Tuesday, June 24, 2014

How Assholes Made Me Better at Debate

A Pema Chodron book I read says that those who challenge us, who trigger our strong emotions like anger and fear, have a lot to teach us. Or some shit. I doubt I'm noble or enlightened enough to truly embody the gratitude we're probably supposed to feel about that.

Yet, I have learned things during the course of having Internet Discussions, from those who have been quite hostile. Not, like rape-threat-level hostility, but more micro-aggression-level (I guess?) hostility such as regularly being assumed intellectually inferior than men in conversations and debating my basic human dignity and equality with, say, anti-LGBT people.

I've compiled some tips that I try to follow in mixed-company conversations. I'm not saying I follow these tips 100% of the time, as conversations and contexts differ widely.  And, I'm not saying others should follow them. I just thought they might be helpful for others, when confronting assholes while navigating Internet.

1) Questions

I try to limit rhetorical or satirical questions. They invite the opponent to fill in an answer made at your expense.

For instance, in a recent conversation, one anti-feminist who had spent practically an entire day WhatAboutTheMenz-ing a feminist article sarcastically asked me, "Whatever shall I do with myself now that a feminist has disagreed with me?" 

I responded, "Probably go find another feminist conversation to derail."

In general, I try to limit other people's openings to make snappy retorts.

2)  Feeding the Trolls

I know some people take a "don't feed the trolls" philosophy to Internet.  For several reasons, I am not one of those people.  

Just a couple of these reasons are that engaging with trolls and assholes has helped me understand the patterns they engage in during conversation and better predict their responses to my commentary.

For instance, after spending (seriously) years debating same-sex marriage with anti-LGBT crowds, I became well-versed in the "gender complementary" argument against equality, which many purport to be the "civil, non-bigoted" reason for opposing equality.

I learned to ask, in various ways, "You say that men and women each bring their own unique skill sets to marriage, so can you please provide a list of all the things men are incapable of providing in a relationship, and vice versa for women?"  

This question makes gender complementarists very uncomfortable.  At one anti-gay blog, I was dismissed as a "troll" for asking it. But, for the record, that list, which I've yet to see, is I think very small.  And, I think many anti-gay folks know that, no matter what they bluster about on their blogs. Which leads me to:

3) Doubt

Sometimes, a conversation that might look or feel like a loss because it's escalated beyond all repair, isn't a total loss. Sometimes, arguing rationally with someone plants seeds of doubt in the person I'm arguing with.  It's rare, in my experience, for someone to admit within a debate that their mind has been somewhat changed or they are re-thinking things, but I think it does happen.  Probably more than we know.

4) Ignorant Supremacists

I try to pay attention to when an anti-feminist man is "speaking off the cuff" about something.  If we're talking about, say, anti-gay laws in Africa, I sometimes check out Wikipedia to see if it looks like he's basically lifted his talking points, without attribution, from Wikipedia, passing them off as his own "brilliance."

I also stop, take a step back and ask myself, do his generalizing comments about feminists suggest that his knowledge of feminism is limited to what anti-feminists say feminists are and a handful of out-of-context feminist quotes?  

I sometimes call him out on it and directly challenge him to articulate his knowledge of feminists and feminist works.  I ask him what works he's read and what feminist blogs he regularly reads that inform his opinions.  I see if he can even accurately articulate what major feminist thinkers think or thought.

Oftentimes, he'll bail, not answer, or make a vague statements about "feminists in general" suggesting he doesn't have a firm, informed grasp on the nuances and differences among feminisms.

5) Feeling and Thinking

I try to limit "I feel" statements.  Do I, for instance, "feel" that something was sexist? No. I often conclude that something was sexist, using logic and arguments. I think that something is sexist, or know that it's so. 

Anti-feminists love playing on the feminists-are-hypersensitive trope.  And, even if I've laid out a rational argument as to why something is sexist, men will often dismiss it by saying something like, "your feeeeeelings have no bearing on whether that's really sexist." 

6) Swearing

In direct conversation with, especially, anti-LGBT Christians, I try not to swear. Some of these people perceive swearing as akin to a severe human rights violation. Once, for instance, I wrote, "Jesus!" in frustration on an anti-LGBT blog, and had a string of my comments deleted while the moderator publicly suggested that I was being the Most Uncivil Harasser On Internet Ever.

I've seen it happen probably hundreds of times.  A person debates atheism, religion, homosexuality, feminism, whatever with a conservative Christian.  The debater makes the "mistake" of swearing, and the Christian responds with something like, "I'm sorry, I thought this was a civilized conversation. Peace out."  

I think some people are genuinely That Offended by swearing.  Yet, I also think some people use their offense at swearing as a pretext to dismiss the other person's argument and position.  Swearing, to some people, puts you in the position of the uncivil one, even if the other person is treating your human dignity as a fun debating point.

I generally am in favor of swearing, but in some conversations I recognize that it's a distraction, so I avoid it.

Feel free to share your approaches in the comments.

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