Most people have a cause — something they really care about. With the different social, political, and ecological crises we seem to be facing today, it’s no wonder that the debates on these topics can become heated. But in the heat and the passion sometimes the benevolence that motivates us in the first place. When we become angry and forget to recognize the humanity of those who either disagree with our cause or, worse, are on our side but have said or done something we find offensive, it’s easy to respond with anger. When anger wells up, a well meaning activist might accidentally ignite a flame war in a forum. A well intentioned comment might turn into a holiday-ruining debate between family members. The urge to prove someone wrong might lead us to misconstrue something they have said to make it sound more offensive or even monstrous. Finding a way to constructively discuss these hot button issues is the best way to change and making our world a better place, and isn’t that our goal? So next time your pet topic comes up, keep these things in mind:
Passion is tricky thing. It’s so important and motivating, but it is also the root of hatred, mean-spiritedness, and other negative emotions. When discussing issues close to your heart, try to stick to the positive. What’s good about your stance? What benefits does your solution offer? Tearing down your opponent’s view may be easy, but it will only lead to hurt feelings and anger. Instead of insults, focus on the positive. Even if you and your debate partner never see eye to eye, you’ll both leave with your dignity intact.
Avoid Personal Attacks
A lot of activist groups like to come down hard on people they see as representative of the problem they’re facing. Anything from posting mean comments to, at the extreme end, harassment and death threats or creating a flash game where you can beat-up a vlogger you disagree with. As you might notice from the previous two examples, there are people on both sides of contentious issues who engage in this sort of behavior.
These kinds of rudeness and cruelty will not cause change, but they do add to the contention, hurt, and anger that surrounds the issue. Reacting violently and personally against an individual will not help cultural issues, but it does breed fear which prevents good, honest discussion.
We live in a diverse and global culture. People are coming from many different perspectives, worldviews, and backgrounds. Not everyone has had the same life experiences as you, so what may seem obvious to you may seem more complicated to the people you are interacting with. Be willing to listen to these other views. Listening probably won’t change your mind, but it might give you a better understanding.
And remember, we are all human. We all make mistakes sometimes. We all say things we don’t mean, or don’t adequately think about what we’re typing. Be compassionate when other people make these kinds of mistakes, because chances are that you, too will make one someday.
And bear in mind that people who earnestly disagree with you are human, too.
Keep Everything in Context
I’ve seen a lot of comments that sound horrible, but when they’re put in the right context, they suddenly make sense. It might be that the the quote or sound byte was a common mistake that should be forgiven, or that within the larger context of the situation, it is more reasonable than it sounds.
This is perhaps one of the hardest tips because sometimes it requires us to do research. At times we will have to go out of our way to find out what the speaker was really talking about or what they really meant. You don’t have to do this with every quote you hear, but when it seems like someone is saying something out of context, or the quote seems too terrible to be real, investigate. What situation brought about this response?
Try not to judge people whose body of work you are not familiar with. Sometimes putting things in context requires a great deal of thorough knowledge of the person speaking. If you really get to know a person and their perspective, it is a lot easier to understand where they are coming from when they disagree with you.
If we can keep these tips in mind, we can create the kinds of dialogue that lead to real change we all want. Adding to the contention and dissent within debates about issues, doesn’t help anyone, but it does push us further away from the the conversations that could make this world a better place.