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observations and guidelines for discussing controversial issues (or any issue)

Over the past few days, weeks, months, years, etc., I’ve thought often about discussions, face-to-face and online, and how those discussions often go.

Person 1: Posts an article and/or commentary.

Person 2: expressions enthusiastic agreement.

Person 3: Asks for clarification.

Person 1: Answers with questions and statements that don’t really provide clarification. Gets a “like” from person 2.

Person 3: Asks for clarification again, while pointing out problems with previous clarification.

Person 1: Accuses person 3 of attacking them and/or calls them a horrible person.

(usually there’s a person 4, 5, 6, 7, all offering either enthusiastic agreement or vitriolic disagreement as well)

This can happen in face-to-face conversations, too. As a grad student, I encounter it often. Somehow, in a place that depends on discussion and civil discourse, any kind of disagreement is taken as an immediate challenge and attack and people often respond with varying levels of defensiveness, some understandable, but some so vitriolic that I feel as if I just insulted their family and called them a stupid-head.

So, just some thoughts on the issue:

1) When someone disagrees, don’t automatically assume that person is attacking you.

2) Asking for clarification is also not always necessarily a disagreement, and is certainly not an attack.

3) If someone is disagreeing with you and they haven’t begun their sentence with insults, try to actually hear what that person is saying. Even if (perhaps especially if) they are claiming you are endorsing sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. You may have actually said something that is endorsing an idea that you don’t want to endorse. Or, you may have said something in a way that could be interpreted like that. Offer some clarification, or ask some questions of your own. That’s how productive discussions happen.

3a) If the person does begin with insults, try not to get defensive. Instead, ask them to restate their question or concerns in a civil manner so that you can have a discussion.

4) Don’t assume that all positions that do not line up with yours are wrong. You don’t know everything.

5) Consider that, if you are speaking of a subject you haven’t experienced firsthand, and the person disagreeing with you has experienced firsthand, that your opinion on the matter may actually not be as valid as theirs. For example, telling a transgendered person that something is not transphobic if they perceive it to be. Well, if you aren’t trans, then maybe you don’t know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of transphobic remarks. Also, you are operating from a position of cis-privilege so perhaps you should consider that your privileged position could be doing something to silence the other.

6) if you don’t want to have people disagree with you, just delete your post/don’t open your mouth. This goes whether you’re right or wrong or somewhere in between. If all you’re looking for is agreement and congratulations or “likes” on Facebook, post a cat picture. Or a video about mini-pigs instead.

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