Let’s not discuss it

Stay out of it. Keep your opinions to yourself. It’s none of your business. Don’t get into it.

All too often, these words roll around in my head when I feel an opinion starting to form after reading some online think piece or other. It could be that because I’m a woman, I’ve been conditioned to believe I should be mousy and timid, not speak up when I have something to say. Or maybe I’m too afraid of offending someone, of starting a fight. Or maybe that I’d breach some unwritten rule of online etiquette and make myself a pariah. Or worst of all, that I’d risk inviting a deluge of trolling down on my head. It’s better just to shut up altogether, even if I might have something valid and relevant to add to the conversation.

I don’t want to think like that, and I’d like to stop thinking like that.

These days, though, discussion and debate have become thornier than ever, especially online (and I am thinking specifically about social media here, as it’s rapidly becoming the most common form of political discourse). The simple act of expressing a differing opinion is enough to make some people incandescent with rage, whatever their political bent might be. Saying “I disagree with you” is fraught with danger. And that, in my humble view, is A Very Bad Thing. It needs to change. As long as you consider your argument carefully, it should be possible to disagree without it turning into a web-based brawl.

Let me make one thing clear: I’m not directing this at any one group of people, or laying blame at anyone’s feet. Neither am I saying anyone should be able to say anything they like, without repercussions. Sometimes, it really is better just to shut up.

Not everyone needs to be “called out”, though. Some people do — those who deliberately and vindictively persecute others, who cause suffering through their words, or who behave like spoiled, narcissistic children, for example. But not everyone. It’s the fear that one might be — that someone out there might accuse one of perpetrating some heinous crime of opinion, as per the aforementioned unwritten rules — that’s holding back meaningful discussion on a whole host of issues and letting mindless screeching win out.

Spoiling for a fight is not the answer, but neither is placing oneself in an echo chamber, where everyone’s view is the same. Respect and kindness on both sides of an argument are.

This, then, is a plea for all the screeching to stop, for the trolls to get back in their caves, for the floor to be opened up again to honest, reasoned, respectful debate, on any topic. It’s a plea for people to think about how they react, to consider whether their words might actually contribute something useful, and then join in without being a dick about it. Debate is good. Debate is healthy. Of course everyone can’t always agree, but listening to and considering other views is what promotes understanding and what keeps things from descending into a screeching contest: it’s what brings humanity closer together. The internet can help that, or hinder it. It’s all too easy for words to be misinterpreted, wilfully or otherwise, and for that to lead to chaos.

Of course, I rather suspect trolls will always be trolls, but the rest of us need to rise above that and quell the screeching. With that in mind, here are a few easy-to-follow guidelines to joining an online debate:

  1. Think before you speak. Are you being a dick? Don’t be a dick.
  2. What do you really want to say? Is it more than just an ad hominem attack against someone whose view is different from yours? Think about it carefully, reread what you’ve written and try not to be a dick. Eliminate dickishness and then post it.
  3. Are you afraid someone else is going to be a dick to you if you say what you have to say? Don’t be. Follow the first two guidelines and then post it.
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