In or out of the box?
** Deciding Whether to Give or Take Space **
Written by Jeramee Sikorski
Edited by Lisa Frank
In “It Works,” posted earlier, we showed how to use questions as a conversational skill for persuasive and productive political discussion. Just as an encounter with a random person can turn into a fight, a political discussion can quickly become confrontational as well. The best martial artists that I’ve had the fortune to train under also teach students to think about the space of a confrontation. It doesn’t matter how hard someone wants to punch you, if you can stay just a few feet away, they can never hurt you. Get a few miles away, and they might never think of you again. Control the space and you control the fight, or even prevent it.
This concept of space can apply to political conversations also. When we are in the midst of a heated debate, we often experience the same things that we feel in a physical confrontation: anger, our heartbeat pounding in our ears, and maybe even a little heat as adrenaline dumps into our bloodstream. Often, as a debate devolves to a quarrel, we feel like the only way to cope is complete disengagement. That is a way to create space, but it surrenders the debate due to an emotional response instead of the other person having a good argument.
In “It Works,” we applied the concept of space in two ways. First, we brought in an article from a trusted source 1 to build a framework around the discussion. This let’s us set limits similar to how the walls of a coffee shop keep out the harsher elements of nature so we may converse in relative peace. Alternatively, if the discussion is heated, the framework acts as the steel cage where we’ll do rhetorical combat. 2
It must be understood, though, that the limits placed around the conversation are there to keep us anchored to reality and not isolated in a media bubble. If the person with whom we are engaging has different facts available, then they are welcome to introduce those facts, either from personal experience or from another credible source. In turn, we are always free to dispute those facts, which is another benefit of using an article from a reputable source. We do not have firsthand experience for most issues with which we deal, so a source with a reputation of credibility provides justification to believe the reported facts, which we then use to justify our beliefs. If a person brings in facts from a bad source with a history of extreme bias or misreporting the facts, then we are justified in rejecting that source. 3 Requiring that the conversation remain rooted in reality helps control the space around the conversation.
The second way that we control the space is by giving space within a discussion, and we do it for a couple of reasons. We used our questioning technique with a friend with whom we want to maintain our friendship. Just as we wouldn’t physically push a friend around until they feel compelled to lash out, we can use questions to keep the discussion going while giving the other person enough space to not feel threatened. Within the safety of that space, we give them questions that allow them to reflect and connect the values in their hearts with their beliefs. Additionally, creating that space for reflection also gives us a little emotional distance from the conflict situation. This helps us to control our emotions too and allows us to come away with a mutual appreciation of shared values and beliefs.
Note: Don’t get down on yourself if your emotions get the best of you during one of these tense conversations. These ideas sound extremely simple here because we are presenting the culmination of years spent studying and practicing both logic and debate. This takes practice, and you should expect to screw up sometimes. Take heart, though. In “It Works,” we point out several of our own mistakes and places where, in hindsight, we could have structured a better conversation. Despite those mistakes, that conversation was a success. Do not let perfection be the enemy of the good. Just keep trying.
Articles in this series.
In or Out of the Box? (the one you are reading now.)
Get in the Ring -- Basic Techniques for Troll Boxing (Coming Soon)
Troll Boxing (Coming Soon)
There are times, however, that it just isn’t possible to give that space and have anything resembling a civil conversation. The constant deflection by some media entities and personalities has infected our nation’s ability to have civil discussions. Dealing with people like this feels like being in a tornado with all that debris swirling and battering you. Their chaotic thoughts create an onslaught of foolish ideas that will litter the space around when they fade away. This type of argument* doesn’t actually damage your argument but rather lays waste to everything around and in its path. What small pieces of rational argument that they do throw at you are left to litter the ground as they focus on the next piece of havoc they will wreak.
(*Note: In this series, we will use argument in the debate sense: a series of propositions intended to support and prove a conclusion. We’ll use quarrel to refer to a heated or angry exchange.)
With this type of person, the strategy of giving space does not work. This kind of person spins facts and bad ideas just as quickly as the Tasmanian Devil from Looney Tunes whirls around. The only time the Taz isn’t spinning through a path of destruction is when he’s in a box or being outsmarted by Bugs. (By the way, you’re Bugs Bunny in this analogy). You cannot give people like this space, or they will chew through everything around them and leave a disaster in their wake. They will only use it to create destruction and chaos. For people like this, you must confine their space and box them in like the Taz when he’s in a shipping crate.
For people unfamiliar with the Taz, we’ve linked a couple of his iconic cartoons for you here.
Ducking the devil:
Bill of Hare:
One last caveat before we take a look at rules and strategies to box in these devils. During an argument, whether on or off social media, it is uncommon that we will actually change the other’s beliefs. My friend in “It Works” began the conversation by saying she was “on the fence.” She didn’t so much change her beliefs as she took the time to reflect upon her values and decided which side of the fence reflected her beliefs. For people with morally repugnant beliefs, such as thinking that locking refugee children in cages is a good thing, we assume that we won’t change their beliefs. So, why bother?
With Taz-like Trump supporters, our goal is not to change their beliefs. Just like a panel debate on TV news, the proponents of either side will not walk away with their beliefs changed, but that was never the reason they engaged in the debate to begin with. For people like this, we engage and debate them to show other people observing the argument the difference between the two sides. Our goal is to demonstrate our values in the clearest way possible.
If you’re like us, you also have friends who are somewhere in the middle. Our goal is to show them or anyone else who may observe the debate that we can coherently combine reason and compassion, uniting heart and mind. We understand that morality relates to promoting the well-being of other human beings 4 and not blindly following the cruel dictates of an authoritarian. Doing that also makes the other side's argument resemble a manure spreader spraying crap everywhere rather than a series of real thoughts.
Actual photo of Trump supporter making his “argument” in a recent encounter.
Next: We will give a brief overview of some of the rules and techniques we use with Trump supporter for a better understanding of how to deal with such a creature when discovered lurking in its natural habitat.
Thank you for coming to engage with our ideas.
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If Trump's cruelty is getting a little too heavy, you can take a look at some of our recent satire pieces below.
2 We are building up from easy to difficult conversations in this series so there will be more of that in future installments.
3 We ’ll explore that more in the next installment.
4 The focus on promoting well-being can be applied to all sentient creatures, which would also include animals, for those who recognize that they can feel many of the same emotions that we do.