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General Thoughts on Disagreement.

17 November 2014

As I’ve had a bit more to think about the storm over Rosetta Lead Scientist Matt Taylor’s shirt, I think about what I would want to happen if I were in that working environment. As I wrote before, I don’t have a problem with the shirt, and I don’t have a problem with a person who would own such a shirt, though I might not want to walk proudly next to them while they wear it. I do have a problem with thinking it’s appropriate to wear that shirt to work, for a wide variety of reasons; I think it represents more than just, “wacky dude wears wacky shirt to office”.

The reason I’m reluctant to let it go right now, given his (I believe sincere) apology, is that he also made those troublesome sexually charged comments. Which makes we wonder – two ill-advised female-specific sexualizations in the workplace on the same day – if this wasn’t a pattern that has more of a history that we know.

Now, I also want to make it clear: none of this is really any of my business. I don’t know the man. I don’t work in his institution or even his country. There is always far, far more going on that I could possibly know. So I can’t say for certain what his history is, or how his language affects those around him, or if he’s a problem or not in his workplace. Which is why I want to talk, not about what I think ESA should do, or what Matt Taylor should do, but about what I should do, and what I’d want in my own environment. That’s how this is relevant to me. No one, not ESA, not Taylor, involved owes me anything at all.

But if this had happened in my workplace, I’d want to know that something was being done to communicate that this was irresponsible, and could have consequences. That, as I wrote before, sexualized language and imagery in the workplace is generally inappropriate. And I’d want someone to find out if there were a history. Talk to the people around him. Is there more? If there isn’t already one, establish a policy. One which has standards and accountability.

This is a little more than I wrote in my last post on the topic. And I think that the reason for that is some writing by a friend of mine who had a different perspective than I did regarding how severe the circumstances were. I maintain that I don’t know how severe they were, but I can at least endorse the idea that someone in the local environs with authority should go about finding out, and setting boundaries.

And that’s the real point of this post, today. Not what I think should happen there. But how I think people need to examine disagreements. The shirt issue has led to as much online vitriol and viciousness as I’ve ever seen. I’ve been personally called terrible things for what I wrote, and that’s miniscule compared to what women speaking out have encountered.

When people have different perspectives from me, my first instinct is often defensive, and being defensive often involves making offensive maneuvers in order to protect myself. I see that happen on all sides of every debate, especially online. In this case, as is the case a lot recently, it seems as though a number of women raised objections about this sartorial blunder, and then were immediately subjected to brutal vilification.

Any chance at questioning and honorable debate descended instead into broadsides of viciousness, sarcasm, and hatred. And there’s no comparison, that I can see. Most of the time, I can see equivalences between disparate groups, but here, there doesn’t seem to be much of one. A group of people, led by strong female voices, strongly questioned the appropriateness of Taylor’s clothing and speech. They were deluged with hate-speech for it.

Why is it so threatening to listen to someone with whom we disagree? As a younger man, I was very, very conservative. I am not now. The reason I am not is that a good friend, and my dear sisters, spent the better part of a decade and a half listening to me, debating me, and convincing me to listen to them. As a result, I’ve changed in ways that I think are for the better.

As I listened, and as my friend and my sisters listened to me, and as we talked to each other – not always in the most pleasant of tones, no – we all changed. We all learned. I am the one who has made the greatest excursion in my political and social positions, but all of us are different from what we once were. And I’d wager all would agree that the experience has been largely positive, if occasionally vexing.

The one thing I see in common between the two groups in this case is that neither group seems much willing to listen to positions contrary to their own. We believe that we know that the other thinks already. We believe it is toxic, and therefore must be defeated rather than understood. Let me be clear, I think there’s a right and a wrong here, and it ought to be very clear where I stand about that. But I also think it’s extremely valuable to listen to people we think are wrong.

Even when we think they are horribly, dangerously wrong. We can learn why. We can learn how. We can convince some. And from time to time, despite our most fervently held beliefs, we may occasionally discover that we were the ones who were wrong. Someone, somewhere, has a compelling argument for every side of every disagreement, almost. It’s worth finding that person, if only to sharpen my knife on their whetstone.

We shout at each other. And that’s ok. Some things need shouting about. But not as many as we do. I find it depressing how many people, and yes, here I’m talking specifically about my community, academia online, are utterly dismissive of anything that challenges their political or social perch. We pride ourselves, in academia, of being open to ideas and tolerant of radical thinking. But we routinely reject – without consideration, and contemptuously – ideas which conflict in any way with our own in the political and social realm. It’s unbecoming, frankly.

There is a right and a wrong here, and those who respond to expressions of discomfort with hate speech and threats are indisputably wrong. But we can only manage our own part in it. And within that frothy tide of hate, I am willing to look for a person with a reasonable, but contrary, perspective. Because I can learn from that person.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 17 November 2014 09:20

    I wrote about where some of the insecurity might come from here: https://postdocstreet.wordpress.com/2014/11/15/changing-minds/

  2. Nicky permalink
    17 November 2014 09:45

    Thank you for posting this message. I have a hobby that brings me into contact with all kinds of people. I have been trying to get my liberal friends to understand how much we have in common with conservative people for a long time. I feel that just by knowing each other we have a new perspective on “the other side”. I am sure everyone thinks I am crazy, but we can’t just keep screaming at each other (without listening too) while Rome burns…

  3. 17 November 2014 09:52

    I was raised a fundamentalist Christian (although we were far too Midwestern to ever toss the “evil” label around on everything with which we disagreed, so the stereotype goes) and my family took (and takes) parts of the bible literally which were probably never intended to be so.
    I was homeschooled from 3rd grade until I started taking community college courses at 16. We lived no less than a 30 minute drive down gravel roads from the nearest town, in which I knew no one, from when I was aged 9 through 17. My only friends lived either in Topeka or Leavenworth, both of which were an hour+ drive away. The internet wasn’t ubiquitous back then, in fact it wasn’t available, so far as I know, where I lived. I corresponded with my Leavenworth friend through letter-writing. My Leavenworth friend’s parents passed inspection by my parents as being like-minded enough to be acceptable.

    I was, in every sense of the word, isolated from dissenting opinion.

    Imagine my surprise when, after beginning my attendance at the community college and my discovery of the computer lab, that there were discussion forums on the internet. I’d always been fascinated with the natural world, although I’d had some impressively-skewed thoughts on how it came about, so my first effort was to find a science forum.
    I was mortified. So many people were deceived by the devil into believing in evolution.

    I met all kinds on that science forum: I met the patient, the impatient, the mockers and the explainers and I can say that all of them, taken as a whole, contributed to my own evolution out of religious fundamentalism and into secular humanism. Out of young-earth creationism and into darwinian evolution. The transition took no less than seven years. Imagine six years of dealing with a creationist, and then imagine that creationist disappearing slowly, but never learning that this creationist would change so drastically.

    Reckon the point is discussion is important, but the cheek-burning shame of condemnation spurred my research which eventually led to my demonstrating my own wrong-headedness to myself also played an important role to shake me loose from my righteous mindset and helped me discover an honest one.

    I envy kids today, with the ever-present nature of the internet, how much more quickly they can learn. But with more voices comes more of all kinds of voices. I reckon it seems like there’s a lot more vitriol, and that’s because there is, but the minority of discussion has also increased. It’s simply an eternal minority. It’s especially rarefied anyplace with character limits like those found on Twitter.

  4. Jack permalink
    18 November 2014 08:46

    “Why is it so threatening to listen to someone with whom we disagree?”

    Only thought that comes up while reading most of this post is: Doctor, heal thyself.

    • 18 November 2014 09:15

      That really is a breathtaking missing of the point. The entire post is exactly that: me talking about why I listen to people who disagree with me, and how I’ve learned from it. You literally could not have a worse understanding of this.

  5. Flameoff permalink
    19 November 2014 06:45

    Doctor, doctor, give me the news. Unfortunately, it’s not news to anyone who has ever been in an on-line position to be commented upon that those with whom you disagree will respond with hatred, vitriol, and an immediate demand that you be fired from whatever gainful employment you hold. I have been fortunate (?) enough to have several times had my carefully-written and well-thought-out opinions published as op-ed pieces in the few remaining newspapers out there. When I saw the on-line comments that ensued, one would have thought that I had just confessed to every crime since the Lindbergh kidnapping. When I very reasonably expressed, for example, that with all the effort we make to keep weapons out of schools that the rush to arm teachers might be ill-conceived, there were those who wanted to track me down and use those weapons upon me. I was labeled a monster, a child-hater, and much, much worse. It is sad and unfortunate that the internet, that great equalizer, had turned into a place where opinions cannot be shared with equanimity, because there are those out there who will hate you, immediately and viciously, for disagreeing with them. You are correct that we have a lot to learn from each other. It’s too bad that we have this wonderful tool that would allow us to do just that, and we instead use it to fling our excrement at each other.

    • swampscottsoxfan permalink
      27 November 2014 21:44

      @Flameoff: I had a similar experience during the “That Shirt” controversy. I saw a post about the issue on The National Review site, and the opinion of the piece was something I generally agreed with so I waded in to the comments, unwary. Big mistake. I am someone who tries to think “outside the box”, so I have a lot of far left-wing views, but also some that would traditionally be viewed as “Conservative”. (I believe labels are for cans. Apparently that’s not allowed in present-day American/Internet society.)

      During the debate I made the mistake of admitting same, and I went from someone who agreed with the tide of the discussion to a hated ‘libtard’/’librul’ to be viciously attacked with all sorts of off-topic ad hominems. I laughed and walked away, vowing never to visit a right-wing Conservative site again. There is no arguing with binary, Ruleset-based lifeforms.

      I think civility went out the door once people realized that in relative anonymity, they could get away with expressing their true nature, rather than having to “be civil”. In a sense, it’s far more ‘honest’; but at the same time, “fling[ing] our excrement at each other” hardly makes for a good debate in the end.

  6. Syd permalink
    20 November 2014 19:47

    It doesn’t surprise me that so much vitriol develops because it is every where these days. The internet allows anonymity and people come out with hard hitting words that feel like fists at times.
    I think that we can learn from each other and learn to have a civil discussion. But I am also an optimist.

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