Imagine the following scenario with me, won’t you please?
It’s 1858, and you’re living in the Wild West, aka Illinois. There’s a pretty hotly contested senatorial race going on between the very well respected Democrat, Stephen A. Douglas, and some lanky dude named Abraham Lincoln. The two men have been engaging in debates all over the state, and they’re coming to your town. You’ve heard these things are pretty interesting, so you decide to go.
The first question is tossed out and Lincoln answers first. His response is thoughtful and creative and he really gets the crowd on his side. After he is done, it’s Douglas’ turn, and he rebuffs most of what Lincoln has said. The language is pretty sharp and pointed, but this guy really believes what he’s saying.
There’s a pregnant pause.
Then suddenly, Lincoln throws his hands up in the air, turns to the crowd in exasperation, and says, “I can’t talk to this guy. He’s just a hater!” Then Lincoln walks away.
That would be such a bummer, wouldn’t it?
Of course, the Lincoln-Douglas debates didn’t really go down that way. Both men were passionate about what they believed in. They had different ways of bringing their points to the crowds they talked to. But neither of them were reduced to to unprofessionalism on the platform, at least so far as the history books are concerned.
We could learn something here.
Debate, Civil Debate, is Extremely Fun
The fact of the matter is that debate, when conducted with care and civility, is actually really fun, especially if you’re truly passionate about what you’re saying. In the online world, there is plenty of stuff we could debate. We could debate how to follow people or unfollow people on Twitter. We could debate which platform is the most advantageous for parents or for business or for anything else. We could debate all kinds of stuff.
We could, in an ideal world.
Unfortunately, it seems the art of civil debate has fallen by the wayside just at the point when there is a medium that could accommodate it like no other.
Criticism that hits below the belt
Part of the problem is that a lot of people who could throw out a topic for debate instead throw sticks and stones. For example, instead of saying, “I disagree with what you said there,” people write posts or tweet, “Dude, what a dirt bag.” (OK, they don’t say dirt, but I’m not going to use the real word they say here). Instead of saying, “Here is why I think this person’s methodologies could be harmful,” people say, “Hey, you’re an a-hole and I hate you.”
It’s kind of hard to build a civil debate on that kind of foundation, right?
At the same time, though, people who may on occasion receive criticism, legitimate but perhaps sharply worded, have taken to reacting like they are Zeus come down from Olympus. “What? Um, are you saying I’m doing something wrong?” Sometimes people in the online world act as if disagreement is akin to being beaten up. They ask for sympathy when someone criticizes them. Other times still, disagreement is simply grouped into the ,”Well, I guess they hate me” category.
All of these things are useless. They make everybody look like toddlers (and I mean no offense to any toddlers who may read this).
Be open to being imperfect
When someone disagrees with you or criticizes something you are doing, do not automatically put all shields up and assume you are being attacked. Maybe someone has a legitimate point to make. Maybe someone is actually trying to protect you from making yourself look like a jerk, even if they don’t have the best way of verbalizing that. Here, repeat these things as your mantra.
“I am not being bullied if someone disagrees with me. I am just experiencing someone disagreeing with me.”
“Perhaps this person is offering sage wisdom. I will listen first and call them a hater later.” That rhymes so it’s more fun to say.
“Maybe I am not being misunderstood and maybe someone still doesn’t like this. Perhaps I need to look at this from their perspective.”
Practice saying those things to yourself. I mean, literally, aloud. Here, let’s try it right here. Do you disagree with what I’m saying here? I’m ready and waiting to add to my way of thinking, and I very probably will not hate you after you voice your opinion.
Have at it!
Image by B S K. http://www.sxc.hu/profile/spekulator