Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Engagement vs. Debate

If you're a regular-ish reader, you can probably tell that I haven't exactly been all that pugnacious lately. Hell, I've been downright docile. After what turned into a pretty tumultuous January, I've been doing some thinking about what I want this blog to be and how I want to be in the world of the blogosphere. Flame wars and dust-ups are fun and give you a jolt and, I won't lie, they're awesome for hit counts. But after the last go-round about race, I walked away feeling a bit...burned out by it all. I've spent some time trying to figure out why and what comes next.

I don't want to drag her back into any of this, but RVCBard's decision to check out of the entire public conversation was a big factor getting me to think about what I expect out of it. Since it so often brings hurt feelings, hard words and doesn't seem to ever lead to better connection. In a private e-mail exchange a couple of weeks ago, a blogging colleague said to me, in essence, "How it works is you lay out your arguments, defend them and show that the other side's arguments are weaker." (I'm paraphrasing in the extreme, because I haven't asked for permission to quote this person.) Something about that dinged in me the wrong way. It wasn't an inspiration or a "go get 'em!" It made me never want to write about it again. It's taken me a couple of days to tease out why. It has a bit to do with my dad. (Yeah, it's one of those posts.)

My dad is a staunch, serious progressive (when I was younger, he bordered on black nationalism...despite being married to a white woman. Yeah, I know there's a play in that.). Yet he is addicted to watching Fox News. Addiction is really the only way to describe it. He can't seem to help himself. He already watches a ton of news, but during the commercials, he always flips over to see what the fine people of Fox News have to say. It's something that, invariably, he disagrees with vociferously and passionately, and often has him yelling at the screen.

My dad worked for a long time as a technician in a hospital on the Upper East Side. There he encountered a lot of conservatives and would fight with them the way he fights with Fox News. To just about the same effect: none. My dad tends to fight with conservatives that way: he brings his arguments, facts and figures, they bring theirs and round and round they go and sooner or later, someone says something insulting or upsetting or personal and the whole thing comes crashing to a halt. Seeing my dad lose friends over these kind of things definitely instilled in me a version of the John Mayer Rule, Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses here:
Frequently we'd have social gatherings, and I'd always skip them for A.) Fear of being the only black guy B.) Fear that someone would get smashed, say something ignorant and I'd do something that would get me fired. I feel bad about this, because I was really well liked and no one ever actually did anything to me. Indeed, race-wise, it was one of the most progressive workplaces I've ever been in. No P.C. bullshit, but no "I'm not P.C." ignorance either. But because of my own issues, I skipped everything from after work gatherings to Christmas parties.
I've started to extend it to, well, here, which isn't good. After the last go-round, I just didn't want to bother anymore because it was like arguing with Fox News: nobody changed anyone's mind and all I got was hoarse. I realized that part of the problem was the matter of expectations.

What my colleague described above, to me, that's a debate. You have your position, I have mine, and we're locked in a zero-sum game where for my position to be valid and right, yours has to be wrong or flawed or less than. And vice versa. So we trot out our well-researched, unimpeachable sources (Statistics! Surveys! MLK! Brecht! Harold Pinter!) and if mine are better than yours, mine win and you're wrong. Or, as what happens in reality, you start telling me how my unimpeachable sources are actually totally impeachable and my argumentation techniques undermine my argument and therefore...slam! 1, 2, 3! I'm out. We retreat to our neutral corners, someone gets handed a belt and takes a victory lap.

And, at the end of the day, no one's mind is actually changed and all we are is hoarse.

What I'm seeking out here in the blogosphere, though, is engagement. I bring what I have, you bring what you have and we see what it is. Sometimes there is friction. Sometimes there is connection. Sometimes people shout and we do get hoarse, but there is the possibility of understanding, person to person, not idea to idea. I can still be absolutely right in my experience and you can be right in yours, and we can choose to move forward from that place. Or not. But it's not a zero-sum game.

I realized very long ago that, out in the world, there are people who don't believe the things I believe. More than that, there are people whose view of the world is fundamentally different from mine. I believe that the purpose of government is to make sure that justice is done for the people and to protect the people from their own worst urges and impulses. That's a bedrock belief for me and everything else I think in politics flows out of that. There are other people who believe, as a bedrock belief, that government is, at best, a necessary evil and that it's main function is to make sure that they personally can live the most comfortable life possible and the government shouldn't curtail that in any meaningful way. I can trot out as many facts, figures, quotes from founding fathers as I want, but I will not convince them of anything different. And they will not convince me of anything different. A debate will go nowhere. Engagement...that may go nowhere, too. But we may find the places in the middle, where we overlap. I may be able to share something that changes their perspective, just a little bit and vice versa.

That's what I believe theatre exists to do. That is another bedrock belief of mine. Theatre is a medium for engagement, not debate. No one wins a play. No one loses. We share an experience and out of that shared experience, we connect. Or not. Both are good.* I'm not normally such a hippie about this stuff, but right now, that's where I'm at.

So...I'm opting for more engagement. Less debate. If I feel like I need a graduate seminar under my belt or a course in rhetoric through the ages to communicate successfully with you, I'm not gonna. I'm gonna share my stories. I'm gonna listen to yours. If something moves me to respond, I will. If my mind changes, it will. If I change yours, cool.

Let's hippie this shit up, sit on the floor, cross-legged and rap like it's 1978 and we just got out of bad marriages.

*I kind of lifted this line from a play that I sincerely love and was very proud to work on: String Fever by Jackie Reingold. It's got the best Icelandic talk show host character in it, maybe ever. Someone should revive that one.


ukejackson said...

Sounds good to me.

99 said...

Thanks, Uke.

joshcon80 said...

Your dad and I have a lot in common. I cannot stop myself form watching Fox News or reading blogs I hate. It's a real problem.

Anyway, thanks for this.

99 said...

I think you and my dad would get along gangbusters. I'll have to drag him out of the house to your next show.

Tony Adams said...

I still haven't figured out how to navigate when a conversation shifts from engagement to debate and then upgrades into a insult riddled flamewar.

My Mom is about as neo-con as you can be without being wealthy. She watches Fox News because she fully believes in that worldview. I don't understand it, but debating it is futile.

Even as she battles cancer and sees firsthand how broken our healthcare system is, she fully believes that a public healthcare system would kill her. Not in letting her die, but actively choosing via a death panel to end it for her. There are some things I can engage her one, but some aren't possible.

When I think I can engage someone one I will, when I think I can debate someone I will, but sometimes just not talking to them about it for a while is an entirely valid option as well.

I think often flame wars are driven by people who don't want engagement anyway, just a venue to take out their own frustrations.

99 said...

An even debate can be a fun, rollicking good time, don't get me wrong. It's just the constant goalpost moving, or denying of facts that drive me crazy. Maybe I spent too much time in improv workshops, but I prefer my conversations to be "yes, and," not "prove it! Again!"

cgeye said...

Man, the Coates Rule -- why even get into the issues, when it means I become the stranger to them? *That's* the wear-and-tear of racism I feel even when I'm not an activist -- just choosing to stand down because engagement requires someone else not treating our lives as a debate.

Scott Walters said...

I don't remember if I was the guy who gave you the advice, but if I did, well, it's OK to out me.

Here's the deal -- and I offer it as a supplement for what you've written, not an opposition -- while it is true that you didn't change Garvey's mind, for instance, it is also true that a lot more people read these blog conversations without participating. And those are the people who learn something. In some ways, it is like a play: there is a staged conflict, and the audience benefits from it. Presidential debates aren't about the candidates changing each other's minds, but about the observers understanding both sides of an issue and making a more informed estimate of their opinion.

Is it exhausting? For sure. But it also makes you have to think deeply about your own opinions, if only to be able to argue them more successfully. I know my CRADLE project doesn't exist without all the hammering I've received.

Some people can't handle the intensity, and that's fine. I guess all I'm saying is: don't be too sure that you and RVCBard didn't affect anybody. You just may not know it.

99 said...


These aren't just ideas and it isn't just about hardening them or seeing how strong they are. They're also feelings, also close-held beliefs about life. My life, in particular.

This blog for me isn't just a platform to espouse my philosophy. It's also a journal, a record, a clearing post. Some things I post here are meant to spark discussion. Others are just meant to be shared because I have to get them out of my head. It's not all advocacy and rhetoric.

It is exhausting. It is intense. But it only becomes frustrating when I find myself working at cross-purposes with people who are looking for me to validate my own experiences before they can acknowledge they're real. When I say "This is my experience and it has lead me to believe X" and the response is "Well, can you prove X? With quotes and numbers? Anecdote is not the plural of data!" it generally feels like that person is saying, "Your experience is invalid." Which is, I suppose, fine for a debate. But if I'm trying to engage, it doesn't get the job done. In fact, it gets in the way.

I'm glad that people read and I'm glad to have an effect, but when I'm sharing personal things and feelings and ideas, it comes at a price.