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Tone Trolling

In Freedom of Expression, Science & Religion on June 24, 2010 by thesignalinthenoise Tagged: , ,

There has been a great deal of discussion — some pretty heated — about the level of discourse in the science- religion “wars” which closely mirrors the debate within the public square as a whole.  It isn’t rocket surgery to figure out that the overall level of public discourse is pretty low.  It’s a symptom of our increasingly fractured society.  But that’s not to say that strong criticism or even harsh commentary is necessarily bad.

In my view, at a personal (especially one-on-one) level, courtesy and generosity are almost always appropriate.  I’ve never experienced a situation where anyone was convinced of his or her error through personal abuse.  Sean Carroll’s Being Polite and Being Right is especially insightful in this regard.  As he says, “I just think it’s possible to have convictions without being a jerk about them. ‘I disagree with you’ and ‘You are a contemptible idiot’ are not logically equivalent.”  On the other hand, “[i]t’s also wrong to fetishize politeness for its own sake. Some people manage to forfeit the right to be taken seriously or treated politely. But that shouldn’t be the default position.”  Thus I agree with Sean that the “obnoxionists” (Sean’s phrase) are generally in the wrong.

But I would also offer a caveat, of which I was convinced by — of all people — Malcolm Gladwell (here).  Discourse in the public square is different amd different rules should apply.  In the public arena, strong language and arguments are more appropriate and are often necessary.  Moreover, when one is attempting to overcome a cultural paradigm seen as wrong, “being nice” may well be a detriment (as Gladwell points out).  Of course, such a viewpoint doesn’t mean that courtesy is bad or even inappropriate, and I think (with Sean) that it should always be one’s default position.

Indeed, I suspect that people are far too obnoxious far too often.  The internet is rife with poor behavior and poor excuses for poor behavior.  That’s not news. Yet being an “attack dog” in argument may work with some people even if their number is likely to be few.

I have no dog in the fight over tone among accomodationists and those who oppose them.  Obviously, each individual will need to decide (and keep deciding) if and when his/her message will be enhanced by moving beyond polite or if being harsh will decrease the chances of being heard and understood.  Not everyone who is concerned about how an argument is made is a tone troll and not everyone who makes a strong argument is hurting the cause (whatever one’s cause is at any given moment).

That said and as for me, I have no quarrel with strong criticisms and strong arguments.  I should even confess to a certain fondness for well crafted invective, even when it’s directed at me.  And I think we all spend too much time worrying about style and too little about substance.

Fire when ready, and as appropriate.

Addendum:  Rabbi David Wolpe has an interesting take here.  A snippet:

The growing style of debate in this nation, politically and religiously, is to speak more and more emphatically to those who agree with you and simply bypass dissenters. This is a good prescription to reinforce the convictions you already have, but it bodes ill for developing a flexible, mutually respectful polity. When you scream that loud, I can’t hear you.

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One Response to “Tone Trolling”

  1. I agree tone matters. Deborah Tannen wrote a great book on the topic. “The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words”.

    There is a second phenomenon. That of false accusation of trolling. One can hold a perfectly respectful position and ask sharp yet perfectly respectful questions and still be painted as aggressive, striking the wrong tone, being impolite and so forth.

    I get routinely accused of such things even though I fully agree and work hard to uphold the idea of polite, positive and in fact also compassionate communication styles.

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