This idea for a post has been haunting me for some time, but it’s taken me quite awhile to bring it together coherently enough to compose my ideas on paper. So, after all this thinking, researching, and meditating, I’m going to complete this and release it into the wilds of the Internet. I hope it helps folks as much as it’s helping me recognize ways to be a better person.
To begin, it often feels that when people engage in discussion, there’s hidden rules and approaches that must be held true by both for the discussion to not end in hurting another. In America, where I live, this seems more true than ever before as our country becomes more polarized.
What are these basic approaches?
- Approach 1 focuses on verbalizing any opinion regardless of what they are. As long as it is said without emotion, done rationally, and is on the discussion topic, then it is rational and valid and must be respected. The focus is that all opinions are on an equal playing field, and discussions are a game of intelligence and debate skills. In this approach, there are winners and losers.
- Approach 2 focuses on respect and basic human dignity and how that comes first before opinions. This approach recognizes that not all opinions are equal or healthy, that some people hold more risk and stakes than another. Respect and acceptance of a person’s humanity, their stakes and risk, and the differences in privilege must be acknowledged first before opinions can be shared and treated with validity. In this approach, discussion is not a game of debate, but a shared experience in which to grow. For this approach, there are no winners or losers.
These two approaches are the predominant ones in American culture today. They are not all the approaches to a discussion, yes, but for brevity and relevancy, I’ll focus on these two approaches. Of the two, I believe the first is often deadly and toxic.
Approach 1 makes several false assumptions:
- Emotion is invalid, and showing emotions means the argument that person made is not rational or to be respected.
- Rationality with no emotion is the only way to have intelligent discussions, thus cementing the idea of rationality and emotion being at war with one another, and rationality being equated with intelligence.
- That all opinions are on an equal playing field, and people’s opinions stay valid as long as they are rational and emotionless.
- That discussions are a debate game to be won.
Let’s tackle these one at a time.
Emotion does not render an argument invalid. It simply does not. We are human beings, where emotions are a huge indicator that tells us important things about ourselves, our environment, and our safety and well-being. They play a role in determining when to disengage, when to engage, and can fuel a passion that can make discussions more interesting or instructive (or could also make them destructive too). Emotional intelligence is just as important as any other facets of human intelligence.
Emotions have their pros and cons, but rendering any argument invalid because emotion is present? That is a silencing tactic. It is also a logical fallacy, where the other is outright avoiding the issue present by using the person’s emotions as a way to silence and distract.
Rationality is not at war with emotion. Rationality does not equal intelligence either. Being rational does not make the person’s argument superior to someone who had emotion slip into their words. This assumption in of itself contradicts the idea of an “equal playing field.” Secondly, it assumes that one cannot be both rational and hold emotions, which is a false premise. It is possible to do both. Third, it puts those who have no risk in the discussion on a deadly pedestal, where they can use words in a destructive manner but escape consequences by hiding behind the idea of rationality = intelligence = validity, and thus should always be respected.
What do I mean by risk? Risk generally incorporates the amount of energy — emotional and physical and mental — a person puts into an activity and balances it against outcomes that may negatively harm their health — mental, physical, or emotional – or their functionality and existence within the world.
I am a transgender person. In discussions about gender, my risk is at a high level as I may have to discuss topics related to my very identity, where I may have to defend my existence and such a defense? Is always exhausting. If a person’s opinion outright invalidates my humanity — such as claiming trans people need to accept their birth gender as that’s just biology — this is an attack on my identity and humanity. Verbal attacks bring on a panic attack for me, and it limits my functionality to exist, hurts my health and violates safety.
To ignore such risks and stakes, is to ignore the humanity of that person and to ignore that their needs are just as valid as the other person. Respecting one another’s needs also means respecting what boundaries they may put into place to keep themselves safe and to keep their health stable. Respecting someone’s needs and boundaries is often hard to do, and any of us may fail at it, even when doing the second approach.
(Side note: How to respect one another is a post I may have a different day, but I will say that it involves taking responsibility of one’s words and actions regardless of one’s intent and be willing to apologize and listen (for all involved). I admit, this is something I work on just as much as everyone else — no one is perfect at this.)
To continue, people who have no risk in the discussion do not exist on an even or equal playing field with those who have a lot of risk. Thus, approach 1 by those with no risk, makes any opinion fair game as long as it is done rationally, emotionless, and to further the ‘game.’ If the other person’s needs, boundaries, and stakes in the discussion is not respected, then words are not carefully chosen. Instead, to those who hold no risk in the discussion, the focus is the game, an “intelligent discussion where all opinions are valid,” where words are just words.
They ignore the reality that words are not “just words.” Words can be violent weapons that destroy just as much as they can be powerful sources of healing. Words matter. Words and gestures and emotions are how we communicate with one another. There is simply no such thing as a discussion that holds no risk for all involved.
Failing to recognize the risk others may hold? Failing to recognize what is at stake? Failing to respect those who have much at stake? This is a dismissal of a person’s experiences and identity, and how those influence and shape discussion as much as the facts and opinions shared. It can easily break boundaries and cause harm, and a discussion that causes harm? That is not a healthy discussion.
No person can ever completely erase themselves from a discussion. We all hold biases that unconsciously affect us. Often times, in Approach 1, the idea of rationality is to rise above biases, where those speaking rationally with no emotion hold no biases. This assumption that biases are negligible or nonexistent in ‘rational discussions?’ And/or rational discussions with no emotion is more valid? And/or there is no risk in a discussion because it is all ‘just a game?’
That’s not rational or healthy assumptions. Instead, they are smokescreens and distractions meant to avoid the issue at stake in the discussion. And that’s dangerous, destructive, and not at all instructive. One cannot have a discussion if the these approaches are at odds with one another.
In my view, the only way a discussion can be valuable and instructive for all involved is if everyone approaches it with respect of a person’s humanity, the stakes they have in the conversation, and the power of words themselves. But to do so, we must recognize that not all opinions are equal in power or validity.
Let me repeat: opinions are not all equal in power or validity. Let us look at history to remind ourselves of the power of words. Some opinions have led to the deaths of millions. Until people can recognize these two different discussion approaches and the dangers inherent in the first approach, then discussions about hard subjects will tend toward those who hold the most risk, the most stakes, being harmed or worse.
A good example of this is the idea that a group of beings is worth less than another. This is an opinion, but it is rooted in the oppression and violation of a fellow human being. There is no even playing field as the opinion starts out violating the basic rules of trust and respect when engaging in conversations. And these opinions, that view others as less than, has influenced powerful legislation and movements that have resulted in oppression, destruction of liberties and lives, and outright genocide. There’s many examples of this throughout history. I’ll list a few:
- Nazi Germany and the concentration camps.
- Scapegoating communities, leading to higher violence against them.
- The genocide against various indigenous tribes around the world.
- The government-based racist oppression, where black people were not allowed to exist in majority of public spaces.
- Homophobic and Transphobic legislation that makes it hard if not impossible for LGBQTIA people to receive healthcare or exist in public.
- Slavery of any sort.
- Wage entrapment, where a person doesn’t earn enough to speak up against abuse by their employer without fear of homelessness or starvation and/or mass incarceration for petty crimes to get free or low paid labor.
As much as people try to claim remembering history is a fallacy, it truly is not. It is important to remember our history, and how words, the approach to discussion, and premises on which those words stand hold power. People may say that one person doesn’t do much, but it’s never just one person.
There are people in the US who still do not believe Climate Change is real. Some may claim their opinions are equally as valid as those who believe in Climate Change, but that is numerous logical fallacies: it ignores the facts, it suppresses evidence that counters one’s opinion, and it causes harm as it makes it harder to move forward with for legislation and technologies to stop Climate Change. Facts about climate change — the science behind it — is firm. Thus, opinions on whether to “believe it or not” are avoiding the issue, a fallacy.
Folks may say, “Well, discussions between friends aren’t like this.” But are they? Any time these two approaches clash, people end up hurt. Different groups in society value one approach over another, and if one of these groups who value the first approach are in power, this can lead to dehumanizing legislation. Attempts at protesting or other forms of discussion about that dehumanizing legislation, often ends up twisted up in the fallacy that emotion = invalid, where protestors are dehumanized, and thus violent and/or callous actions toward protestors is often argued as valid and good in order to bring order.
Discussions between two people isn’t separate from the discussions had by society as a whole. Society is made up of people. Each of those people have their needs, boundaries, identities, and opinions. Sometimes they intersect in healthy ways, and sometimes in detrimental ways. There are many components that make up society, but to name a few: it is our discussions; how we work together or against each other; our apathy or action; our ability to respect or not respect others; ways we honor or don’t honor boundaries; the ways we vote those in power that align with our opinions in power — these all make up society and is the basis of society.
So the questions I must ask:
- Is the discussion truly more important than people’s humanity and their risks they must deal with on a daily basis?
- Is it more important to stay neutral no matter what, regardless of the stakes and humanity of those involved?
- For those that do intervene, who are they protecting?
- Do they protect those that “spoke rationally” and were “just having a discussion”
- Or do they protect those that feel attacked, silenced, harmed?
It’s not possible to protect both factions. To demand silence of all sides doesn’t end the hurt caused and does not erase what happened. It may stop the discussion, but it protects no one.
For those that say what about censorship? Remember, free speech is only about not allowing government and similar entities to restrict you as a person and your ability to communicate freely. But it does not erase the consequences of those words. There is always consequences to everything we do. The depth and nature of those consequences may differ, but they do exist.
Thus, in these discussions, there is no such thing as a neutral stance. You either agree with the first approach or you agree with the second approach. You can’t agree with both as the first approach often fails to recognize the validity of a person’s humanity, or the validity that not all opinions are equal or healthy, or the risks inherent, or the way words can kill as much as they heal.
These approaches as they currently stand in our society are not able to coexist peacefully. They just can’t. The second approach recognizes and respects the differences in stakes, the differences in risk, the humanity of those involved. And the first one? Doesn’t.
Because not all opinions are created equal. I think, by recognizing these approaches, maybe we can find a better way to communicate, to be more respectful, more empathetic, and better able to cause the least harm when sharing opinions. For a person’s humanity should be worth more than an opinion.