What is a “Respectful Dialog”?

I welcome and enjoy hearing out viewpoints different from my own – and almost always learn something valuable from such discussions. But, abusive speech is never acceptable, and won’t be tolerated. It’s how the views are being communicated that is the issue, not what is being communicated.


11027993_10153228240696773_4766521774461750123_nI spend much of my time writing or posting content on the internet that is intended to educate and inform, and to encourage discussion.  These discussions often manifest themselves in the form of comment-threads with a large number of participants.  (Sadly, most of the more interesting and productive discussions occur on my Facebook page, and so aren’t visible on my WordPress sites.  I wish there were a way to replicate comments between the two!)

Every so often (especially in response to my posts on more controversial topics), I will get a hoard of what I mentally label as “Whacko Conspiracy Theorists” making a rash of comments that have little to do with what is being said, and everything to do with how they feel about what they feel the topic should be: often hijacking what had (or could have) been a productive discussion.

Such comments are a quandary for me: Yes, I want to encourage discussion.  But it is clear that many of these “Whacko Conspiracy Theorists” have no interest whatsoever in learning anything, or in developing a common ground of understanding (and a possible basis for united action on the topic at hand).

So, how does one identify those who are really “Whacko” as opposed to those who merely hold views different from my own?  It is all too easy to label any who disagree with you as “Whacko” and move on – which is what many do on both sides of the fence.  But, this is not productive.  Responding to others’ nutty comments with your own favorite flavor of nuttiness does not help the situation: it does not encourage dialog, and does not do anything to develop a common understanding.  What’s more, when you dig under the covers, you often find significant areas of agreement in terms of identifying what the basic problem is.  The disagreement usually comes with ones’ preferred solution.  We cannot hear what those areas of agreement are if we stay focused only on our disagreements.

I remember one  person saying to me “But Allen, how can you possibly agree with them?  It encourages them to continue in their sin!”  I disagree: Demonizing every aspect of your opponent’s views builds a wall, one they will fight tooth and nail to protect.  You cannot force your way through such walls by the force or righteousness of your own arguments.  In that particular case, I was agreeing that a person’s feelings on the issue at hand were valid.  This did not mean I agreed with them, but only that I agreed they have feelings.  I was acknowledging that their feelings were very real and very important to them, and I would not dismiss them as invalid merely because I disagreed with their stance on the issue as a whole.  Likewise, the pain this particular person had was manifesting itself like crazy in their fear of giving any credence to “the other side” – and such feelings were clearly valid, as they’d been deeply hurt by people expressing such things in the past.  …The feelings, and fears, on both sides of that divide had to be acknowledged, and respected, for a dialog to begin.

I believe that finding some area of agreement is an important means of bridge building, of encouraging dialog on the issue, of opening a window or door through the walls we’ve built, of planting a seed from which a mutually respectful rapport may grow.

Feelings are often a good place to start: we are all human, we all have feelings, and having those feelings disregarded is painful.  Therefore, acknowledging the other’s feelings as valid establishes that we view them as valid: as a human being worthy of respect; that they are not an enemy.  It is an opportunity for us to see their humanity, and for them to see that perhaps – just perhaps – we are valid human beings, too.

This is where the trouble begins: It begins when “The Other” refuses to see you, or those whom you represent (and their views), as having any validity at all.  “Whacko Conspiracy Theorists” do this all too well.  You see it in those who unthinkingly parrot the propaganda of various demagogues as a justification for their view and treatment of you.  You see it in those who take odd collections of unrelated facts (some of which have little or no “fact” behind them to begin with) and paste them together to create a proof that you are off your rocker when it comes to the issue (which is the very definition of a “Whacko Conspiracy Theory”, by the way).  You see it in those who take what they see as a character or moral flaw in the messenger of a particular view and use that as justification for dismissing everything they have to say.

The problem in all of these cases – and those on both extremes of the political spectrum do it all the time – is that their justifications have nothing to do with the issue at hand. All they are seeking to do is shut down dialog, not participate in it.  They are trying to beat their opponent over the head until they give in and run away.  To them, this silencing of the opposition is “winning” even though nothing positive results from their so called victory.

I used to try and be patient and generous with those who engage in such verbal violence against those they disagree with: hearing them out, repeating back my own understanding of what they’re saying (to be sure I understand), trying to find common ground, suggesting things in return that they might want to think about, modeling respectful dialog for them.   And, I still do this.  However, I also observe that when such nonsense intrudes into the discussion, it usually shuts down not only the person in the thread that is their target, but most other participants in the conversation as well (except for a few brave and stalwart defenders of the position they and I often share).  So, not only are these “Whackos” frustrating the development of a rapport between themselves and their target – but are shutting down the entire discussion and all of its participants.   Such dialogs usually degenerate into a contest of wills and hyperbole rather than becoming a mutually respectful dialog that benefits anyone, let alone everyone.

So, I’ve realized that I need to give myself some guidelines as to what is (and is not) acceptable in comments on material I have posted, and how to respond when those guidelines are broken.  Further, these guidelines need to make room for active discussion without shutting down those whom I (or others) happen to disagree with.  So, I’ve borrowed from a few internet memes and other resources to develop my own “Rules For a Respectful Dialog”, and created my own modest “flowchart for a respectful dialog” (as seen above).

The guidelines I’ve developed for myself are as follows:

From time to time I delete posts and/or comments from my websites and/or Facebook timeline. In all cases, my reasons for doing so are because I feel the comment/post is not “respectful” (as defined through the following examples).

  • Conspiracy theories and propaganda presented as factual, but which have no factual or scientific basis (and, “research” that contradicts general scientific consensus needs to be cited as such, not presented as facts that trump the general consensus)
  • Rude jokes and/or crude or abusive language
  • Rants
  • Promotion of violence or bigotry
  • Postings/comments that push an extremist agenda but give no credence or space for other opinions
  • Belittling or patronizing comments

In some cases, especially for those with whom I have a pre-existing relationship, I will send them a private note explaining what I have done, and why, with the hope that future commentary from them will be more conducive to an ongoing and respectful dialog.

In a few (very rare) cases, when a person persists in such negative behaviors and shows no willingness to become more respectful of others, I may “Unfollow”, “Unfriend”, or “Block” them.

Now, you may say “But Allen, in terming these folks ‘Whackos’ you’re doing the very thing you accuse them of doing: shutting down their ability to engage with you!”

You’re right: using the term “Whacko” is an attempt to shut such folks down (or perhaps angers them, spurring them to even more vibrant eruptions of vitriolic verbiage)!  I recognize the irony: maybe I should repent.  (Well…)

In the end, please consider this: the line between what is and is not respectful is crossed when the comments become abusive.  It’s how the views are being communicated that is the issue, not what is being communicated.  I welcome and enjoy hearing out viewpoints different from my own – and almost always learn something valuable from such discussions.  But, abusive speech is never acceptable, and should not be tolerated.  This is true not just in internet forums, but in any other realm of communication as well.

If I don’t live up to these guidelines, I encourage you to call me out on it.  (And I promise I won’t delete your comment or post, if you do so in a respectful-dialog-promoting manner!)

Copyright (c) 2015, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site.  Or, just email me and let me know!)

Author: Allen

A would be historian turned IT Professional who responded to the call to the Ministry, and is now focused on social justice and community service. He is a father of two (ages 28 & 7). He and his wife enjoy life near Boston. You can follow Pastor Allen on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PastorAllenV/ or on Twitter @allenvm3.

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