rules are not followed, the most mundane of matters may turn explosive. III. WHAT IF ONE PARTICIPANT REFUSES TO PLAY FAIR? In order for Jeffersonian debate to flourish, all participants must be willing to obey the rules of engagement. If one individual refuses, there's not much the rest can do but ignore him or her. Nevertheless, a couple of things to keep in mind when this happens: 1. Some people feed on conflict; this is how they get their jollies. It's a sign of unhealthy social adjustment. Such individuals will make inflammatory remarks simply to irritate. On the internet, this may manifest as "trolling": those who post intentionally controversial or insulting statements simply to stir things up. (Trolls are not usually regular participants in any particular group.) Yet there are also individuals who aren't trolls but still jump into debates with both feet for the thrill of pissing off others: gadflies. Don't confuse the two. Nevertheless, the wise response is the same: ignore them and they go away (or at least shut up). 2. Replying to rudeness in kind simply makes you look foolish. As my grandfather used to say, "Don't lower yourself to their level." Temper, temper. Grit your teeth and keep the rules of engagement. 3. In the rare circumstance that a gadfly or troll does not leave even after being ignored for weeks, or whenever one takes his or her harassment from a public forum to a private one (such as email), immediately notify that person's ISP provider (i. e. postmaster@_gadfly's address_). If the mail bounces--that is, if the real ISP provider has been camouflaged--then immediately notify your ISP provider of the harassment and ask them to track the person down, or to give you a new mail address. IV. IS IT EVER ALL RIGHT TO BREAK THE RULES? Aren't there some topics that just don't deserve Jeffersonian debate? Aren't some positions so disgusting that they shouldn't be dignified by polite responses? What about posts by hate groups, neo-Nazis, pornographers, etc.? This is a problematic question since it may lead down a slippery slope--rather like censorship. The automatic pitfall of free speech is that it IS free: people you don't like and with whom you disagree have just as much right to state their positions--short of slander--as you have to argue with them. Child pornography or its advertisement is illegal; debate about it is not... however disgusting or horrifying one may find the phenomena. There are certain topics which are so widely regarded as morally objectionable that if one attacks them with non-Jeffersonian methods such as name-calling and invective, one may be cheered by most if not all the on-lookers. Yet there are other subjects, more controversial, which involve opinions just as virulent--such as homosexuality or abortion--but about which there is far less consensus. Some consider homosexuality or abortion to be as reprehensible as child pornography or murder, and refuse to engage in any polite debate about it because, of course, they are right and everyone who disagrees is wrong (and usually disgusting and stupid, too). The reverse can be equally true: defenders of either may automatically see all opponents as bigoted or irrational (often based on past experience), and refuse to even listen to other positions as they're too busy screaming their own at the top of their (virtual) lungs. Neither side is trying to debate. They're just on rampage and should be treated accordingly: Laugh at them, ignore them, or get out of their way, but don't lower yourself to their level by copying their methods. Doing so certainly won't accomplish anything except to make you look just as foolish. If, however, you meet up with someone who IS being polite in debate--no matter what you may think of his or her position--IF YOU WISH TO CONVINCE ANYONE ELSE OF YOURS, stay polite yourself. In other words, No, it's never wise to break the rules. Not unless you're applying for God's job.