Some interesting developments have transpired in the days since I wrote the post “Can’t get no Lambo satisfaction” — namely, the subject of that post, Don Domingue, took interest in what I said. When I didn’t reply to his correspondence as quickly as he apparently wanted, he declared victory and said he was done with me.
After reading the Lambo entry, Don posted a link to it into the SB Nation thread, along with this commentary:
|This is as polite as it got.|
He e-mailed me personally to alert me to the comment. Later, he typed up a reply to my post that he deleted almost immediately thereafter. I won’t repost it here, because I agree with him that he should have thought twice about posting some of that. (CORRECTION — The comment wound up in my spam filter, which I discovered after he said he didn't delete it. It is now on the thread.) It reminded me of other times when someone made similar remarks, which I’ve dealt with both personally and as a representative of a publication. What these incidents have in common is that someone took rhetoric much farther than it needed to go. To paraphrase Tom Hanks in the SNL sketch where he must quell the disturbing impulses of the Mr. Belvedere Fan Club, it’s time again for our exercises.
The rules below apply not just to me or to Don, but to anyone unnecessarily agitated over some opinion writing they find in the press.
1) Pick your battles. The quickest way to look petty is to engage every critic you encounter. You come across as someone with misdirected passions; someone with way too much time; someone who has to win every argument, no matter how pointless; someone with an exaggerated sense of self-importance; or any combination thereof. If you must engage, engage with intelligence and discretion.
2) Make sure you haven’t wandered into the wrong debate. Not everyone who hates the color of a car (or wants higher taxes on the rich, etc.) is a jealous welfare leech. Tailor your response accordingly.
3) Let your argument stand for itself. Use facts. Make your case, ground it in rationality and otherwise do the best you can. Accept that some will agree and some will disagree. Accept that you may be proven wrong (and try to anticipate that as you go). Accept that there is a degree of dissension among thoughtful people. Don’t base your argument on who has the most zingers or who is cockiest, because you might find you’re the only one playing that game. Even if you win, you lose.
4) Find common ground. Not only does common ground humanize an opponent, but it underlies a primary purpose of debate: persuasion. When people are reminded that they’re more alike than different, amazing things can happen. That’s preferable to escalating volleys of useless sniping.
5) Take the opportunity to be better. One of the most devastating ways to tilt a debate is to snap preconceived notions. It can be as simple as conceding a point: “Yes, I was wrong about that.” Or, “That’s a fair point.” Or perhaps use a little-known tidbit about you that helps explain your stance: “I don’t want you to think I’m a monster. When I was a child, I skipped lots of meals because we couldn’t make ends meet. I vowed then that my adult life would be different. All I want is the opportunity to be able to do so.” If it doesn’t change minds, at least it will open them up. Taking the high ground is never a bad idea.
6) If you must insult, use relevant insults. I know it’s hard to imagine in such an ideologically divided age, but calling someone a “liberal” isn’t so devastating if they actually are one. “Socialist” also lands with a thud because actual socialism is a rare force in the U.S. (This works with opposing ideologies as well.) Overly broad stereotypes suggest not just ignorance, but laziness. A well-placed slam is unexpected and memorable. But, most importantly, it’s accurate.
7) Don’t physically threaten, even jokingly. “Fighting words” should stay metaphorical. This goes whether it’s anonymous bluster or claiming you’ll sic your neighbor — notorious for his anti-media tirades and his Mardi Gras assault on a local publisher’s daughter — on me. Or whoever, since this is purely hypothetical.
8) Don’t prove your opponent’s point. The best tip of all.
Am I perfect on all of these points? Of course not. But I strive. I hope Don, his critics and everyone else do the same, so that discourse in this country improves.