Recently I have got involved in some unedifying spats on Twitter again. Given that I had resolved not to do so, I am somewhat saddened. I have also witnessed more, in which I have not got involved.
What I am talking about here are not the disagreements between ideological enemies, but those between people who should be natural allies - eg between orthodox Catholics, committed pro-lifers, or indeed Christians of any denomination.
Of course there will be differences between us: for which we thank God. A singular view, until we are all perfect, would be disastrous for one and all. The differences should help us to learn one from another. Yet somehow that is not what I see happening.
So, ever keen to help others advance along the path of wisdom (though a sluggard on it myself), I offer these reflections on how we may strive to discuss differences in ways that generate more light than heat (my kids still remember an inspirational RC junior school head teacher, who exhorted them to 'be a radiator, not a drain!').
As usual (I am something of a magpie) the ideas aren’t mine, but distilled from the thinking of those wiser than me. In this case, I use the framework of the seminal book about Negotiating, Getting to Yes, by Fisher and Ury, of the Harvard Negotiating Project, which a friend recommended years ago, and which I have found invaluable in my professional life.
Their analysis suggests that when negotiations falter, a few things typically have gone wrong - and my contention is that one can read across from negotiations to our Twitter and Blogging spats very readily.
As always with these pieces, I see myself in this as much as others, and am not aiming it at anyone in particular, but at ourselves, (especially the Catholic blogosphere and twitterati). So by all means look in the mirror, but don’t assume I’m having a go at you!
So what are the problems:
1 Egos get entangled with the issues (and how often we see that, with ad hominem comments, defensiveness, etc);
2 People dig into their own positions, defend them, and attack the positions of others (again, one can readily recall examples of that);
3 People assume that their answer is the only correct answer - that every issue is a zero-sum game;
4 People then get frustrated with others, and resort to coercion (or in the case of online barnies, bullying, disparagement, ganging up etc).
Based on that analysis, they propose four rules of thumb (slightly adapted here for our purposes) for those more interested in reaching wise outcomes than in winning fights:
1 Keep the people separate (in our mind and in our discourse) from the problems. We should be as tough as we like on the problems, but always charitable to the people. Thus, we should assume good intentions, rather than impute evil ones, while nonetheless being prepared to call a spade a spade when discussing issues and ideas. If you want to practice this at an advanced level, ignore it when people abuse or insult you: don't stand on your dignity, but engage with their arguments. Recognise that their rhetoric is an expression of the strength of their emotions, rather than (necessarily) an attack on you. Be prepared to say sorry when people take you the wrong way - even if it is a mis-reading.
2 Explore interests, rather than fight over positions. We should recognise that beneath our opposing positions are common interests (such as shared beliefs) and others which may be reconcilable. This is hard work and requires genuine dialogue, not the lobbing of killer put-downs (and we really are in pot and kettle territory here...). Thus instead of nailing the flaw in your argument (easy to do, when you are only allowed 140 characters at a time to expound it) I should focus on making sure I have fully understood it, and your reasons for advancing it. If I do that with due charity, and still have reservations, or simply think you are wrong, when I express those, I am more likely to do so in a way that you will be able to hear.
3 Generate new ideas. Rather than insist that you accept my views, I should seek to incorporate yours and mine in a richer way, if possible; at least as a tentative exploration. I should have the humility to recognise that it is just conceivable that I don’t hold the monopoly on knowledge and insight, and even that you may have something to bring to the party. If we are starting from a common Faith or a common intention, then a both/and solution may well be better than an either/or one. Not everything is a zero sum game: and if we regard everything as one, we are setting up win: lose every time - and often needlessly.
4 Use only facts and reasoning to persuade, and be open to persuasion by facts and reasoning. It can be helpful to present things as tentative rather than dogmatic (unless they are genuinely de fide). Invite people to explain where you are wrong, if they think you are, and listen until you have understood their point. Of course you have the right to correct them if they are wrong, too; but you will be heard better if you listen more.
I will strive to abide by these. If you feel they are helpful, you could do so too. If you have any comments, suggestions, improvements or rebuttals, I am, as ever, interested to hear them.