Monday, July 30, 2012

How Not to Debate

I read a lot of comments sections on blogs, especially on controversial, high-emotion topics.  It's fascinating to see the arguments people make from any particular side of an issue, and I sometimes even learn new tactics I can use to support my own point of view.

What I've noticed, however, is that there are folks who'll go onto conversations about, say, gay rights, and basically debate people HARD and make nasty jokes to belittle the position of the opposition, then when called out say that they're just doing this for fun.  And when everyone explodes, they act like it's other people who are irrational.

I used to participate in the Junior States of America, a politics and debate organization for high school students.  I loved debate.  I still do, when I'm in the right mood.  But debate becomes a lot less fun when someone with no sense of the importance of an issue decides to get in the thick of it with someone who puts a lot of stock in the outcome of the debate happening on a large scale.

It's one thing to debate an issue for fun- it's another to debate an issue for fun when the other side has deeply personal interest in their side being right.  Allow me to provide some examples:

-A straight person debating gay rights with a gay person, "just for fun"
-A male complementarian debating women's role in the church with a woman, "just for fun"
-A man debating reproduction rights with a woman, "just for fun"
-A white person debating the value of affirmative action with a person of color, "just for fun"

During Rachel Held Evans' Mutuality 2012 series, Christian feminist blogger Dianna E. Anderson wrote a post on this very subject.  She related a story wherein she was having a discussion with a complementarian male friend:
I referenced John Piper’s words that a woman should “endure abuse for a season” and attempt to bring her husband under church discipline before trying to leave the relationship. I also pointed out that complementarianism, as a system, leaves more room for abuse because it creates an uneven power dynamic within the relationship. I had a friend when I was younger who suffered extensive emotional abuse because her father bought into the rhetoric that “the man gets the final say!” and so on.  
My friend replied with a long, confusing mess that essentially boiled down to “abused wives are martyrs for Christ, like missionaries in China.”  
I stood up and walked out.  
He got upset at me, saying he was just “having a fun discussion,” was “disappointed that I took things so personally,” and that he hoped I would examine what he said, free of personal bias, and come back to The Truth (TM). 
We no longer speak.
She then went on to explain that the reason she got so angry was because the larger discussion "...affects everything about how [women] are to behave, how we see ourselves, how we interact in our relationships, how we manage our careers, our children, and our lives...if complementarians are right, my world falls apart.  How can I not take that personally?"

What Anderson gets at here is that, if you aren't personally affected by the outcome of a debate, you shouldn't treat it like a toy.  You can't just toddle in to a discussion and play devil's advocate "just for the the heck of it".

If you're a man, you can't for funsies tell women that they should give up their bodies and their health for an unwanted child.

If you're complementarian, you can't lightheartedly tell a woman that all she needs to do is submit to her husband and everything will be peachy.

I sound like a killjoy.  I don't care.  If you're privileged, you don't get to be flippant in debate.  These are conversations happening on a large scale, with people's lives and livelihoods standing to be radically affected depending on the outcome.  These aren't just abstract, theoretical discussions.

If you try to do this- if you try to treat an intense issue as your intellectual plaything- don't be surprised when people get emotional.  Even if it's not of personal importance to you, it is to someone else.

Recently, a friend and I ended up in a conversation with two guys over using the word "transgender" vs. "transgendered"* to refer to the trans identity.  My friend and I ended up being incredibly frustrated because these guys, being not-trans, thought they were totally within their rights to say that it was okay to use "transgendered" because it was grammatically correct, regardless of the explanations my friend and I gave.  Even when I said "We should respect trans people and use the term they prefer," they stuck to their grammatical guns.

These were cisgender guys trying to argue that they knew better than trans people what was the appropriate term to use to refer to trans people.  That's not okay.  When I tried to explain the importance of respecting a trans person's right to identify and label themself, I was mocked.  These guys turned a serious discussion into their own toy with which to show their grammatical chops in order to avoid being exposed as being in error.

Now, if you want to debate whether chocolate or vanilla ice cream is better, or whether Harry should have ended up with Draco instead of Ginny, or whether the Working Class Foodies recipe for borscht deserves to be called borscht, that's fine.  Have fun.  Very, very little is lost by your goofing off.

But when you think it's okay to toy with an issue which doesn't affect you but does affect your opponent, or to decide for a minority group whether their complaints are valid, that's wrong.  Plain and simple.

*"Transgender" is the correct term, as it is an identity assumed by an individual.  "Transgendered" makes it sound like trans is something that happens to you, not something you are.

No comments:

Post a Comment