Karen McKim

Karen McKim
August 30
I have conservative values: I want to conserve things like our traditions of self-government, liberty, justice, religious freedom, voting rights, Medicare and Social Security, good public schools, clean air and water, sustainable management of our national resources, and safe communities. Because I do not want to sacrifice those things to increase the profits and power of international banks and oil companies, most would call me a liberal. Also blogging at karenmckim.wordpress.com

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MARCH 2, 2012 1:26PM

Snake handling: An essential skill for democracy

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I had taken a poisonous viper from the zoo and inexplicably brought it home. It was darting around, hiding under the bed, then the dresser. It bit me once and did not inject enough venom to hurt. But it was sure to bite again and harm me or someone else if I didn’t figure out what to do about it.

That dream was easy to interpret when I awoke. Over the previous two days, I had been engaged in an online debate with a local newspaper columnist, who had continually deployed common but venomous debate techniques. I don’t usually participate in such arguments, but I wanted to study his technique and experiment with ways to respond. So I stayed in the discussion as it alternately flamed and simmered over an entire week.

My experience with this columnist, whom I’ll call Dogberry, revealed no sure-fire technique for restoring civil discourse, but it did give me some ideas about how to talk with our less-than-constructive fellow citizens.

My first marriage taught me more than I had ever hoped to learn about domestic abuse, particularly the verbal and emotional kind. Dogberry’s words—mere pixels on my monitor—could not be considered abuse, but the debate made me realize that some methods for recognizing and responding to abuse might also be useful in dealing with toxic debate techniques.

Recognizing toxic debate

Benign conversation typically has two intended functions: to exchange information or to share constructive ideas. For example, a conversation in my current marriage might go like this:

Husband: “We have three open bottles of salad dressing in the fridge. Let’s use those before we open any more.”
Me: “I like to have choices at dinner but if it bothers you, that blue cheese is getting old. You could toss it.”
The same conversation in my first marriage might have begun:
“How do you expect me to find anything with all this crap in the fridge? You've opened more salad dressing than you will use in a year!”
Had I responded abusively, I might have said:
“Are you so dumb that you think an extra bottle of salad dressing is going to break us, considering what you spend on all that junk you drag home from garage sales?”

It doesn’t take a degree in linguistics or psychoanalysis to notice that information-sharing and problem-solving are buried in the abusive comments, if they are present at all. Instead, the abusive remarks function more to change the balance of interpersonal power. One-up; one-down. I’m righteous; you’re scum. I win; you lose.

My debate with Dogberry took place on a mutual friend’s Facebook wall. The friend had linked to a farmer's letter to the editor about her family’s heartbreaking health insurance problems, which were textbook examples of the failure of America’s current policies. Yet Brenda, the farmer, had focused her ire not on Republican opposition to programs that would help her, but on public employees' health insurance.

Discussion began civilly and focused on how progressives might reach out to people who have been manipulated by well-financed political propaganda. As Dogberry read the first comments, he might have been thinking, “People like Brenda are correct, not misled.” He might then have entered the discussion by sharing information to show that cutting public employees’ health insurance would in fact help people like Brenda.

Or he might have been thinking, “People don’t like to be told they’ve been misled.” In that case, he might have entered the discussion by sharing ideas for reaching out to Brenda in ways that wouldn’t directly contradict her values or current beliefs. Instead, he weighed in by announcing the discussion was based on a

“time-tested left-wing strategy of assuming that people who disagree with them must be so dumb they've been hoodwinked by the right. It's condescending and insulting.”

In her book, The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize It and How to Respond, Patricia Evans stresses the importance of recognizing this shift in function.

Verbal abuse, Evans believes, occurs when people interact while inhabiting different realities, which she calls Reality I and Reality II. In Reality I, the world operates by people having power over each other. It’s all about control and dominance. If you are not controlling others, they must be controlling you. In contrast, the Reality II world operates by people working together. It’s all about collaboration and mutuality.

People in each reality assume others see the world as they do, creating problems when they converse. When a person in Reality I, such as Dogberry, says, “You elitists think farmers are dumb,” a person in Reality II will—at least at first—perceive a genuine misunderstanding and try to clarify. But when the Reality II person points out, “Everyone has acknowledged that family farming takes brains, guts, and hard work,” the Reality I person will hear only an attempt to undermine his authority, while remaining deaf to any information that might cause him to reconsider his assessment.

Evans inventories a variety of techniques that characterize abuse, several of which are also present in toxic debate. For example, abusers' questions are always rhetorical, never information-seeking. Dogberry's questions included  "How is that not obvious?” and “So what else is new?" Other techniques include:

  • Countering: A flat-out denial or negation of another’s statement, with no attempt to offer more information or to seek clarification. A Dogberry example is, “To suggest Brenda’s insurance problems are the fault of Republican policies is ridiculous.”
  • Discounting: Portraying another’s statement or point of view as unworthy of consideration. A Dogberry example: “That remark shows only that you are wearing political blinders.”
  • Diverting: Avoiding or changing the topic at hand. While everyone else in the discussion was interested in why Brenda does not support policies that would help her family, Dogberry asked, “When have public employee unions ever put any effort into helping private-sector workers?”
  • Accusing: Acknowledging problems but placing blame rather than discussing solutions. Dogberry: “If public employee unions had fought for the private sector years ago, they wouldn’t now have a governor trying to destroy them.”
  • Name-calling: Slapping labels onto others or their ideas. When Dogberry was at his most heated, he referred to another local writer as “a liberal columnist in a liberal newspaper (who) takes the usual liberal approach," and "a paid political propagandist.”
  • Denial, perhaps the most crazy-making technique: Saying something and then simply denying it when challenged or questioned. When the owner of the Facebook page told Dogberry that the ‘paid political propagandist’ remark was an intolerable personal attack that might cause him to shut down the entire conversation, Dogberry denied he had done anything beyond critiquing his colleague's writing.

Responding to toxic debate

Evans advises targets of verbal abuse to end the exchange as soon as they realize it has become abusive, but she is counseling vulnerable spouses. Civic debates necessary for self-government—even at their most energetic—rarely create a risk of physical attack or destruction of our intimate relationships, so we can keep trying within reason to engage the toxic debater in constructive conversation.

Once we recognize toxic debate, the first step is to make sure we’re not the person doing it. In my exchange with Dogberry, I twice resorted to mocking, which Evans calls verbal abuse disguised as a joke. After he posted four comments in a row, I teased that his insistence on having the last word had finally driven him to need the last word against even himself. Later, after he repeatedly accused me of ‘condescention,’ I joked about giving him an instructive example of actual condescension by correcting his spelling.

Of course, my mocking merely confirmed his success in creating a mudfight out of what had been a civil discussion; closed his ears even more tightly against anything I might say; reduced the likelihood he will engage with me in future discussions; and might have made me look like a jerk to others who were following our debate.

Because nearly all of us can switch between the power-seeking style of Reality I and the collaborative problem-solving style of Reality II, it’s often useful to assume that a toxic debater is only temporarily deranged. Continuing relentlessly in Reality II while simply ignoring the Reality I provocations sometimes works.

A right-wing colleague at my former job used to stop by my desk whenever he had some news that made ‘his side’ look good. (In Reality I, everyone is on a ‘side.’) He would open the conversation by making some inflammatory statement about liberals or the left-wing. I would reply with a calm, sincere Reality II request for more information. Over the course of four or five back-and-forth comments, I could almost always arouse his curiosity enough to drag him back into a collaborative discussion of ideas or search for information (e.g., Exactly what is the ‘Bush Doctrine’ and where is it most authoritatively articulated?) .

Over time, we each educated the other about facts and ideas we wouldn't have known otherwise, and we consider each other friends. In fact, as I write this, I'm remembering how much fun our conversations could be. I think I'll invite him to dinner soon; it's been too long since we've talked.

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this should be on the cover rated.
excellent post. i agree with jonathan wolfman.
Thank you for being the adult in the room. faved and rated
Good luck with that dinner conversation. Sorry, but experience has taught me that intelligence and education levels on the "other side" are much lower, tho obviously there are exceptions to that rule -- it's just that none of the exceptions show up here -- nor are any of the exceptions running for President on the Repugnant ticket this time.

Most of those on the Right I cross swords with here lack the ability to engage in critical thinking. Most engage in every one of the behaviors you enumerate above. In short, most are bringing a rather dull knife to a gunfight. Yeah, I know, that attitude makes me an elitist; sobeit.

My usual modus operandi when I'm sucked into a "debate" with a wingnut is to first try reason and reasonableness. Sadly, that approach is seldom successful, and when it becomes obvious that an exchange of ideas is not going to happen, I resort -- as you did -- to a little humor. I rationalize that at least I'll get a little entertainment out of an otherwise wasted exchange. Here's a couple examples of the sort of thing I mean:

"After he posted four comments in a row, I teased that his insistence on having the last word had finally driven him to need the last word against even himself."

" Later, after he repeatedly accused me of ‘condescention,’ I joked about giving him an instructive example of actual condescension by correcting his spelling."

Write on.
Thanks for the comments and the ratings!

I should make it clear: I am not writing about how we should talk or listen to candidates. The candidates' words are lines written by political market researchers; we don't need to pretend it's real conversation.

As far as talking to our neighbors, if Tom and I are saying different things, it's only a difference of emphasis. Tom's practice of 'first try reason and reasonableness' is the only way to go. Like I've said before, young Americans are overseas right now risking their lives for what they believe is best for democracy. You and I can risk a wasting a half hour, losing a debate, or losing a friend to do what we think is best. If we stop talking politics to our neighbors, the corporate people who buy political advertising will be quite happy, thank you, to have the playing field to themselves.

I'm questioning what makes a conversation 'wasted.' If the one-and-only measure of success is whether a right-wing lunatic saw the light before the conversation was over, yeah, all the conversations will be wasted. But changes-of-opinion come about in dribs and drabs; things we say today might not have an effect on the person who hears them until weeks or months later. Messages need to be delivered multiple times before they sink in. The hard-core Reality I types will never concede anything DURING a conversation, but often if you hear them talking to someone else a day or two later, you can hear evidence that they heard some things you said.

An then there's the audience. Even if I never convince my right-wing father-in-law about anything, my nephew is sitting at the table, taking it all in. Conversation not wasted.

I may be able to help you with this.

You may not be able to change someone in the course of a single conversation. The best shot you have is with repeated conversations, in which you have two things it helps to accomplish:

1. Establishing yourself over time as having a reasonable voice, and
2. Working on the argument itself.

First rule: Attack the argument, not the individual. If someone is personally defensive, it becomes too humiliating to concede anything.

Second rule: Stay relentlessly on topic. Your opponent will try to switch rapidly and frequently. Don't allow it.

Third rule, and this one's a big one: Don't overextend yourself. Take a short, very specific stance that you know you can defend and defend only that. Concentrate on winning the limited point decisively. Under no circumstances allow the argument to go global.

Fourth rule: You are responsible for the stands you take but not for the stands your ostensible allies take. Opponents of this sort love to generalize. Jettison anything that isn't easy to defend, saying: "I never said anything about XYZ, so there's no point in bringing it up. Take that up with someone who actually argued that." This accomplishes three purposes:

1. If you disagree with the less reasonable stands your allies take, you can no longer be dismissed as knee-jerk and your opponent is suddenly paying more attention. You become a person instead of a stereotype.

2. You show your opponent's cheap tactic of smearing you with an overly broad brush to be exactly that: a cheap tactic.

3. You limit the arena to a size where you have a bigger advantage.

One last piece of advice: If you want to persuade anyone of anything, you have to couch the argument in terms that you think will resonate with that person, not with you. For example, I've developed the peculiar tactic of arguing in favor of liberalism on purely economic terms without bringing justice into it at all because my notions of justice and conservative notions of justice are too different. However, they think they have a monopoly on efficiency; they can actually be attacked very easily on those grounds. Stay away from Bleeding Heart. It's fine, for example, to couch your argument in terms of Patriotism.

From a purely sports standpoint, keep in mind that the victories that prove the most are the away games.
What troubles me most is that the evidence of the last thirty years of the consequences of Trickled-On Reaganomics is blatantly obvious and utterly irrefutable. And yet a substantial portion of the citizenry -- I would say at least 40% wants to double down on a bad bet.

As I replied to someone earlier in this regard, there is no rational explanation for such irrational behavior other than to shrug one's shoulders and say "you can't fix stupid". And I sometimes wonder if I'm stupid for even trying.

I take some small comfort in actually having bridged the Great Divide on a few occasions. As I told my sister after succeeding on one such occasion, "that's one down and billions to go."
Believe it or not, I have an explanation for that. And, as much as you'd think that the explanation rests 100% on the stupidity of the 40%, it doesn't.

A lot of it rests on the stupidity of our side, which is frankly a lot of what this post is about attempting to change. We aren't explaining this enough. Why not? There are two widespread reasons:

1. We worry about different things than they worry about so when we're right about something that they worry about, we often don't think it's worth bringing up. A lot of what we advocate makes infinitely more fiscal sense but liberals often don't like to talk money because we're often stupid enough to find the subject somehow tainted.

2. We think that if people have outlandish views that they're so stupid as to be beyond help because, well, it's so Obvious to us. Sometimes it's not a function of brains so much as of an excess of one-sided exposure. We tend to be way too dismissive.

In other words, we write the other side off, then kvetch about the result. That, of course, isn't any too intelligent either.
I understand what you and Kim are saying, and believe me I try to find some sort of middle ground, as you will duly note from the long exchange you and I had regarding the Palestinian question. BUT -- trying to have a meaningful exchange with Uncle Chri or Johnny Fever or Joseph Cole or any number of others on the other side who show up here on Open Salon -- well, let's just say, I'd have more luck trying to explain my views to my dog.

I once invested fifteen years communicating with a gal via email, and there were times I thot I was making a little progress. Then came the day after Obama's election, and she sent me an email that said "Don't blame me -- I voted for the American". Having reasonably concluded that further communication was a waste of both our times, I replied to her email "You can't fix stupid".

In short, a wise man knows when a cause is lost.
I think it would be very interesting to have some live demos right here - Tom, I see what you're saying, and god knows I agree....but yet I'd like to see Kosh or someone actually *discuss* with Fever or BJ or Osborne.
I have on multiple occasions with Token, but he's conservative, not crazy, so we get along very well. It does depend on the individual. I've also been influenced because in order to accomplish anything you have to take that risk - openness is a two-way street. I now have a very different understanding of firearms than I used to.

Off line, I've managed to sway some political conservatives, particularly those who picked up some of their views at church, regarding canards like "Homosexuality is a choice."

Basically, there are two criteria for a conversation to go anywhere:

1. The person you're speaking to can't be a complete idiot when it comes to basic comprehension.

2. The person can't just be a mouthpiece - all output, no input - and especially can't be a hired gun whose job it is to spin and who therefore literally can't afford to listen. There has to be some intellectual integrity there. Just as importantly, there has to be intellectual courage. If someone loses a point blatantly, particularly if it isn't a major point, they have to be able to face that. If you ask a question and the person you're speaking to keeps dodging and dodging it, chances are you're dealing with an intellectual coward. I've met some of those here (incidentally, that isn't restricted to any location on the political spectrum), and those are the ones it's nearly impossible to work with. You can't have a valid conversation with someone who is metaphorically running away from you.

Because I'm to the left of center and also believe that Israel has the right to exist (and am Jewish), I'm in a position where I've argued with conservatives and liberals (and radicals), though usually about different things. Not always different things. I've also spent my working life in business, so I'm a liberal with a business perspective, which also puts me into strange discussions. Because of that mix, I don't pidgeonhole easily, which means it's really easy to assume I hold certain views based on other views I've expressed and it's often an invalid assumption. That often means that I don't disagree with 100% of another person's views; once they figure that out, the discussions get more specific, and that's where progess will happen if it happens at all.

Now, if you're having an argument with a Birther or something, good luck with that, because now you're talking to someone without intellectual integrity, at least initially. I say that because there's no way that anyone really hates Obama based primarily on doubts about where he was born - it's always really about something else. We all know that if the Presidential candidates from 2008 reversed parties, the GOP would be saying that John McCain's being born in the Panama Canal Zone (which, incidentally, I was also) should disqualify him from the Presidency because he wasn't actually born in a State or in DC. No one with any influence is actually stupid enough to think that the US government is being run behind the scenes by Kenyan interests, which is what the Birthers are ostensibly afraid of. Hell, they couldn't define Kenyan interests. To get anywhere, you have to get past the pretend grievances and find the real ones.
I think that cuts down the field considerably. Tho right-wingers talk of "Obama-bots", it seems from my admittedly pretty far left views that a lot of the right-spouting people are bots, not interested in anything but spewing from some internally generated hatred. Essentially trolls. With whom the rule of No Engagement seems the only sane one.
Not too many ObamaBots around, actually. He isn't popular enough to the Left of him for that to be feasible as a widespread phenomenon. The person I know on OS who probably hates him most (or is at least close) is on the Left, not the Right. The attackers certainly fit the Bot description better because they do so automatically about anything without thinking. Before he was elected, the main beef about Obama was that he was a closet Muslim who was too close to the pastor of his church. Now, what exactly does it take to hold a view like that? What it takes is suspension of common sense because common sense isn't viewed as as important as hatred.

However, one things the conservatives do well because it plays well with the base is repeat crap, including crap that has no basis in fact at all, enough times to try to give it traction. "Obamabots" is a lot like "tax and spend liberal" or, even worse, "liberal media" which, at least on a management level, isn't primarily liberal at all.
Frustrated idealists, like the liberal anti-Obama people, have no outlet in the U.S. system. They do here in Canada - our socialist party. Which has driven policy in many ways, and modified that of the conservatives and liberals, w.o. ever achieving federal power. Our socialized medical system, for instance (which, I never tire of pointing out, bills the government, which pays out of tax revenue, but the government does not get involved at the front end, where our patient/hospital/doctor dealings are entirely our own). But the American system is so generally frustrating as opposed to the much more efficient parliamentary system. For instance, the Obama-disappointed aren't so much disappointed in Obama as frustrated from the beginning because the prez is largely at the mercy of the congress (in Canada, the PM tells the parliament what to do instead of vice versa.....but the other parties, which also act in internal concert, prevent too much mischief). What I'm getting around to is that I think the American fractious everyone-for-himself form of government causes the kind of political discourse, among politicians and among such as us. Frustrating the concentration of power was, I gather, the original idea of the American system...and it works all too well. I think there's a trickle-down, flood-down result... It was a system that worked, perhaps, (I see it in our local small governments where we don't even have parties) for the original small population, but doesn't seem suitable for an enormous population and a government that has to Make Decisions. Instead, it leads to paralysis, LCD decisions, and encourages a (excuse the ethnic slur, folks) Mexican stand-off of gigantic proportions. Everyones' a party of one...or small groups of loud-mouths (tea party, for instance) band together within a party. Coherence of action and speech is impossible.

Anyway, somehow I've got off on my favorite rant, which is sort of, but not entirely, off topic.
In other words, the American system is a snake pit to begin with - too much time spent wrestling with snakes, not enough time figuring out how to harness them.
This is a fantastic blog, so thanks Karen. And also the comments, esp. by kosh and myriad. I am new to OS but was on the brink of making it a very short relationship due to the name-calling and, well, basically most of the negative and unproductive debate techniques Karen described. It often feels like there is little space for a moderate reality-based stance, which is why I feel comfortable on this page and why I hope some of the screamers read it and learn.
These comments are great. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know I’m making a serious personal project of studying what there is to know about interpersonal political conversation, and blogging about it here. So all your thoughts are useful, particularly those angles I hadn’t thought of.

I’m not trying to figure out how to ‘win’ debates with truly unreasonable people. I agree with Tom and others who say it’s best to give any fellow citizen our sincere cooperation—for a little while. If that doesn’t bring them into a constructive debate, we don’t need to waste any energy trying to convince the snakes of anything.

As far as the true snakes go, I am instead trying to get a better feeling for: 1) How to keep them from hijacking political conversations, because their influence on such conversations is far greater than their numbers; and 2) How to help ourselves and other civil citizens from being so intimidated or discouraged that we avoid the citizen-to-citizen conversations that are critical to restoring American democracy.

As I continue to read, think, and talk about this, I’m suspecting that different snake-handling strategies are probably useful depending upon whether we’re dealing with 1) People whose more general (and sometimes inchoate) emotions and fears are driving their specific unreason, e.g., many Birthers and Obamabots, probably; 2) People who are not trying to converse but are instead trying to disrupt conversation, e.g., Dogberry, probably; and 3) People who enjoy adversarial arguing as sport or amusement.
For what it’s worth, Dogberry was eventually neutralized in the discussion I described in my post.

After the Facebook page owner scolded (no other word for it) Dogberry about calling a fellow newspaper columnist a ‘paid political propagandist:'
1) the Facebook page owner waited for Dogberry’s response, which came in the form of the denial I described above.
2) He then ignored Dogberry’s response and repeated the question with which he had started the debate, and wrote in more depth about why he considered it an important question.
3) A few other people, who must have been silently reading the string of comments all along, quickly made a series of on-topic comments, which I took as support for the Facebook owner’s attempt to restore civil conversation.
4) Dogberry tried once more to enter the discussion, but was ignored.

So, it wasn’t accomplished ONLY by ignoring Dogberry, though everyone eventually did that. It also took someone with a strong voice explicitly to call Dogberry on the carpet for his debate techniques, and then a collaborative effort among the owner and his other Facebook friends to put some heft into the civil discussion.
Brilliant all around. I'm still gone for a while but this was remarkable. I learned a great deal here. Kim, Kosher, Myriad, Tom, everyone, really--just great stuff. Extremely useful ideas to deal with nutjobs or more often the astoundingly uninformed. Bravo to all. Can't wait to get back and reinter the conversation. (If I hadn't backed away for work, I'd probably have done the same because of the Va. General Assembly and the Guvnah here--but that would have been because I had the covers pulled over my head until rationality re-entered the picture (still waiting). Christian fundamentalists seem to be modeling their beliefs and behavior on those of Muslim fundamentalists. Would God please take the log out of some prominent eyes?

Going into hibernation again, but thanks for the brain strokes.