I have two general thoughts about discussion methods and modes prompted by the prior three panels (Vigorous Debate, or Verbal Harassment?; The Body Language of Online Interaction; FAIL!) and various discussions I had during the con.
Thought One: What Are Your Generally-Applicable Principles and Priorities?
I think that when you're dealing with difficult discussions, whether online or off (since online life is life), you should consciously step back and consider them in light of the same principles you want to apply in the rest of your life. This may sound obvious, but when questions of how to engage in discussions come up, especially online v. off, I find it really helpful to think about the meanings and purposes of the conversation.
I think at a couple points during the con, I mentioned Miss Manners. I don't always agree with her, but I find it really valuable the way she cuts to the underlying point of etiquette. Sometimes she does it for wedding party roles and sometimes for interacting with poly households (in what I thought was a straightforward and sensible way, when I've seen at least one advice columnist in a major publication, Dear Prudence at Slate, be really unpleasant about the entire concept). And, of course, she does it for dealing with offensive statements:
- To someone looking for a better response to a racist statement: "People are forever defining etiquette as 'making others feel comfortable,' but this is a classic instance in which the decent thing is to make the other person feel uncomfortable."
- To an African-American woman who didn't want to be called "girl": "The chief point is that you are offended, whether or not they have the courtesy to learn why. If that is not enough, Miss Manners recommends your asking whether they intend to offend you, and when they say not, that the solution is merely to stop addressing you that way."
- To a parent dealing with strangers' intrusive comments about her daughter who has a rare genetic condition: "You do not want [your daughter] to grow up thinking that when people are nosy and rude, her only choices are to indulge them or to insult them."
Whether or not you agree with those examples, I like the way she starts by considering the content first and then the form second. I think this can get lost in questions of what's polite/appropriate in a given environment: it depends on the context of what you're responding to, as well as what you want to achieve.
Thought Two: Preparation Is a Wonderful and Multi-Faceted Thing
First, you shouldn't wait until you're in a discussion of a highly-charged topic to educate yourself. Whenever you see people talking about experiences or identities you don't share or aren't familiar with, listen. Follow up by doing your own research in a non-demanding, non-bug-under-microscope way. You can't learn everything, but you can at minimum start to get a sense of what there is out there to know or remember. (For example: asexuals exist. English-speakers aren't necessarily speaking American English. People who share a particular identity have not necessarily had the same experiences.)
(Even if you haven't previously educated yourself, even a little bit, about a topic, you can remember to always ask yourself, "before I participate in this conversation, am I going to be making statements or assumptions about someone else's identity or experience?" And if the answer is yes, then you should carefully consider your comment or defer your participation.)
Second, you can rehearse what you'll do in response to difficult conversations, particularly ones occurring in real-time. What if someone says to me something similar to the comments Miss Manners was addressing? What if someone makes a comment on a panel that I think is problematic? What if someone comes to my home wearing an offensive T-shirt? I find that running through scenarios ahead of time makes me much more confident in responding to them and also to similar incidents that I hadn't specifically rehearsed. Mental practice isn't the same as the real thing, but it is useful.
Feedback? Other general or panel-spanning thoughts?comment(s) | link