Terms of Engagement

Over at Wuthering Expectations, Amateur Reader, always a model of integrity and rigor, has been having a very interesting discussion about the possibility of engaging in really good, vigorous intellectual debate online, and whether it can be ‘safely antagonistic’ in his preferred terms. My immediate reaction was to say ‘no’, but let’s face it, I am someone who runs very fast away from conflict and has a visceral reaction to snide remarks, unkindness and, heaven forbid, outright attack. I do like intellectual debate, however, and goodness knows it’s necessary. The discussion (which you will be glad to know was extremely civilized) was a fascinating one and got me thinking about the various debates I had witnessed over the years. On the whole, the circle in which I moved was a very polite one, and the only car-crash sort of debate I ever saw took place at a psychoanalytic conference. Part of me wonders whether it weren’t staged in some way, or manufactured to meet hidden expectations. As it was, half the participators got into a fight and the other half scribbled away on their notepads, diagnosing the different disorders on view. I kept my mouth firmly shut for all kinds of reasons.

My feeling, however, is that no good ever comes out of any form of antagonism in debate; that when difference transforms into conflict, any kind of learning, or respectful appreciation of the inherent value of different views, goes out the window. The only exception to this is when you happen to have a group of people all of whom agree that they enjoy a more aggressive stance in discussion. Otherwise antagonism is the verbal equivalent of the power tool – anyone can use it, but the results can be extremely destructive.

It is very easy, however, for intellectual discussion to dissolve into conflict because knowledge is always bound up with authority, and thinking differently is inevitably a form of challenge. Does the person speaking really know what they are talking about? Why should we believe this or that, on what grounds? A relationship to authority resides at the heart of any learning process, whether we are binding to it or reacting against it. We begin by learning things because we have to, out of a blind and trusting compliance with authority. The fear of the teacher’s wrath, the fear of the exam, the fear of public humiliation, of being shown up as worthless or a fraud are undoubtedly motivating factors, too. But the stick isn’t enough on its own – there must be a carrot. And the flip side of authority, its gentle alter ego, is the act of belonging. We submit to education in the first place in order to belong to our world, to a particular culture or society and its ways of thought. Belonging is a hidden, stealthy part of the things we learn, but it is all the more powerful for being understated

For most of us, the point of thinking is to reach a point where we don’t have to think any more. A point where our ideas are organised, fixed and justified. And that point is usually one that is terrifically satisfying in relation to belonging – our ideas please our parents or our teachers, they seem in line with the famous figures we admire, the class we aspire to, the religion or political party that impresses us, or we may simply belong to a sense of what’s right, what’s ethical, what’s meaningful. But it’s why intellectual arguments, no matter how brilliant they are, rarely persuade people to think otherwise, even in situations where objective, rational arguments might be recognized as extremely valuable. We have already thought ourselves into a position that feels secure and correct. To put forward a direct and antagonistic challenge to someone’s accumulated knowledge is a risky strategy; whilst it may perhaps sting some into examining what they know, it is just as likely to put them on the defensive, angrily rebutting the intrusion into their belief system. Whether it’s academics arguing about the Oxford comma, or the locals in the supermarket discussing politics, emotional commitments and connections are every bit as much at stake as facts and figures, right and wrong. It’s why being shown up as wrong can be so disproportionately painful; it really does shake our world.

That’s why I think that the dominant quality of any debate has to be curiosity. Curiosity opens people up, keeps things non-judgmental, can even loosen some entrenched views. Being curious about what we think we know never hurt anybody. I know I respond better to someone saying ‘I’m so curious to know why you think so and so’ than to someone saying ‘You’re completely wrong.’ And if someone refuses to be even the littlest bit curious, then their closed mind is on display for all to see.


17 thoughts on “Terms of Engagement

  1. Interesting post and an interesting discussion thread. Although I do enjoy listening in on discussions I definitely am not a confrontational person. Mostly this is due to the sorts of discussions that I might be listening in on and wouldn’t feel like I am knowledgeable enough to take the sort of stand that I could feel comfortable backing up. I’m sure I have an opinion about everything, but whether it is an informed one is not always sure. Sometimes just listening to both sides helps me refine my opinions–I do like the idea of curiosity and being open to at least listening to what someone else is trying to say, but when you feel like you are certain of a belief and someone comes along and says you’re flat out wrong, it does tend to make one feel defensive.

  2. Perhaps it would be useful to clarify that John Henry Newman, the source of the term “safely antagnositic,” accepted antagonism as an unfortunate part of the world as it is. The conflict bewteen fields is an example – the sciences and humanities competing for resources – a fact that must be faced. The role of the university is to provide a place to denature the antagonism, to make it safe.

    That’s the word I’m really interested in, too, the one that caught my attention. How do we create rules or institutions, on the internet, to channel or suppress antagonism? Power tools – that’s a good example. There are rules for using them safely.

  3. I’ll be right running right behind you when the conflict heats up. Low-level friendly sparring when all parties know that it is more play than not and no one is going to change anyone’s opinion is fine now and then. Intellectual debates are fine now and then too if all involved don’t have an emotional stake in the situation. But when things get heated and each person is right and sure every other person is wrong, well, there’s no point in it because no one can hear what anyone else has to say and no one wants to admit to being wrong so it just ends with everyone angry. I know there are some people who think that’s fun, but I’m not one of them!

  4. Oh, and I think online debates are very hard to conduct in a sane way because there is a distinct lack of tone and facial expression and body language and so much gets misinterpreted.

  5. Litlove I have read about studies that show exactly what you’re saying, that people are entrenched in their views and defend them more vigorously in the face of opposing evidence. But the new point you bring out and it’s brilliant is that a conversation can go entirely differently if we approach each other with open curiosity.

  6. Very interesting conversation over at Amateur Reader’s, and very interesting thoughts from you – I love your point about curiosity. I wonder if the social nature of book blogs is one of the things that makes debate difficult. In something like a grad school seminar, we know we’re part of a group of people who have a professional relationships – some will of course be friends outside of the classroom, but most of the time they’ll know that the debate that takes place under those four walls falls under the sphere of the professional. Book blogs are strange creatures that serve many functions, though – sharing thoughts, making arguments, and also very often socialising in the comments section. When I visit someone’s blog, I feel very much like a guest at their house, so unless I’ve gotten to know them very well I don’t really feel free to deconstruct their arguments like I might in a grad school seminar. I don’t think it’s easy to separate the pure intellectual argument from the relationship level of the conversation, if that makes sense. I don’t see this as a flaw of blogs necessarily – just as a different sort of dynamics. And I think we can learn a lot from each other even without that kind of vigorous debate taking place. Not that there’s anything wrong whatsoever with being a blogger and inviting debate, of course.

  7. That discussion has been fascinating! I don’t mind a bit of disagreement or debate, but I agree that it’s so easy for things to turn personal without our ever really intending them too. And then there are people who aren’t able to let things go. If everyone involved has thought their way into a specific position, their minds are unlikely to be changed on the spot. I love what you say about curiosity; the best vigorous discussions I’ve had, online or off, are ones where everyone is trying to understand one another. Perhaps through growing in understanding, some of the people involved will adopt different positions, but that’s more of a side effect.

    Although I often just stay out of heavy debate, online or off, when I do get involved, I try to assume that everyone involved has the best of intentions, that even when they say something I find offensive, it might be that I’m misinterpreting. Online discussions in particular often blow all out of proportion because of a misunderstanding because, as Stefanie points out, we don’t have facial expression and tone to go by. And the asynchronous nature of online communication, which is of great benefit because it gives people time to think through what they’re thinking (if they use it!), is also part of the problem because debates can spin out of control while some of the people involved are offline. That’s the thing I hate most about online debate.

  8. I’m another one who likes to stay away from conflict and antagonism. If anything, I err on the side of agreeing with and praising my students too much rather than correcting them because I want them to feel comfortable in my classroom and I think they will learn more that way. The only time I can really deal with antagonism well is if I have some relationship with the person and trust them enough to know it’s safe to disagree — where we aren’t taking everything too seriously. That relationship is hard to have online (although it’s possible).

  9. For curiosity to be encouraged there must first be the understanding and comfort in knowing we don’t know all; that there are things we hadn’t thought about before. Many view what they don’t know as unnecessary and/or trivial and so the judgment is already set and curiosity is killed at the expense of the different. Given the rigors of testing in the US, the importance put upon being accepted by the masses while not allowing a formation of the self it’s easy to see how curiosity is killed. You do x,y, and z to attain the goal of a or b. It’s about a prescribed course of action, not in learning about the other diversions from the path and where they lead.

    Debating is often conducted in such a manner as well. Your point about saying “you’re wrong” is true to this issue as well. We are more invested in beliefs and pre-conceived notions, a sort of desperate clinging to them if you will, when we are deeply insecure. Curiosity is the antithesis of this as well. The sense of wonder can not be communicated in an outward manner when the fear of “wrong” and the need of “right” are the most concrete things our humanity can latch on to. Civil debates do happen online, but they are difficult and most often are fraught with people attempting conversion instead of learning and listening.

    “Curiosity killed the cat” is one of the most sinister phrases I can think of currently and one I will work hard to avoid.

  10. I had to go and look up Oxford comma – thanks for giving me the one new things I learned today 🙂

    I like the idea of a sticker for blog headers advertising your level of comfort with debate, although I’m not sure where I’d class myself – maybe ‘have a go, if you can be polite about it and we’ll see how it goes’. I’m not sure how great I am at encouraging oppossing debate at my own place though. I suspect I’m a bit like Nymeth that I’ll only really challenge where I feel comfortable that debate will be encouraged now, whereas before I’d go charging in convinced I’d be received perfectly well.

  11. Knowledge is bound up with authority

    That’s it exactly.

    I have rarely seen online “discussions” that didn’t have a strong element of hostility; part of it is the lack of affect in text, and the lack of normal give and take. And I think that for those who do equate knowledge with authority, who tend, I think, to be a little insecure, the anonymity of being online makes them more aggressive; they don’t have to face anyone over coffee the next day.

  12. Danielle – I couldn’t agree more. And I find it a conversation stopper. It’s difficult to respond creatively to someone who just says you’re wrong, without nuance or some offer of neutral ground. The thing I find disconcerting in a lot of internet discussions is when you can see commenters who HAVE got something really interesting and informative to say being ignored in favour of ones who make provocative or silly statements. It’s the schoolma’am in me! I hate seeing people pass over the sensible, measured comment to focus on the sensationalist stuff.

    Amateur Reader – yes, that’s a very useful addition here. At the university, in all learning situations, we have lecturers to mediate discussion, and to keep it respectful and focused. When you get to the next level, and have discussions with the board over resources, it can sometimes be the case that chairs don’t do the job as well with their peers as they would with the students, and ugly scenes break out. Like sport, discussions need a referee of some kind to keep them honest and fair and free from dirty strategies. I think blog hosts feel more personally involved in the debate to do that job – the job of the moderator, I guess, on some discussion boards. It’s a job that I am always happy to see being done.

    Stefanie – lol! You, me and Danielle will be running out towards safe, calm spots with cups of tea available! Well that’s exactly how I feel – everyone knows when a discussion has moved beyond its usefulness and into acrimony. I’ve rarely seen good come out of that situation. Once it gets emotional, well… it’s just unpleasant.

    Lilian – I’d be interested to read those studies if you happen to remember where you saw them (I never can recall where I’ve read something – it drives me nuts!).

    Nymeth – I completely agree. Most blog posts are written from a personal perspective (as indeed mine was), and to go onto someone’s site and then disagree with them always feels a bit more aggressive than disagreeing with a statement in a seminar, when the whole point is to pull the thought apart. Bloggers are expressing their feelings and seeking solidarity often, unless they say differently. And as you rightly point out, a person can learn a lot from the points made, and from the ensuing discussion. It just works easiest if it’s conducted gently and fairly.

    Teresa – oh yes, never respond immediately to a statment that’s riled you online! I’ve done that before and bitterly regretted it. The ability to sit back, think about what’s been said and try to see it in the best light is the most useful thing about the virtual world. It’s hard to do some days! I completely agree with you and Stefanie that lack of body language and tone of voice makes it much easier for conflict to arise. Email is a really cold medium unless you write more warmly than you normally would, and then some things come out sounding all sharp. I think there should be a permanent header online – try to understand the other person! – wouldn’t that make us all more thoughtful and considerate??

    Dorothy – absolutely, I feel very much the same. One of the signs of a good, strong relationship is that it can bear a bit of aggression and indifference and mistake making. Online, those relationships take a long while to develop and even then, can be wobbled by an unfortunate-sounding comment. When we only have words to go by, they matter too much. In reality, they are balanced by the other person’s demeanour, I think (and then, like you, I’d still rather avoid conflict if I can!).

    Kimberly – gah! this attitude that ‘what I don’t know isn’t of importance’, and ‘I just believe it’ is such an impossible one to get around. And it certainly isn’t helped by education focussing ever more narrowly on testing and teaching children just what they need to answer the questions (in the right way). I also agree that we are, as a Western culture, obsessed with being right. I saw a book recently published in the UK about the benefits of being wrong, and you remind me that I must get hold of it. It’s so developmentally useful to see that we can be wrong – keeps us humble, and thinking and open. All such good things.

    Jodie – I think you are good at opening debate because you write in such a thoughtful way, showing us how you’ve worked yourself around a problem or an issue. That’s really nice because it’s very open and it encourages other readers to talk about their experiences and thoughts. And I quite agree; you can’t take it for granted that debate is readily encouraged, and even if it is, people tend to think, oh wouldn’t it be great to throw this problem around a bit, and then when someone says something they don’t like, find themselves snapping back. Thinking about debate is so very different to being in it, alas. But delighted to introduce you to the Oxford comma (I use it myself only occasionally!) 🙂

    David – oh absolutely – to say whatever you want and then walk away, with no consequences… it’s something that can so easily be abused. I also agree that when all you have is words, they become too important, too much can be read into them, or projected onto their gaps. These things together can make internet debate really treacherous.

  13. I just came across this passage from Delacroix’s journals:

    “If a man of talent wishes to write down his thoughts on the arts, he had better express them in the order in which they come to him. He should not be afraid of contradicting himself; there is more fruit to be harvested from a rich profusion of ideas, however contradictory, than from the neat, constricted, clipped pattern of a work in which a writer has concentrated upon the form.” (The Journal of Eugène Delacroix, tr. Lucy Norton, 1951, p. 165).

    Sounds vaguely bloggish. I hope this is as true of a man of not-so-much talent. My profusion of ideas is not so rich, so I need the input of others. But if I should strive to allow myself to contradict myself, why should I fear others contradicting me?

  14. Amateur Reader – this sounds very like the start of a Darien Leader book in which he writes that his goal is not to be right or wrong, but to start the ball rolling. That’s great, when someone wants to open up a whole issue. I think the blog post, though, is often the place where someone wants to express their stance on an issue. The emotional connection to the argument is very different then.

    I also think it’s one thing to think about being contradicted or argued with in the abstract, and another to experience it. Retaliatory aggression is a really powerful force. Somehow, to make it work, to allow discussion and dissent, you have to have someone who is above the issue, who feels neutral about it, I think, and that is a wonderful thing to be, but a rare thing to be (unless, for instance, the person concerned is leading a university seminar, where there is a natural recognition that his or her role is to foster discussion but not war).

  15. It’s interesting to read this on your blog, LL, for I think of the English as a culture much better at maintaining composure in debate than we Americans.

    While your parties in Parliament were kept apart two swords’ lengths, nowadays the debates seem rigorous yet good natured. A local Brit once said to me he couldn’t watch our televised interviews of politicians because the questions were so soft (I agree with him). American interviewers don’t keep after politicians and hold their feet to the fire the way English reporters and journalists do.

    While visiting England, I several times met people who wanted to engage me in debates about America, which was fine. I think Americans would be leery of starting that way with most Europeans visiting the States.

    America, being a hodge podge of “old world” cultures, has generally devised a system of superficial niceties, as Germans, Brits, Slavs, Ialians, African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, etc. with nothing in common except a learned language and culture, bound together by a belief in a political system, had to get along.

    (My ex-GF, from Barcelona, found it phony. “People smile so nice and say ‘hi, how are you, how is your day,’ but I don’t think they really care.”)

    If anything, I’ve been impressed by the English ability to diagree and maintain composure, I wish we had more of it here. Interesting topic.

  16. Ben, when you live inside a culture I think you tend to see what ought to be changed. I’m delighted you think we are good rigorous debaters – we have programmes on television that are really good for challenging politicians and the like, but proper debate gets dumbed down in its representation by the media, and that annoys me a lot. On the whole though, it’s understood you can ask any question so long as it is ‘polite’, which is to say not intrusive, or intimate or aggressively worded. When I lived in France, I found out quite quickly that if conversation ever flagged I could raise two subjects and we could all talk for hours – one was how to cook things, and the other was how to express things. The French people I met just adored discussing how to use their language! I reckon there must be key topics in any culture – probably the weather in the UK. 🙂

  17. Your comment reminds me of something I’ve retained from Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (which I didn’t much care for). A young English student, new to a German college, is visiting am older English student’s room. (I believe the older student in still in bed, and the younger notices dusty, empty bottles, perhaps once holding beer, under the bed.)

    The older is holding forth on how in Germany you have freedom of ideas but not of emotions, and in France you have freedom of emotions but not ideas. The younger timidly asks what you have in England, and the older replies, “Neither.” (Amusing, perhaps, but not so true.)

    Your note on what the French adore expressing reminded me of that bit. In America we have freedom to express how happy and proud we are to be free. And how fierce we will be whenever anyone feels our freedom is threatened. Actually considering how our “freedom” stacks up against freedom in Europe or other countries? Not so much. But so long as we are free to choose between McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell or Kentucky Fried Chicken, we’re very proud of our freedom.

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