Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Different tones for different situations: A guide for social activists


In thinking about the tones I employed in my last two blog posts, it hit me that the core of their argument was essentially the same; only the manner of presentation was different. Which post was “better,” I wondered, and conveying that same message? Which tone is more effective?

My initial reaction was to say the first one. I generally prefer abstract intellectual discussions to vitriolic arguments over them. Perhaps I was immature for indulging my anger in the second post. Perhaps I was being shallow, or selfish, or grandstanding. Maybe I should take it down.

But after a while, I decided the “correct” way to engage a topic is not so simple or universal as I was making it out to be. There are situations in which either of those two tones are more or less effective than others. In fact, my preference for the first type of debate reveals something about my own biases and tendencies which should be interesting to people who think like me.

Today, I’d like to give an overview of two different tones and the situations in which they’re best used. After that, I will relay observations about the use of these tones in two movements that are important to me – feminism and libertarianism – and draw implications from what I have observed.


Tone 1: Reasoned discussion

The tone of a reasoned discussion is polite, respectful, and formal, taking care not to offend or alienate. It is that of a lawyer arguing before the Supreme Court, or of a friend attempting to sway a dissenting friend to his or her way of thinking. As anyone who’s ever attempted either endeavor can attest, these tasks are much more easily accomplished if the speaker is able to avoid provoking a defensive reaction in whoever’s ideas are being challenged. Consequently, it behooves the speaker to avoid even the insinuation of a personal slight against the listener; rhetoric must be levied squarely at the faulty ideas in question, abstracted from the individual who holds them.

A speaker wielding this tone must place the feelings, thoughts, and pride of whoever is receiving the speech at the forefront of their considerations. In this way, it is also similar to the tone of a telemarketer making a pitch to a skeptical potential buyer. The conversation revolves around the audience and their anticipated reactions to what is said, so the speaker must be reserved, gentle, and completely non-aggressive.

Ideally, the speaker should present their opinions in a way that suggests they are open to the possibility of being wrong – even if they know they will never be convinced otherwise – to present themselves as neutral, objective, and rational. Of course, the tone itself is no more rational than any other tone, in that the ideas presented through it may not be logically sound. However, this tone does attempt to isolate whatever logic (sound or faulty) underlies one’s position, with inflammatory distractions and emotional coloration kept to a minimum.

Ultimately, reasoned discussion is designed to convince the specific person or people at whom the speech is directed. If successful, the convinced person should be able to articulate precisely why they now hold this new belief in a rational way.

Although what I posted a few days ago is not a good example, I generally prefer this tone, because I find it both more productive and more pleasant. Its usefulness lies primarily in its ability to convince people who previously disagreed with you. By presenting contrarian ideas in such a disarming and unthreatening way, without calling public attention to the wrongness of specific individuals, it makes it much easier for those individuals to change their minds and join your position without losing face.

That said, reasoned discussion does have its downsides. The first is that human beings are largely creatures of emotion, and stripping that passion out of your writing entirely makes your voice seem unnaturally dry. Ben Stein comes to mind, discussing some dull topic in the dismal science of economics. Normal people don’t sound like that! To many listeners worth convincing, purely abstract discussion is unappealing, and those who wield it are unrelatable.

From my observation, libertarians use this tone a lot, and overusing it is something many libertarians need to work on. Abstract discussions about property rights may be interesting to us philosophy geeks, but when Steven Landsburg asks with apparent sincerity whether rape is okay if the victim is unconscious, he cannot be surprised when most people fail to be amused by such a thought experiment. However unjustified, libertarians have a reputation for being cruelly unsympathetic to the plight of the unfortunate, and stripping the emotion from our voice does nothing to combat this stereotype.

By contrast, feminists are rarely lacking in personality. Feminism has constructed a lively online community full of flair, swagger and satire, which often makes their work much more enjoyable to read. That leads me to Tone #2.


Tone 2: Passionate argument

The tone of a passionate argument is sharp, lively and domineering, with at least a twinge of anger or dismissiveness. It is the tone of two irritated siblings getting in a fight, or that of a politician delivering a fervent speech to a riled up crowd in the midst of a tight electoral campaign. In such settings the speaker endeavors not to determine who is right, but to assert it loudly, forcefully and unapologetically. While reasoned discussion is a cooperative endeavor, passionate argument is a competitive one. The speaker cares not who is offended by what has been said, and practically dares anyone to “take them on” by expressing disagreement.

Unlike a reasoned discussion, the speech of a passionate argument revolves around the thoughts and feelings of the speaker. Every nuance of the speaker’s reaction to the opposing idea is captured, recorded and expressed, sometimes magnified for effect. Unlike a reasoned discussion, the speaker need not (and in fact should not) present themselves as open to possibility that they are wrong, as apparent certainty strengthens the rhetorical tug of the argument. Unlike a reasoned discussion, no attempt is made to isolate the underlying logic from stylistic decoration.

Ultimately, the purpose of a passionate argument is not only illuminate the falsity of the opposite belief, but to ridicule that falsity by deriding it – and any who ascribe to it – as absurd, hypocritical, stupid or even evil. Biting sarcasm mocks the other side in a condescending manner. Scathing, accusatory criticism puts the other side on the defensive. Sassy cheap shots are permitted and encouraged. Satire almost always plays a prominent role. It may seem childish when described from afar, but all these tactics can effectively manipulate the audience’s emotions and sense of humor to the speaker’s advantage.

This tone is useful in a number of settings. First, revealing the passion behind ones convictions solidifies support by rallying those members of the audience who already agree with you. Many people with strong opinions about something find difficulty articulating why it is they believe as they do, so it inspires a sort of “fuck yeah!” response when somebody else is able to express it for them so potently. The phrase “couldn’t have said it better myself!” is an example of this sentiment.

Second, passionate delivery helps “win the crowd” by strongly influencing those members of the audience observing, but not participating in the debate themselves. This is, again, because humans are largely emotional creatures; conveying emotion requires theatrics. Confidence and flair impresses us. We’re often drawn to the idea which was expressed more forcefully, whether or not it’s the one that makes the most logical sense. The more vividly the speaker is able to describe the strength of their convictions, the stronger the pull of his entreaty to the undecided audience. And the more ridiculous the speaker is able to portray their opponent, the more the undecided audience will fear being on the receiving end of such accusations!

A third benefit of dismissive tones is that they can be empowering for the speaker; sometimes, it just feels great to get everything off your chest. When you adamantly believe someone is wrong, it feels liberating to tell them what’s what with no filter or restraint. If someone insulted you personally, it feels invigorating to revel in how thoroughly you just them a new asshole. People are largely self-absorbed, so it makes sense that a form of writing which revolves around our own emotions and reactions would simply be more fun.

For all its benefits, passionate argument has its downsides as well. The first is that if you use this tone, you had better make damn sure you are actually right. Nobody looks more foolish than the blowhard who rants and raves about an issue, only to be calmly proven wrong shortly thereafter. Spiteful language is usually reciprocated, but when it is not, it can be dangerous for whoever fired the initial salvo. Many debates have reasonable arguments on both sides, so when one participant is calmly and respectfully presenting those arguments while the other is hurling insults and over-simplifying complex issues, it makes the second person look immature.

This tone is also more effective when it’s seldom used. The Boy Who Cried Wolf syndrome applies here; constant shouting makes each incident of shouting less impressive or noteworthy. If you’re always a firebrand all the time, you open yourself up to accusations of demagoguery, especially on that inevitable day when you realize you’re wrong about something. The Bill O’Reilly’s and Chris Matthews’ of the world do little to actually advance the debate, and Lord knows we have enough outlets for venomous rage already.

Just as I noticed libertarians seem to overuse tone #1, from my observation feminists seem to overuse tone #2. And since this is feminism week, I'm going to focus on the way they can improve their tone at a little bit larger length than I did for libertarianism (for those interested, my next post addresses additional ways for libertarians to improve their tone as well).

How feminists can improve their tone

The dismissive tone has undeniably rallied feminism in the online age. One could argue that the humor and “get off me!” swagger pushed on places like Jezebel magazine was what really gave rise to “third-wave” feminism. Overall, I think this is glorious. Feminists should continue to write with unrestrained passion and power on feminist websites, frequented by an audience of sympathizers and intrigued observers. They should continue to commiserate with their feminist friends in feminist safe spaces. They should continue to indulge in the catharsis of getting things off their chest without mincing words when the situation calls for emphasis. Feminists are already very good at this, so they probably don’t need me to tell them twice.

Where they could improve their activism game is in those situations which call for sincere and direct communication with a single individual. My recent posts have thoroughly explained the need for this communication, so I won’t repeat its necessity here. As feminists realize, antiquated but entrenched sexist attitudes are one of the biggest hindrances to this communication. But I fear too many feminists, perhaps flustered by this, have assumed an attitude towards these conversations that is equally if not more inhibitive of actual communication. In preferring snide insults and divisive jokes within the ranks of those who already agree with them to actual good faith efforts to engage with and correct those they disagree with, these feminists have unfortunately sunk to their opposition’s level.

I understand the temptation to eviscerate the maker of an ignorant or oppressive comment just for the joy of it, but doing so misses an opportunity for productive communication. For example, remember when #notallmen prompted #yesallwomen, which in turn prompted #yesallpeople? The responses on both sides were childish (hello, it’s Twitter!), but feminists in particular were wont to respond with something like this:

Tweet 1: “Yeah, because men need to carry around rape whistles and plan their route home to protect themselves from roving female assailants...(/sarcasm). 

Tweet 2: Stop mansplaining, take off your fedora, shave your neckbeard and LISTEN for once in your life!”

I cannot tell you how many tweets I read along those lines. By contrast, I can count on one hand the number of feminists I saw responding to a dissenting tweeter like this:

Tweet 1: “I get how #yesallwomen could be misinterpreted. It’s only natural to feel defensive when your privilege is challenged. Nobody’s blaming you.” 

Tweet 2: That said, please reserve judgment for long enough to hear us out. Women face unique problems rooted in sexism, and solving them requires voicing their perspective.”

That last one had slightly more than 140 characters, but you get the idea. When exposed to dissent, feminists’ first impulse is not to debate, but to attack. Adversarial. Vicious. Satire laden atop vitriol laden atop hatred. They’re often right, of course, and there may be good reasons they are conditioned to respond this way. But that doesn’t make it wise or effective.

And it isn’t effective, because all it does is let the discussion denigrate into name calling and personal attacks. Both sides get angry, and hostilities escalate. Eventually, the conversations stops. No minds are changed. Most minds are hardened. Oppressive mindsets – and thus, oppressive behaviors – persist unchallenged.

Feminists are by no means the only corner of the internet that behaves this way (especially on Twitter!) but they do it more often than most ideologies. All across the internet, feminists have a well-earned reputation for being particularly hostile, even to one another. Perhaps this is merely an indication that feminists are passionate about the subject at hand. Losing your cool in a discussion does not make you a bad person or a bad ally or a bad feminist, it makes you human. But it being human does not make it effective, and feminists should understand that it’s not.

If you want to do everything in your power to hasten the pace of progress, you should explain to sexist people not only that they’re wrong, but why they’re wrong, in as civil terms as you can bring ourselves to use. Sort of like these feminists doThe two examples I just hyper-linked are exactly the sort of tone I wish feminists would use more often. I got pumped up just reading them – awesome, awesome, awesome. If more feminists presented feminism to people who are not yet feminists in the way those feminists did, the pace of feminism’s advance would be greatly accelerated. I would also like to nominate that for “most times the root word feminist has ever been use in a single sentence.
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In closing, there’s a Dane Cook skit I like where he’s describing an argument he had, and he snaps at his foe to “just sit there in your wrongness and be wrong!” It’s a funny line because it captures the frustration we all experience when we’re convinced we’re right about something, and feel passionately about it, but lack the ability, energy, interest, or time to articulate why. We can all relate to that frustration.

If you, as an educated social justice advocate, are so overcome by that frustration that you prefer to continue insulting the ignorant, without making any effort to make them less ignorant first, that’s fine (so long as you’re actually right, anyway). It’s your right, and no one could blame you for releasing your anger. But don’t confuse that release with social activism, for you are doing little (and less than you might) to actively change society.

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