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.