Conversation Isn't Just Politely Waiting Your Turn to Speak
GENUINE ENGAGEMENT INVOLVES MORE THAN JUST GOOD SOCIAL MEDIA MANNERS…
Preface: A version of this post first appeared on LinkedIn, where it garnered nearly 5,000 views and hundreds of comments, both pro and con. That was a good thing, because if nothing else, the piece itself generated a significant level of genuine engagement. Which is precisely what I would also like to do here on beBee.
There is a lot of talk these days about Internet "trolls" — people who supposedly cause discord on social media platforms by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic comments in discussion threads.
But while obviously such persons do exist, and while they do sometimes cause distress and disruption, I submit that they are nowhere near as prevalent or troublesome as they are made out to be. In fact, the term "troll" has, to my mind, been co-opted by a corps of self-styled social media fascists who apparently would like nothing better than to eliminate any semblance of genuine intellectual engagement.
Indeed, we often see specific exhortations to the effect that, if you don't have anything positive to say about a post, don't say anything. And we also often see many who publish on social media saying that they neither invite, nor appreciate criticism of their posts — that the reason they publish a post is to express themselves, not to have other people critique what they may say. The goal of such vocal critics of criticism appears to be to squelch all forms of questioning and critical discussion.
Okay, okay, so maybe I am resorting to some degree of hyperbole, but I want to gain your attention for this critical point:
Simply questioning the validity of, or disagreeing with someone's statement or thesis is not , ipso facto, troll-ish behavior...
It's all a matter of how you take exception to what someone else says or writes. The defining characteristic of trolls is their propensity to ad hominem attack , that is, remarks directed at the person speaking or the author who is publishing. Remarks such as, "What a mindless dolt you are..." Or such as, "Get your head out of your arse..."
Colorful as these expressions may be, and perhaps as accurate as they may be at times, they do not address the validity of a statement, thesis, viewpoint, or other expression of thought or ideas. And they clearly do not add anything to the "conversation". So understand, if you will, that I am not in any way defending such behavior, online or off.
However, as many times as I've observed troll-ish behavior, I have just as many, or more times read on social media that, "If you can't say anything good about someone's post, then do not comment at all, just move on." Rubbish and poppycock!
For me, this is the same mentality which holds that every kid who shows up for an athletic or other competition should go home with an award ribbon.
This mentality is what is driving social media in general, and LinkedIn in particular, toward becoming intellectually arid landscapes of point-and-click likes, shallow generic comments, and meaningless mutual ego stroking. It is what is driving the evolution of interfacing on major social media into becoming the literary and intellectual equivalent of Muzak.
Refusal to allow for civil and polite disagreement and argument leads to what I have come to call 'Insipidipity'...
Without examination, questioning and, yes, disagreement, there can be no genuine engagement . For what is engagement other than two or more minds coming together to share, explore, and exchange thoughts and ideas? And without genuine engagement, there is only insipidipity — the state or property of being shallow, lifeless, colorless, dull, meaningless, and the like, however much we may delude ourselves into believing otherwise.
There are those who believe (erroneously) that "argument" is synonymous with agitated conflict. But as every philosopher, logician, and mathematician understands, it is not. Argument is discussion between persons holding differing views. Argument is what one adduces in support of one's thesis or position. We can engage in argument, and we can argue, without acting in any way like trolls. A verity that applies to business leadership management, as much as to writing and publishing.
Trolls are a sub-class of debaters, who care not a whit for truth or logical validity, but only about scoring (in their minds) points, and about being (again, in their minds) noticed. We should not, however, be confused by social media fascists, who, for their part, fail to distinguish between debate and discussion, or between strutting fisticuffs and genuine intellectual engagement.
Rational argument is not the same thing as debate...
Philosophers dating back to Socrates and Plato distinguish between philosophical argument and sophistry . The Greek Sophists of Plato's day were debaters, known for, and proud of their ability to "make the worse case appear the better." That is what debating is all about.
Indeed, in formal debating competitions, participants are not allowed to choose their side of a topic, but rather have a pro or con position assigned to them, or determined by drawing straws or chits from a hat. The core element of debate is the application of the skills of persuasion , not a burning desire to search for truth or reality. Does that perhaps sounds like any barristers, politicians, public relations spinmeisters, or marketing gurus you know of?
Notwithstanding whether we agree or not about these folk and trolls being sub-classes of debaters or sophists, I urge you to recognize that engaging in a rational search for a truth about some thought or idea (however mundane or minimal in terms of global impact) is not acting like a troll. Not by any commonly accepted meaning of the term.
Questioning is not troll-ish behavior. Nor is disagreeing, per se. Nor arguing, if one sticks to a considered and proper definition of "argument". Quite to the contrary, questioning, disagreeing, and arguing are integral facets of genuine engagement .
Genuine engagement involves caring about one's ideas, thoughts, and opinions... and about those of others...
Almost without saying, serious intellectual engagement — even concerning relatively trivial matters — requires effort. Effort to think issues through. Effort to be rational and logical. Effort to restrain oneself from making the quick quip or taking the cheap shot. So much effort that I myself, a miscreant academically-trained and degreed philosopher, fail now and again to resist the temptation to debate, rather than argue. Or to take a cheap shot, especially when accosted by a troll or a social media fascist — two polar extremes that actually look and behave very much like one another.
Some people are simply not suited to climbing mountains or sailing across oceans...nor do we expect them to...
In order to write and publish, especially on a social media platform such as LinkedIn, you really need to have a thick skin. Because when you publish, your thoughts, ideas, inspirations, and opinions are subject to scrutiny by others, sometimes by thousands of others, and occasionally by hundreds of thousands of others. And that can be a harrowing experience.
But just as we don't, or ought not to create artificial dwarf hills and call them mountains so that the timid among us can consider themselves mountain climbers, we should not, and are not obligated to create a "gentle" environment for those who lack the strength of their convictions — some might say brazen ego — to defend their views in public.
If you can't stand up to scrutiny and genuine engagement, with people questioning and disagreeing with your expressed views and ideas, then just don't publish. Don't fret about it. Don't be self accusatory about it. But also don't whine about it. Above all, don't expect those who value genuine intellectual engagement and growth to tippy-toe around your sensitive feelings and fragile personality.
I am sorry if this seems harsh, for it is not so intended. But I am old enough, and experienced enough to understand that we don't actually help our children to grow or develop the life skills they desperately need by giving them prize ribbons for just showing up at competitions. In a similar vein, I suggest to you that we don't do anyone any real favor by treating each other with intellectual kid gloves. To be sure, we don't need to be unkind to one another in order to genuinely engage. But we do need to question civilly , disagree respectfully, argue rationally, and seek truths (however mundane). None of which makes us in any reasonable stretch of imagination trolls. — Phil Friedman
Author's Notes: If you found this article to be of value, you may want to take a look at some of my other writing about social media and communications:
"He Said He Said No. 18" by Jim Murray and Phil Friedman
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As a writer-friend of mine says, you can always change your mind later.
Feel free to "like" and "share" this post and my other LinkedIn articles — whether on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or Google+. I ask only that you credit me properly as the author, and include a live link to the original work.
About me, Phil Friedman: With 30 some years background in the marine industry, I've worn numerous hats — as a yacht designer, boatbuilder, marine operations and business manager, marine industry consultant, marine marketing and communications specialist, yachting magazine writer and editor, yacht surveyor, and marine industry educator. I am also trained and experienced in interest-based negotiation and mediation. In a previous life, I taught logic and philosophy at university.
The (optional-to-read) pitch: As a professional writer, editor, university educator, and speaker, with more than 1,000 print and digital publications, I've recently launched an online program for enhancing your expository writing: learn2engage — With Confidence. My mission is to help writers and would-be writers improve the clarity of their thought and writing, master the logic of discussion, and deal confidently with disagreement.
To schedule an appointment for a free 1/2-hour consult email: email@example.com.
Text Copyright © 2016 by Phil Friedman — All Rights Reserved
Images Credits: the Author, Stuart Miles @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net, and Google Images
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