Let’s face it, it’s getting harder and harder to engage others in dialogue. Whether you’re trying to correct racism of a family member over messenger or replying to a stranger on a friend’s political Facebook post, the internet is filled with rhetorical landmines. Empathy has always been an essential tool in employing a good argument or stance. Knowing more about your audience or adversary can be the key to positive change, but lately, that just doesn’t seem like enough.
So what’s changed? Has the world become a little colder? Have people become more stubborn, maybe even callused? Or does it just seem that way to those that rhetorical strategies incorporate empathy? Warning: This post contains graphic language going forward.
I want to be clear from the get-go. The rhetorical situational context is posts on social media presumably with your followers or connections. I’ll get to talking in-person or on the phone at a later date. I’m also assuming that you are a reasonable caring person that wants to see the world a better place. This post is not for the internet trolls or those that like to stir the pot.
Showing Concern (Before You Post)
So, you’re scrolling through social media and come across a concerning piece of news. Maybe you heard about an injustice involving immigrants, or protesters, or students. You might feel strongly about a new law or executive order. In any case, you click “share” or “retweet” without a second thought. I mean, who would disagree with such an obvious abhorrence to injustice?
A few hours later you’re bombarded with hateful comments and you’re knee deep in an argument without a clear way out.
Before sharing a post, I consider any other side that might exist. A major landmine is the Fallacy of Opposition. Now, this fallacy comes out in two ways. The first is not thinking there is an opposition i.e. “Who would disagree with that?”. The second and more aligned is assuming your opposition will automatically be wrong. I’m not saying that you need to consider the Nazi platform as “correct” (good lord not at all), but what I am saying is that everyone has a story.
When I was in elementary school I was beaten up by a group of Hispanic kids. You see, I lived in Idaho, and while my brother tells me things have gotten better, the racial tensions were a serious concern.
I was angry. I wanted them to hurt just as bad as I was hurting, but a great teacher explained to me things I had never heard before. They explained the amount of pain those kids were already going through. Many of them had immigrant parents who had to work back breaking labor under the table for next to nothing. Their parents weren’t eligible for promotions and, even if they were, would be looked over for someone white with an American accent.
Sure, no one disagreed with me that those boys were wrong for kicking my butt, but I felt less of a sense of vengeance knowing their circumstances. By the way, they were punished both with detention and from their parents. So, there’s that.
Asking for clarification
Okay, new scenario: you scrolling through Twitter and read a tweet by a lesser known peer. You know they’ve been through a lot lately. You know they lost their dog a few months ago, their job is on the rocks because of Covid, and their planning a wedding to boot. However, their tweet is questionably argumentative. You’re not sure what their intention is and you’re willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. So, you decide to ask for clarification.
There’s a whole spectrum of possibilities at this point. In the example above, an unknown party enters the conversation and goes very violent very fast. I was the one that asked for clarification. I never did hear from the original poster to determine what they were trying to convey.
Conversely, you could get a legitimate answer. You could even have some positive change. That’s the allure and the Fallacy of Hope. Hope is a great thing. It keeps us going, but it can also skew our sense of probability. Here’s another example from my past.
I’ve been a member of the Warhammer 40k community for 15 years. It’s a hobby/game where you paint little figurines and, like a board game, move them around, arguing over rules, and rolling dice. Some local communities can have a few hundred members. Most people are loyal to one store and play on a regular weekly game night, typically Thursdays.
Like any community you get a sense of the regulars. You get to know names, faces, and playstyles. It’s very similar to a country club without membership dues. Occasionally, you get a real TFG (That F***ing Guy). In one instance, we had a TFG hang around for years without anyone confronting him. He didn’t know the rules, constantly cheated, and complained the whole game (Considering games can take 2-4 hours, that’s a lot of complaining).
Most people bite their tongues. They figure he would either change or leave. One night he asked me if I wanted to play a game. I wasn’t in the mood and he already ruined the evening for someone else. I couldn’t take it and calmly stated, “no, I don’t think I can. You’re not fun to play with. You purposely get the rules wrong and I don’t feel like arguing about them. Honestly, I’m surprised you still get games. Have you not noticed the way people avoid you? Have you not picked up on their energy towards you?”.
He didn’t respond, picked up his things, and left. Everyone started to clap and cheer, but I felt awful about the whole thing. We didn’t see him for a long time after that. That’s my point with this section. Don’t hang on to hope so long as to become jaded by it.
Rolling over, walking away, or giving in?
You can call it “picking your battles”, or “letting them not eat your energy”, but the result is still the same. You’ve left the conversation and you’re not coming back.
My first experience with blogging was in 2004 in a high school advanced politics class. As students, we were encouraged to argue in class. When the teacher brought forth a continuous internet based medium, many of us jumped at the chance. However, as the back and forth progressed, insults started to seep into the mold. At some point, I was called in, told I was going to be moved to a different class, and the blog was promptly taken down.
It was my first time learning that I couldn’t change others online or otherwise. I couldn’t combat prejudice through a digital lense. I couldn’t “win” that way. It turned out to be all for the better and the lesson still holds true. Sometimes, it’s better to have others dig their own grave than confront them on unequal terms. The internet is a place where it’s much easier to lose something important than gain a granular amount of change.
Sometimes, it’s just better to wait to talk in-person. Empathy has its limitations, but understand that these trolls feel protected by a computer screen. You can’t take that protection away and they can’t change without admitting vulnerability.
Empathy is tricky. It pushes you to share, to combat, and to keep fighting the good fight. You want to be civil, but sometimes that’s just not possible. While you should continue to add empathy to all of your interactions, consider what it may be doing to you and take care of yourself. Try not to become desensitized by others callus stances.
I know this post has a ton of thoughts and I’m grateful to you for reading. Hopefully, you’ve found something to add to your everyday rhetoric repertoire. Maybe you might end an argument before it begins or maybe just walk away. Whatever you choose, keep caring.
If you have your own story of empathy gone awry and would like to have it discussed in a post, feel free to head over to my contact page and fill out the form. I’d love to break the story down and see what different strategies you used or could have used.
Again, thank you for reading.