Tone, Respect, and Giving Offense.
AA does not promote itself. There are no advertisements, etc.. We just go live our lives, and the word gets around that AA works. Because we also, generally, don’t hide our involvement. Many, many people in my personal life knew I was a problem drinker. Now, everyone knows that I am not a drinker. People who never saw me turn down a drink now see me sober and sane and productive. Or, they simply don’t see me at all, because drinking was the only reason I interacted with them. When people ask me how I went from being a drunk to not being a drunk, I tell them.
And you know what? Every single time, they have a supportive comment, and almost as frequently they tell a story about another drunk in their lives. Sometimes, that other drunk is them. And so I talk about my experience in AA. I talk about what I saw, and what I did, and how I felt. I don’t tell them what they have to do, or what they will experience. I don’t proselytize. I don’t go out and try to lasso drunks, and drag them into the rooms of AA. But sometimes, people hear something they need to hear, and connect to something they need to connect with, and they decide to explore AA for themselves.
The result of this is that now, some 80 years after Bill Wilson sat down with Bob Smith (Are there two more anonymous sounding names?) and had what is generally considered the first AA meeting, there have been millions of lives saved, and many millions more impacted because a drunk in their lives became a sober person. Through a quiet process of word-of-mouth, and the plain-to-see results of people reclaiming lost lives and returning to productivity and societal participation, AA has become known worldwide as a place to go to recover from alcoholism, and has spawned devotee organizations for all manner of addictions and even other problems. Recovery has become something within the grasp of anyone.
I’m writing about this today because I feel it’s relevant to a couple of discussions I’ve been having off and on about political debate, and religious debate. The one thing I’m not particularly fond of about the online community as a generalization is how strident it is. How quick to offense and how immediate irrevocable judgements are made. Sometimes those judgements end up correct. Sometimes they don’t. But real people end up caught in them no matter what.
I’ve written a lot about the tenor of what passes for debate. Often, when I do, people immediately dismiss it as simply being what is called a “tone troll”. That is, someone who derails a debate because they don’t like the harsh tactics of their opponent. And that is a real tactic that is used to disrupt debate. Just like shouting down an opponent with obscenities is a real tactic. Neither is effective at moving people. Neither is effective at introducing controversial topics and actually trying to move minds.
However, I wonder what the whole point of online debate is? Are we trying to convince people? Do we want to change people’s minds and behaviors? If so, then I don’t understand the tactic of mockery and viciousness. I’ve never seen someone change their mind because they were effectively derided and mocked. In fact, I’ve rarely seen anyone change their mind by being told what they must do, and how they must think, no matter how politely it’s put.
So, while I find the viciousness and cynicism unpleasant, I don’t think that my point is really about tone at all. Though I am far less likely to engage in a conversation with a person who is intemperate, politely phrased exhortations that other people change their behavior are not particularly effective either, in my opinion. I’ve never seen a drunk give up their drinking because they were told they drink too much. No matter how rudely or kindly it was said.
What I believe changes hearts is the connection to others. And yes, I think tone has something to do with that, with our ability to connect, but it doesn’t guarantee it. What does is finding common experience. Common emotional ground. Tell me about your experience. Tell me how your life changed, or would change, when a policy or cultural norm shifted, or should shift. Let me put the pieces together for myself.
When I go to talk to an active drunk, I tell him or her how I drank. I tell them about my experience, my strength, my hope. I tell them how my life changed. What I did, how it works for me. And I’ve seen, first hand, many times, the connection that that person made inside themselves with the things I was saying about myself. And I think that the reason we can make that connection is, yes, shared experience, but at a deeper level it is about the respect I have for that person’s autonomy and capacity to understand.
So, it’s not about tone. It’s about respect for persons. My opponent in a debate is not less human than I am for having a different opinion. And sometimes, giving offence is a crucial tool in a debate. Sometimes, I have to offend someone because I respect them. Because it is the only way to remain engaged with them. Offence is powerful when it is used to strengthen connections, rather than derail them. But the only way I see it used these days is to stifle discussion and round up supporters who need no convincing.
Why do we write what we write, when we perceive injustices? So much of what I read isn’t aimed, it seems, at correcting injustice. It’s just designed to satisfy the primal urge to howl at the wrong. To collect a pack of dogs to howl louder. But when I accept that someone who disagrees with me, or who simply is cautious in accepting my position, is not less noble, not less intelligent, not less human, than I am, and when they do the same, then, I believe, there exists the opportunity for meaningful interactions.
When you tell me your story, I find, more often than not, that the same thread binds the seams of my life.