Thursday, August 9, 2007


“It may take forever to win men's minds by persuasion, but that's quicker than you can do it by force”

How do we sell our ideas? How do others sell their ideas to us? How do we remain respectful of others who have different ideas and perspectives than our own? To me, this is a much more important topic than many of the other subjects that are expected to be taught in our schools.

For several years I moderated a conference on a FirstClass BBS in a Maine school district. The conference was called Speak-Out. Topics were offered by mostly high school students but also by a few interested teachers, and then replies were made. In the heat of the argument, how easy it was for students to regress to subtle and not so subtle namecalling,put-downs, baiting and innuendo. Now I ran quite a tight ship for the space for blatant trangressions of the AUP, but sometimes it was obvious that students just didn't know any other way of expressing themselves. And who could blame them as there is a constant flow of rudeness everywhere around them . . . from radio talk shows to T.V. sitcoms and reality shows to discussion list on the Internet . . . to our national leaders.

I found that as long as I was present (meaning checking in regularly), discourse was civil. (Perhaps because I had the power to discontinue their accounts :) but I really think there was more to it than that.) If, however, the conference was left unattended by adult supervision for a long period of time, discussion would tend to head for the lowest common denominator.

Last year, although I was no longer the moderator of the conference, I reluctantly stepped in with this:

"I certainly agree that namecalling and personal attacks have no place in this conference . . . and certainly violate the user agreement that all have signed who are on the BBS. Sure it is okay to have positive or negative opinions on an issue, BUT that does not include character assassination of people who disagree with us. Loss of BBS privileges for infractions seems very appropriate to me.

In reading the posts in speak-out, I sense that for some it seems to be simply a game to annoy others in an attempt to feel more self-important. This is commonly referred to as baiting. There is an arrogance here that ultimately is self-defeating and hurtful not only to others but to the initiator as well. We use this tactic when feeling inadequate in making legitimate persuasive comments. In other words, when we don't have anything to back up our view or have anything else to say, we lower ourselves by attacking the person with whom we disagree. Not good . . . but all too prevalent in our culture at large as well. We need to be both intelligent in what we say and caring for those we are saying it to . . . even those with whom we disagree. As my grandmothers use to say, "If you can't say something good about somebody, say nothing at all."

For other people, there seems to be a misunderstanding of what civil discourse includes and what bogus argument is. Using "I" statements are much better than "They" and "You" statements. "I believe" or " I think" work much better than "You are . . . they are" constructs. Below find some resources that will help you understand this a bit better. Writing like this takes a bit of practice and experience to understand the spirit of it. Give it a try.

There are times when all of us will cross over the line in life. I know I have . . . and still do on occasion. We all make mistakes, but we have an obligation to ourselves and others to point ourselves in the right direction and do our best in making rational discourse an important means of making a better world.

So . . . what is the next issue to discuss?"

Someone somewhere is going to have to start modeling civility and perhaps focus more on empowering our young ones with the art of respectful dialogue.

Who is it going to be? What do you think? Agree? Disagree?

Some pertinent links:

Logical Fallacy Resources

Propaganda & Advertising
Persuasive Writing Resources
Citizenship Resources

1 comment:

George said...

There should be "civility in public discourse." In many media presentations or on talk radio, the talk or persuasion often comes to attacking the person and not the issue being discussed. Civility needs to return to discussion.
A funny story goes along with this. You may have heard the expression, "read him the riot act." In England. there is a riot act. If there is a riot going on, a person must come out and read the Riot Act aloud. Then the people can be arrested. Talk about civility!