Moderating a group blog like Troppo, where both contributors and commenters possess a more diverse range of views than seems to be the norm in the blogosphere, is a challenging task. Sometimes (like now) it gets so tiresome I feel like walking away and leaving the zealots to their own devices. The blogging experience confirms, if any confirmation were needed, that we humans are tribal creatures who too readily retreat into mental foxholes and regard anyone outside them as fools or enemies or both.
I remain bemused about why Sophie’s anarchism posts generated such acrimony. After all, her basic hypothesis/intuition didn’t even depend on whether the assorted terrorists of the late 19th and early 20th century were motivated by anarchist objectives or marxist ones or whether they were just nutters with ill-defined grudges against established authority. Moreover, to the extent terrorists were marxists rather than anarchists, they presumably did ultimately aim at a non-coercive, stateless workers’ paradise after an interregnum of proletarian dictatorship. Sophie’s point was that the atmosphere of chaos, violence and uncertainty that widespread terrorist violence created (whatever the precise underlying ideology if any of individual terrorists) may have contributed to the mindset that led to World War I and then seemingly inexorably to the Russian Revolution, World War II and so on. I don’t think she was ever suggesting that anarchist/socialist violence was the sole or even dominant cause, however, although that’s how most of her interlocutors seem to have chosen to interpret her.
I don’t think there’s a useful purpose in trying to analyse the reasons why a discussion on an innocuous and mildly interesting post about fairly distant historical events turned into such an unpleasant and sometimes bullying argument. Instead I thought I might reproduce some discussion hints from a document my partner jen brought home from a Catholic teachers’ conference she’s been attending this week. The hints deal with face-to-face discussion, but most of the points are equally applicable to the sort of “asynchronous” written debates we have in the blogosphere:
Listen to understand
Key point: Many of us simply listen to speak i.e. we wait to ‘get our bit in’. People often need the chance to talk their way to understanding. When we ‘listen, to think, to learn’ we honour the person’s need and we are able to listen for the meaning they are attempting to share. Mutual understanding is more likely to be achieved.
Key point: Judgment or criticism of others’ ideas as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and verbal put-downs are likely to discourage ideas being offered. They can generate ill-feeling, escalating defensiveness and alienation. In short, they offer nothing toward genuine dialogue. They actively work against it.
Key point: Remaining open to, and in fact, welcoming feedback, discussion, probing questions or critique can be challenging, but is an important move in generating substantive dialogue.
It helps when we model openness in our language, for example, rather than saying ‘The only solution is …’, to say ‘One solution might be …’. Oppenness is also a sign of personal growth and maturity: ‘take it professionally, not personally’.
Validate the contribution
Key point: As teachers, we need acknowledgment, to know we have been heard. This may simply be ‘thank-you’ or a thoughtful nod, it may be a question, or a comment that paraphrases what has been said.
The important thing is that the person has been genuinely heard, rather than ‘dismissed’ with blank silence, superficial comments such as ‘Fantastic’ or ‘Thanks, and now to the next item on the agenda …’
Furthermore, a response of ‘Yes, but …’ (or ‘Yes, however …’) automatically labels what the person has said as invaild. Use ‘Yes, and …’ instead. This validates and extends the contribution.
Promote and support substantive dialogue
Key point: In addition to those already mentioned, paraphrasing, asking clarifying and probing questions, offering and testing ideas for feedback and conversation, comparing, connecting, building on and integrating ideas are essentil skills in constructing shared and deepened understandings.