Defensiveness

images[3]I got into a bad habit a few years ago that I thought I had broken. Over the past several years I have had a dozen or so letters to the editor published by our local city newspaper, usually in response to someone else’s letter to the editor that annoyed the hell out of me. I read the paper on-line, and soon discovered that it is possible to comment on any letter or article immediately, with postings collecting underneath the letter on the screen. Such discussions often go in directions vastly different from what the original letter suggests. The philosopher and teacher in me wants to jump into such discussions, especially when they involve important issues that mean a lot to me. With the recent addition of Facebook-logo-ICON-02[1]Facebook into my life, lately I’ve been finding it hard to resist the temptation.

What happens, though, is not a discussion. The battle lines get drawn instantly on every possible issue between conservative and liberal, religious and non-religious, all protected by the anonymity of a screen name. So “X” calls the writer of the letter under consideration a “bleeding heart” because she is calling for additional funding to be allocated for environmental issues, “Y” calls “X” a “typical Republican moron” because all he/she cares about is his bank account, “X” responds that “Y” must be a Head_up_ass_liberal_zoom3-300x287[1]“liberal with his head up his ass” because global warming is only a theory, several other posters get involved within five minutes, and we’re off the races.

At this point I should either click on the sports section or turn the computer off. Instead, I take at least 30 seconds to craft the “post to end all posts” on this topic, in response to which all other contributors to the discussion will, after a moment of respectful e-silence, fall over each other in their gratitude for having been shown the light. What happens instead is that “X” and “Y” (as well as many others) turn on me for all sorts of unexpected reasons. I must be more of a liberal with his head up his ass than “Y” is (“X”), my ideas will never work because I sound like an Ivory_Tower[1]“ivory tower pointy headed intellectual” (“Y”). Or even worse, sometimes the discussion goes on as if my post had never occurred. It’s bad enough to be e-trashed on a discussion forum; it’s far worse to be e-ignored. So now I really should turn the computer off, read something, write something, take a walk, talk to a human being—anything but continue participating. But of course I have to respond (if I’ve been misunderstood and insulted) or post even more eloquently and pointedly (if I’ve been ignored). And throughout the morning I find myself frequently returning to the website to see who has posted, what they’ve said, and spending more time contributing to a discussion that never was a discussion in the first place. It’s like driving by a bad accident on the highway—I have to look.

Why am I doing this? I’d like to believe that my participation in such “discussions” is a well-intentioned but misplaced instance of my teaching vocation in action. All teachers want to facilitate the opening of closed minds, the establishment of the life-long process of learning. Now I know that the participants in these “discussions” are not my students, but I have in the back of my mind the glimmer of hope that if a person is interested enough to participate, that person might also be interested in learning something, in broadening horizons, in realizing that even the most obvious “no brainer” sort of “truth” might be wrong. Vera-Brittain-002[1]And I’m accustomed to encountering resistance from my experiences in the classroom. As Vera Brittain writes, “most people wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process.”dav_soc[1] I fully realize that defensiveness is a natural reaction to having one’s most treasured assumptions challenged, so I expect resistance. Learning and opening up hurts—that’s why they killed Socrates, right? Richard Rorty says it nicely: “The best way to cause people long-lasting pain is to humiliate them by making theRorty11[1] things that seemed most important to them look futile, obsolete, and powerless.” So I try not to do that. But I’ve never been so frustrated in my life, to the point that a couple of weeks ago in the middle of a typically rigid and inflexible discussion I posted “If there’s any one who regularly posts here who has ever, even once, changed their opinion on an important issue because of something someone posted here, please post and let me know!” And no one ever did.

But guess what? If anyone else had posted that challenge, I would not have answered it either. Because I’ve never learned anything new or changed my mind about anything from participating. Well I guess I’ve learned one thing—I’m just as rigid, inflexible, and intolerant as everyone else who participates. I can account for that partially because of the format; dueling sound bites and bumper sticker slogans, wrapped in anonymity, seldom lead to anything but arguing and e-yelling. But there’s more to it. When I step from behind my self-righteous “facilitator of lifetime learning” teacher screen, I’m just another worried, insecure human being who is scared to death that he might not have all the answers. That’s who is typing the contributions to these forums on my computer, not someone who has “seen the light” and wants to help others see it too. As I accuse others of being unable to listenhc[1], to think, to deliberate, to imagine that they might be wrong, I realize that there’s no place inside of me where I even for a moment suspect that I might be able to learn something from an extreme pro-lifer, from a hard core conservative Republican, from a person whose religious beliefs include the Earth being created 6000 years ago, from someone who is convinced that global warming is a hoaxEVOLUTION[1] and natural selection is “just a theory,” or from someone who thinks that the solution to gun violence is more guns and who believes that the bombings in Boston last week would not have happened if those watching the race had been packing firearms. Who died and made me God, so sure that the value of another’s opinion is directly proportional to how closely it matches up to mine?

So it would be best for me to stay away from such forums—they don’t offer many opportunities for growth. But the first word in the monastic rule has come to mean a great deal to me is “Listen.”  Perhaps a good post-Lenten exercise for me would be to spend forty days reading the comments on letters to the editor carefully and never saying anything. Just e-listen. I don’t think I can do it.

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5 thoughts on “Defensiveness

  1. amberskyef

    I try to stay away from comments and forums period. They only make me mad because a lot of arguments are so black-and-white. Especially my area’s newspaper, which is heavily conservative, you have more conservative stuff than liberal stuff, and even then there is no gray in between. I once had a letter-to-the editor published back when I was in high school trying to propose reasons you should not vote for a president (because there were a lot of letters claiming it’s great we have a black president), and people totally misinterpreted it and started calling me a racist. I wonder if they would have changed their minds had they realized a 16-year-old girl was behind the letter. But I digress.

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  2. Paul Moeller

    There are some good points in this essay.. but it also skirts around the elephant in the room… how do you become a voice for change if you keep silent? Change DOES happen. Usually it happens one person at a time.I believe that individuals CAN make a difference, and I’m not gonna keep my mouth shut just because it makes people uncomfortable. I’m certainly often guilty of being overly antagonistic, rigid and unwavering. I have, however, honestly changed my opinion about things via dialogue on Facebook -and have also had people tell me that they’ve changed their position based upon information I presented to them. It DOES HAPPEN. I’ve also encouraged and helped timid people to find their voice, and speak up – which can do wonders for your self esteem. I enjoy debating. What you see on cable TV is not debate – it’s usually shouting matches. Honest debate can be enlightening, because it forces each side to defend (and therefore contemplate and articulate) their position. A good debate can expose flawed logic – the very flawed logic that some folks use to justify their actions or beliefs. But it’s also a lot of work….if you’re gonna debate with someone who has done their homework, and you are too lazy, or unmotivated, to even understand your own position, then it will be a very frustrating experience. I don’t like to debate with someone who is willfully ignorant… that’s not a debate – that’s mainly just pontification. Yes, often discussions on Facebook are not much more than mud-slinging. But if you don’t care to debate… which can be a great opportunity for growth, then don’t engage. If I’m wrong about something, I want to know it. Sure, I might be defensive, and stammer about…. but I’m eager to grow. There are some excellent blogs out there which aggregate various perspectives on issues, and assemble facts as well as philosophical observations. Good information is out there – especially if you avoid wasting your time with TV ‘news’. I find these blogs very helpful in my personal growth, and am eager to share with anyone. Some things ARE clearly wrong. Some things ARE clearly false. People vote, and make decisions affecting all of us based upon what they believe to be correct and true. Most of us have drawn a line as to how much BS we are willing to tolerate… especially regarding issues that we are well informed about – double especially when we have personal experience that contradicts the BS. Everyone has to figure out what works best for them. For me, to knowingly allow something harmful and wrong to grow and perpetuate is not acceptable.

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