Friday, July 9, 2010

Discussion, Not Debate

(originally posted at Rational Jenn)

I'm still recovering from MiniCon and dealing with tying up loose ends, so my time for blogging is limited just at the moment. So I might be recycling just a bit, please forgive.

A couple of weeks ago, when a certain thread under discussion on the OGrownups list got heated and became a debate, we called a temporary halt to that thread, and then I wrote the following email to the group. The reason I'm posting it here on Rational Jenn is that I'm proud of the email--I really took time in crafting it and I think it's a good bit of writing--and I also think it's good general advice for thinking about communicating with others in various online forums.


In keeping with a principle from Positive Discipline that my friend Kelly has condensed into the phrase "Yippee Mistakes!" I view the acrimonious debate that occurred a couple days ago as an opportunity for members of our group to learn something new, regroup, and try to improve for the future. Mistakes were made the other day, and I have no wish to rehash them or point fingers (and ask that you refrain from doing so, too). We all make mistakes--I make them all day long. What I'm interested in is how we move forward as a group.

First let me try to explain why. One of the reasons I'm so excited about this group is that it's a real opportunity for us--as Objectivists, parents, educators, caring aunts, uncles, grandparents, and lurkers who might not be in full agreement with Objectivism but who are interested and learning from our discussions--to have the kind of principled discussions about this very, very important area of our lives. I can talk to other moms in my neighborhood or homeschool groups about parenting--and I do--but those people do not share this common philosophical base with me. This group provides a value for me as a parent, a way to talk about these sometimes difficult parenting issues with others who share my values. I hope that others view this in the same way, too.

Some parenting issues are pretty straightfoward and are purely in the realm of optional values. Other issues are much more difficult to decide about, such as whether to have a repeat c-section (to use an example from my own life that some people view as a controversial, and possibly wrong, decision). I want us to be able to talk about these more difficult, possibly controversial, decisions--the morality behind them, the thinking process, our personal context, our values--here on this list. But that will be impossible if such threads degrade into name-calling and accusations.

Diana suggested that we all go back and read a short essay written by Jean Moroney ( , and if you haven't yet done so, please do. To summarize a couple of key points:

A debate . . .
. . . is to be won and lost (there is a winning and a losing side)
. . . requires thorough preparation and exactness of definitions and terms

A discussion . . .
. . . is an opportunity to present your thoughts
. . . is more casual, and participants should not be held to the same standards of precision in terms as a formal debate (or other presentation)
. . . will not necessarily change someone's mind (but that's not the purpose)

And of course, discussions are what we want, not debates. (In fact, it's official OList policy, I believe!)

Here are a few more suggestions I have for future discussions on OG:

  • Use "I" language. Instead of "Don't be a maroooon" (as Bugs Bunny would say), say "I don't understand your point. Can you clarify further?" or say "I'm confused by this statement . . . ." Instead of deciding that the other person is [insert adjective here] ask a question to find out. "You" statements can put the other person on the defensive (which can turn the discussion into a win-lose debate); "I" statements are non-accusing and invite clarification.
  • Focus on making YOUR point rather than refuting someone else's point.
  • Consider that this group provides you with an opportunity to A.) say what you think and B.) maybe get someone else thinking about the idea in a new way.
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt. We all want to understand these issues and be good parents. Until you have reason to think otherwise, assume positive intent.
  • It's not fair to expect people to instantly change their minds about a subject, no matter how brilliant your argument happens to be. So if someone does not immediately come around to your viewpoint, that does not necessarily make him dishonest or irrational, etc. We all recognize the need for thoughtful consideration, introspection, and examination of premises. I don't know about you, but that process often takes me a while, and can't ever be done well when I'm stressed or tense.
  • I'm not suggesting anyone refrain from judging. Feel free to judge others, but consider that your personal judgment of someone else's character is not adding to the discussion, particularly if you are interested in trying to persuade others. Stick to the issues--think what you like of the person, but keep that out of the discussion, and tone of your email.
  • Keep in mind that most people don't participate in the discussions, but are probably reading them and learning from them. If people are watching a debate, the focus might be on who is going to make the next zinger, and less on the real issue at hand. That might be entertaining (or depressing) when watching politicians debate, but here, we're all trying to figure out how to do the best we can.
  • Save retorts and one-upmanship for private emails--honestly, it's fine with me if you want to have an acrimonious debate, just don't do it here.

Here's something I learned in the how-to-teach parenting workshops I took in the last several months: all I can do as the facilitator/presenter is present the material. The learning must be done by the participants and the observers--and I have no control over that. All I can do here on OG is present my viewpoint and evidence for it. Whether or not I change a mind--outside of my control. In a way, knowing this has been freeing to me--I have no pressure to convince anyone. I challenge myself to be clear and have good reasons for the things I say, but that's all.

Finally, remember that we have ALL made mistakes with our children, both major and minor. And remember that a mistake (Yippee Mistakes!) is a chance to reexamine a premise, change, and improve. So I hope we can move forward from here, and get back to discussing the issues that affect us and the children we all love.

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