Saturday, December 5, 2015

Verbal nonviolence

This week has been really rough for me.  So much bad news!  So much internet fighting!  I'm taking a break now from most internet stuff, because I was lying awake half the night worrying and I really can't afford that.

I always used to think that it was just conservatives who engaged in toxic groupthink.  I mean, when I commented on conservative blogs I sometimes got attacked by weird people who called me names like feminist harpy or hippy-dippy peacenik, whereas saying the same things on liberal blogs got me applause.  But, of course, you never see the dark side of a commentariat till you say something they disagree with.

It started off, of course, with the Planned Parenthood shooter.  My first thought (after "how terrible, I hope everyone is all right" of course) was, "Gee, maybe NOW the people I know will stop assuming that violent people on the fringe of a movement speak for the whole thing."  Because I am so tired of hearing people say that because some Muslims are terrorists, no Muslims should be allowed in America.  But within a day, I was terrified of the left's reaction.  Where last week they were saying, "Fringe members of a group don't define it," now they were saying, "All prolifers are terrorists."

I'll admit, some prolife rhetoric is pretty inflammatory.  But on the other hand, I am not sure there is a way to be prolife at all without saying inflammatory things.  If you believe a fetus has the same moral weight as a newborn, you also believe that thousands of murders are taking place every day.  That's something that is going to get people pretty worked up.  You can remind them that the lives of adults are just as important so violence should never be used -- and people do say this -- but you can't get around that the position itself is one that involves admitting things are epically bad.

And in fact that's what the liberal commenters I was reading were saying.  They said that prolifers should not be allowed to call a fetus a baby, because that's inflammatory.  I shouldn't have gotten involved, but I've commented in these places and everyone was always nice so I thought it was okay.  I said, "But does that mean prochoicers are no longer allowed to call abortion restrictions equivalent to rape and slavery?  Because that's inflammatory too."  The answer, of course, was, "No way, of course we will say that, because here's our reasoning for why it's literally true!"  And then they called me a terrorist, disgusting, frightening, and vile.

To me, that sounds a lot like saying, "These military tactics are bad when our enemies do them, because they're bad guys, but they're good when we do them, because we're the good guys."  But being the good guys doesn't give you justification for doing things you would disapprove of if someone else did them -- in fact, it calls into question your credentials as good guys.

If you justify inflammatory language because your side is right, you justify it for the opposition as well, because they think they're right too!  "Who is right?" is the question the whole discussion is about; you can't assume the answer at the beginning of the discussion.

Good discussion tactics will help to weed out what is false and discover what is true.  I am entirely in agreement that inflammatory language ("murder," "rape," "slavery") isn't going to do that.  It just makes people angry, which makes them less rational and therefore less good at distinguishing between true and false things.  I don't use that sort of language myself if I can help it, because I don't really see the point in stirring up people who agree with me to feel good about themselves for agreeing, while encouraging everyone who disagrees to click the red X and go find something else to read.

However, I don't believe that those who do use that sort of language are equivalent to terrorists.  If your goal is to make people upset, and you make some people so upset that they go and shoot people, the shooter is still them, not you.  I think this is true whether you're a prolife activist or a gay-rights activist -- that guy who shot up the Family Research Council claims that he did it because he had read it was a hate group, but I don't believe no one should be allowed to make lists of groups they think are hate groups.  The whole principle of freedom of speech is the belief -- optimistic as it is -- that in a free marketplace of ideas, true ones will win out over false ones.  I still believe that, though it's definitely not something that will happen without conscious effort.

I just wish that everyone would take a moment to step into other people's shoes and realize that people who disagree with them mostly feel the same way they do, just about different things.  An average prolifer believes that abortion is a serious moral issue, equivalent to murder, which someone would have to be evil or blind not to recognize.  And an average prochoicer believes that banning abortion would be equivalent to slavery, and someone would have to be evil or blind not to recognize.  Sometimes, in their incredulity that someone could think what their opponents claim to think, they make up other explanations: "they just hate women," or "they're trying to rid the world of black people."  Because no one could actually truly believe that something so obviously wrong is right!

Think about that, and you're forced to acknowledge that it's not so obvious as you thought, that smart and good people might come to another conclusion than you.  It doesn't mean you're wrong, necessarily, but it means that it's difficult and you should treat those who disagree with charity.

And then, the final conclusion is this: use the sort of language you would like your opponents to use.  The perennial problem I see is that Team X sees Team Y use some dirty rhetorical trick, like inflammatory language or fudging statistics.  First, Team X condemns Team Y for doing it, because that's just the sort of thing Team Y always does, aren't they awful?  Then they start doing the same thing, and if you call them on it, they say, "Well, we have to, because Team Y is!"  That's exactly how the cycle of violence goes -- everyone thinks they're the good guys because they're just defending themselves against those awful bad guys who treated them badly first.  In warfare, it leads to a never-ending cycle of death and destruction.  In discourse, it just leads to the plummeting of standards till we're all screaming at each other.  In both cases, the cure is the same -- to do as you'd like to be done by, even if it temporarily puts you behind.  When people are no longer threatened by you, or using your behavior as a justification for their own bad behavior, they feel free to act better themselves.  This is a good explanation of what I mean.

While I think speech should not be policed by law, that doesn't mean that I think it's without a moral dimension.  There are morally right and morally wrong ways to argue, to talk about people with whom you disagree, and to stir up those on your own side.  And if your takeaway from this is, "Yeah!  Those people I hate really need to talk better!" I think you're missing the point a little bit.  It's the people that you like that you really need to worry about, because sometimes it's hard to see past the fact that you agree with them and realize that they're not necessarily acting very well either.

14 comments:

Heather J. Chin said...

The "average prochoicer believes that banning abortion restrictions would be equivalent to slavery"?! What? Wow, I have never heard that one from my prochoice contacts, although I can see how that's the extreme version of what many of them say. Maybe it's just that the people I hang out with are more selective in their wording and discourse.

I agree with you, though. There are double standards back and forth and too often, people aren't willing or able to step back and see things without the fog of emotion and bias. I often wonder how we can stop raising people so blinded by bias and emotion so that we have a better chance at a peaceful future. But there are so many people that it'd be near impossible, I guess.

Heather J. Chin said...

The "average prochoicer believes that banning abortion restrictions would be equivalent to slavery"?! What? Wow, I have never heard that one from my prochoice contacts, although I can see how that's the extreme version of what many of them say. Maybe it's just that the people I hang out with are more selective in their wording and discourse.

I agree with you, though. There are double standards back and forth and too often, people aren't willing or able to step back and see things without the fog of emotion and bias. I often wonder how we can stop raising people so blinded by bias and emotion so that we have a better chance at a peaceful future. But there are so many people that it'd be near impossible, I guess.

Sheila said...

I'm sure it's a function of the people I talk to -- I mean, I meet people different from me mainly in internet comboxes, which isn't a place you necessarily find much moderation.

But anyway, it might seem kind of hopeless that things could be better than they are now, that people could be better. But just think what a huge leap of progress it is that these arguments are had *almost* exclusively with words and not guns. The more I study history, the more I realize what a HUGE thing it is how physically peaceful most of our lives are today. And despite the dark sides of our nature, anger and bias and fear and so on, when better ways are learned, they start to spread because everyone can see life is better that way. It just takes time and effort.

(And meanwhile my kids are learning to respect that other kids think Santa is real and that we shouldn't get upset at them for it. Hey, it's a start.)

Baroness said...

Have you ever read the Stephen Pinker book (The Better Angels of Our Nature)? It's all about how today is less violent than things used to be. I read it a couple of years ago and it was pretty good. ~ Baroness

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

This reminds me of my closest friend in uni, a Japanese girl who didn't like it when the Japanese were called "the Japanese" in English, and soon had everyone around her adding "people" to the end of every adjective used to refer to people. So we were all saying, "Japanese people," "Kiwi people," "American people," "white people," "black people," "Asian people," "gay people," "straight people," "Catholic people," "Muslim people," "Hindu people," and so on. A cludgy use of an otherwise efficient language. Not because it was necessarily more moral or compassionate, but because it was the price of keeping exactly one person we loved happy.

Only years later, when I had occasion to remember it, did I realise how unfair and even tyrannical she was being. All because a perfectly normal way of expressing oneself in English sounded harsh to her Japanese ears. But I'll bet she wouldn't have been very happy if a Kiwi moved to Japan, learned Japanese, and then insisted that all his Japanese friends change the way they speak their own language because of something he didn't like.

Now, I'm not saying that you also just being too sensitive about language, but I wonder whether you are raising the point only because others are. Inflammatory language is just another tool of rhetoric, and it doesn't have to be a shiv; it can be a scalpel. There was a time I showed someone that aid can be a double-edged sword by saying, "Bill and Melinda Gates support birth control for poor women in Africa because they don't want any more black people to be born." She had really never seen it that way before--though she remained staunchly pro-choice for years afterward--and getting to see the other perspective more clearly helped her to be a better debater. The same thing has happened with me on the receiving end of the cut--to my long-term benefit each time. Just because some people can't handle it doesn't make it a bad tool. It just means that they can't handle it.

Where we disagree is what to do about them. Your argument seems to be, "Inflammatory language gets us so fired up that we don't think straight, so it doesn't belong in reasonable discourse." Well, I've just given you a great example of inflammatory language enhancing reasonable discourse, because the person was intelligent enough to handle it. So my argument would be more like: "Inflammatory language gets us so fired up that we don't think straight, so we'd better figure out how to handle it when it comes up or we'll be putty in our opponents hands."

There's also the possibility that some people will never learn to handle it. Well, the poor will always be with us. But as Kahlil Gibran wrote (and I paraphrase), "Do not limp in front of the lame, deeming it kindness."

Sheila said...

Baroness, I've read reviews of it and definitely want to read the whole thing. I find the premise very encouraging, but it also overturned a lot of my previous ideas of "the good old days."

E, I don't think what you said was inflammatory. It's a pretty dispassionate statement of opinion, albeit without supporting facts that would make it an actual argument. If you said "Gates is the next Hitler," that would be a bridge too far. I was trying to make that distinction in my post. You can't avoid certain facts and conclusions because they are offensive to some, but if you deliberately upset people, you're just going to close their ears. So I did say on this liberal blog, "If you believe a fetus is morally equivalent to any other human, you cannot help but conclude that it is wrong to kill it like it is wrong to kill an adult." But I wouldn't have said, "Abortion is murder and all of your hands are soaked in blood for supporting it." Prolifers say stuff like this all the time, and it's totally useless. Of course in this case, commenting at all was useless, because although I had disarmed for a parley, the others were packing some serious verbal heat. No progress was to be made in such a situation; it was bound to be a brawl. And because of the lack of middle ground on abortion, this happens all the time. In my life I've observed about three calm, rational dialogues on abortion and countless pointless screaming matches. How is the truth to win out in such a scenario?

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I did follow up that statement with supporting facts, but I also led with it because I knew it would unsettle her and I wanted to have that effect. Just as she once opened with, "Enbrethiliel, I'm actually bisexual," during an argument about the nature of marriage, because she knew it would be the perfect bombshell for a person she had been sharing a room with and been seeing half-dressed for nearly a year. (It turns out that she wasn't actually bisexual; she just wanted to see how I would argue if I thought she was. =P)

While I agree with you that the truth is important and that charity is essential, I don't think debate is really at the service of either. And I think that's a feature rather than a bug. Debate has been compared to boxing, fencing, and chess because it is a sport/game like them: the object of engaging in it is to win. Or to learn something from losing so that you can win another time. (Or--and I must include this wonderful third--to bond with someone.)

I think the problem arises when people who are bad debaters think they are on the level of much better debaters. I'm reminded of a man I once knew who came *this close* to playing tennis in international competitions: these days, he just plays for fun; but he would rather not play at all than have to adjust his game to a markedly inferior opponent. Not because he's a snob, but because he'd be bored out of his skull. Which brings me to people whose best "argument" against abortion is literally to scream bloody murder: they're simply bad debaters who can only bore the rest of us. It's not that they're obscuring the truth (because debate itself already does that), but that they're frustrating everyone who can debate at a higher level.

Having said all that, I'll admit that when I enter a controversial discussion (rarer and rarer these days), I am genuinely interested in why the other person thinks the way he does. Even people whose arguments go no deeper than tired old platitudes have interesting stories about why they got to where they are. And I've found that even the most passionate believers don't want to change minds as much as they want to be listened to by someone who doesn't rudely interrupt! But even this is just a way of getting to the truth of a person, and not the truth of the matter.

Sheila said...

I don't really see the point of debate except to change minds, or to practice so you can change minds later. It's not a sport, to me (though I know a lot if people see it that way). But even as a sport, you win when you are convincing, not when you're loud or shocking or rude. Or even just by getting the last word.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Exactly! A skilled debater can convince someone to stop believing the truth. It's not about finding the truth at all.

My friend and I debated abortion for an entire school year, at the end of which she admitted that I had demolished every argument for abortion that she and others had been able to come up with (and she went out of her way to look for many of them), until she herself did not see how abortion could be supported using reason. BUT she was still 100% convinced it was okay and would continue to assist women who wanted one. Did I win or lose?

Sheila said...

John is a talented enough debater that he sometimes is called in to debate a position he doesn't agree with, and winds up doing it so successfully that he convinces half the room. (Because he has principles, he disabuses them afterward.) I do think that when a person believes something strongly supported by facts, and knows all the reasons why, they're not vulnerable to being talked around like this. However, most people's opinions are not this rational.

Your friend experienced something I have experienced more than once -- you won on the rational end, but she still *felt* she had been right at the outset. Why did she feel that way still? Well, perhaps it's just inertia from what she used to believe, or maybe she had experiences that shaped her view. But that sort of stuff isn't solvable by debate.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I love playing advocatus diaboli, too! I pretty much let my views on abortion hang out, but I consider one the best compliments I ever received after a lively discussion to be: "You're so circumspect it's not clear what you're thinking."

Just for closure . . . After graduation, my old rooommate became a midwife. Her job involved counseling women who may not have been very happy with their pregnancies, and yes, she often advised them to get abortions. Then one day, her regular-as-clockwork period was late for the first time in forever. On a purely rational level, she knew that she and her boyfriend were not ready, that a baby would ruin all their careful plans, etc.--and she knew that if she had been one of her own clients, she would have recommended an abortion. But on a totally different level, she realised she could never bring herself to have one. The pregnancy turned out to be a false alarm, but after that roller coaster, my friend found that she could also no longer bring herself to advise other women to do what she had not been able to do. But I don't think she tries defending her position with debate!

Meredith said...

"I always used to think that it was just conservatives who engaged in toxic groupthink." Hoho! ::chortles and rubs hands together:: You haven't seen toxic groupthink until you see the craziness that comes from the keyboards of transgender activists trying to convert radical feminists to their (basically religious) belief that a penis can be a female body part.

Warning, this reddit is addictive (at least for me):

https://www.reddit.com/r/GenderCritical/

Sheila said...

I once read a radfem blog arguing that all sex was rape and any woman who respected herself would know that. I thought it must be just one crazy person but then the whole combox was full of people agreeing!

Meredith said...

Oh yeah, I think I saw that blog. Crazy. I don't think that most radfems believe that, but the ones who love Andrea Dworkin tend to.

Anyway, if you want to see more non-conservatives behaving badly, just read the comments at Salon. Or read Jezebel in general. It cheered me up to see liberals and feminists on reddit admitting that they loathed Jezebel too.

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