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From The Outside In

June 18, 2018

Or, A Discussion/Debate is a Difficult Thing to Have!

I’m sure all two of my readers will be utterly shocked to read that I have been cogitating the concept of discussion and debate lately.  It comes from the many discussions/debates I become involved in in real life as well as on social media (and social media can be a great tool for opening one’s mind and challenging one’s ideology, if one has been trained in and/or understands the difference between verifiable fact and opinion-based truth).

Houses of Parliament commons debating chamber

The UK House of Commons ‘debating’ chamber AKA how not to discuss or debate.  If you’ve ever seen Prime Ministers Questions it’s like a bunch of toddlers shouting over each other –they should all be in time-out!

I’ve banged on about context before and for me context is the fundamental basis upon which any discussion about a point which is being made is based, and context can change depending upon the circumstances from which we are basing our opinion and stating our personal truth.

Opinion is not equal, nor should all opinion be given equal time or weight in discussion.  The most obvious example of this is the debate on climate change, when 97%* (or more) of scientific opinion is clear that human action has had and continues to have a detrimental effect on the environment.  Political opinion is more varied and this can be seen in the policy governments make on climate change and steps that can be taken and are taken by such governments.

Scientific opinion is independently verifiable, factually based and empirically tested.  Political opinion is based on the most popular current democratic (to a given value) elected government and is not always independently verifiable through quantifiable and qualitative study.  This is why governments can make what may seem to many people as the planetary suicidal decision to ignore climate change science because of economic policy driven by unregulated capitalist ideology (for one such example) [coughUSATrumpcough**].

Similar thought processes on a much more micro level can show up in discussions on social factors such as sexist language, racist actions, the expression of transphobia etc.  I’m not only talking about opposing viewpoints but also about views which we may know are similar to our own but which are expressed in opposition.

For example, my basis of knowledge is academic and life-learning, as well as experienced as a white, cisgender, disabled (though not always visibly), mental-health challenged, sociology graduate (in race, gender and sexuality as topics of specific study), university-educated, UK(London)-based woman working in the legal profession.  There is a whole raft of privilege and oppression going on in there, all of which influences not only what I think but how I think and how I express what I think.

Others have entirely different experiences.  Some may come from a linguistic background and for them it is the etymological basis of words which drives the meaning of a post (and that can change the personal inferred-context of a discussion quite dramatically), for others it is what they have learned from newspapers and the bias contained therein which colours the way in which they understand debating issues, for more it is where they live and the society they are surrounded by which is the core of their belief system; generally it is a combination of many factors.

I try to think from the outside in as opposed to the inside out, and that is what drives my discussion, my research and my understanding.  I try to analyse the context of a post in a holistic way – what does it actually say, who may be reading it, what language is used and what it the sociological environment in which it is created?  I try to remove myself but of course that is not possible, I am the culmination of my experiences, knowledge and understanding.  It is possible to address those privileges and oppressions and see how they may be affecting my reading of a post however.

The best way I can see to do this is to remove myself and subtract the privilege I have and the oppression I see, to try and understand what is being stated.  Each statement made also has its own context – it’s really complicated, this debating thing, and something that can only be streamlined and developed with practice.

Sometimes what a point is saying is more important that the linguistic arguments one may raise about the way the point is worded because social context trumps linguistic context; what we may know to be true about an etymological point may not be understood by the majority of the people to whom the post is addressed.  Conversely the alternative may be true, if it is a point being made in a linguistically-based discussion, then the linguistic context trumps the social context.

At a more basic level, the voice of the oppressed should be given more weight that the voice of those who are identified with the oppressor when giving testimonials.  The verifiable study which has been and can be empirically reviewed and repeated should be given more weight that that of someone who has read a couple of newspaper editorial opinions on the subject.  That does not mean the one who has only read a couple of newspapers is wrong, at least not all of the time, but it does mean the foundation from which the opinion has been formed is not as solid.

For me, it is extremely important to take into account who may be reading/hearing the discussion and to assume a level of knowledge which is minimal.  This blog originally referenced debates only and now it’s now about both debates and discussions.  That changes the context and is more pertinent to the point I’m hoping and trying to make.

When engaging in discussion I try to have a broader understanding of the social context through which the discussion points may be inferred; it may not be about you!  Of course, social media and the internet is world-wide, but in that case, try and state the context from which the post is made if you are making it, or implied, if sharing it, and then work from that.

It is the reader/listener’s responsibility as much as it is that of the person who is making the point to ensure communication is a two-way street.

 

*https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/

** https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/au-revoir-trump-exits-the-paris-climate-accord

 

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