Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Three Tips for Being Heard in an Election Year

It's that time again, when civility is thrown to the wind for the sake of getting your party into power.  I HATE politics -- but I find the governing of our country to be so important that I can't just ignore the distasteful process that gets those who govern in place.  And neither should you.  So allow me, in all humility (because I have failed at every one of these at one time or another), to offer some tips for how to ensure that your political discourse for the next month or so is productive.

1) Treat your opponent with respect -- whether or not you think they deserve your respect.  This is not about who they are; it's about who YOU are.  A rude person does not earn anybody's ear.

Note that this has to do as much with your tone as with your ideas.  (And yes, you do have a "tone of voice" when typing online.) Consider the difference between, "How could you possibly believe that?!?" and "Can you explain to me the reasoning behind what you're saying?"  The first assumes your opponent is an idiot with no good reason for believing what they believe.  The second assumes they have a reason -- you just don't understand it.  (And if they don't have a good reason for their beliefs, they'll reveal that in their own remarks -- let them hang themselves with their own rope rather than you attempting to be their hangman.)

It is all the better if you can do this with sincerity -- if you can honestly respect the people you disagree with.  But even if you're faking it, fake it.  It's called manners, and it's what earns you the right to speak in our society.

2) Assume that you are probably dead wrong about something.  Because you probably are.  Nobody has a complete grasp on truth, or has all the facts, or is immune to their own personal biases.  If your words and your tone make it clear that you believe you know it all, you immediately reveal yourself as someone who has little grasp on reality and whose opinion should NEVER be trusted.

A corollary to this is to go into a discussion with the goal of learning.  Your purpose is to understand your opponent's point of view -- both so that you can more effectively explain where he is wrong and ALSO so you can more clearly see where he is right and you are wrong.  Only when the goal is finding truth and not crushing the opposition do we have any hope of actually getting somewhere.

3) Address your opponent at his best.  Let's say the Morningside College's badminton team beat the badminton team from the University of Kansas.  If Morningside then started bragging on their athletic superiority over KU, we would all laugh.  Seriously?  Let's play some hoops, boys.

Systematically knocking off the petty, minor points at the periphery of the other side's argument may make you feel good, but it makes you look either afraid to address the serious stuff or too stupid to understand what the serious stuff is.  Passing around amusing slams about Big Bird's eminent demise under a change of administration may prompt all of those agree with you slap you on the back for your wit and wisdom . . . but those who disagree with you have NO reason to take you seriously.  Don't major on the minors -- you only show yourself to be not yet ready for the majors.

Of course, this is all assuming that you want to be taken seriously.  That you want to have productive discourse with the other side.  That you want the country to move forward with some semblance of agreement on the direction we're moving.  Fact is, you might not.  Some of us simply want the personal satisfaction and public accolades of momentarily looking right, whether we're right or not.

If that's you, well, then, by all means -- continue as before.  The rest of us will find ways to avoid you for the next month.

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