Snake-handling: An essential skill for democracy

I had taken a poisonous viper from the zoo and brought it home. It was darting around, hiding under the bed, then the dresser. It bit me once and did not inject enough venom to hurt. But it was sure to bite again and harm me or someone else if I didn’t figure out what to do about it.

That dream was easy to interpret when I awoke. Over the previous several days, I had been engaged in an online debate with a local newspaper columnist, who continually deployed common but venomous debate techniques. I don’t usually participate in such arguments, but I wanted to study his technique and experiment with ways to respond. So I stayed in the discussion as it alternately flamed and simmered.

My experience with this columnist, whom I’ll call Dogberry, revealed no sure-fire technique for restoring civil discourse, but it gave me some ideas about how to talk with our less-than-constructive fellow citizens.

My first marriage taught me more than I ever hoped to learn about domestic abuse, particularly the verbal and emotional kind. Dogberry’s words—mere pixels on my monitor—could not be considered abuse, but made me realize that some methods for dealing with abuse might also be useful in dealing with toxic debate.

The nature of toxic debate
Benign conversation typically has two intended functions: 1) to exchange information or 2) to share ideas. For example, a conversation in my current marriage might go like this:

Husband: “We have three open bottles of salad dressing in the fridge. Let’s use those before we open any more.”

Me: “I like to have choices at dinner but if it bothers you, that blue cheese is getting old. You could toss it.”

My first  husband would have started the same conversation like this:

“How do you expect me to find anything with all this crap in the fridge? You’ve opened more salad dressing than you will use in a year!”

Had I responded abusively, I might have said:

“Are you so dumb that you think an extra bottle of salad dressing is going to break us, considering what you spend on all that junk you drag home from garage sales?”

It doesn’t take a degree in linguistics or psychoanalysis to notice there’s no intent to reach agreement in the abusive comments.  People who talk like this know their words are not going to get agreement.

Conversational bullies are after something else.

Abusive remarks are chosen more for the purpose of inflating the speaker’s power than for any constructive purpose. One-up; one-down. I’m righteous; you’re scum. I win; you lose.

My debate with Dogberry took place on a mutual friend’s Facebook wall. The friend had linked to a farmer’s letter to the editor about her family’s heartbreaking health insurance problems. Yet Brenda, the farmer, focused her ire on public employees’ health insurance. Discussion began civilly and focused on how progressives might reach out to people who support politicians who will only make their problems worse.

Dogberry entered the discussion with this announcement:

“This discussion is nothing but the time-tested left-wing strategy of assuming that people who disagree with them must be so dumb they’ve been hoodwinked by the right. It’s condescending and insulting.”

In her book, The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize It and How to Respond, Patricia Evans explains that people inhabit different realities, which she calls “Reality I”, and “Reality II”, which I’ll call power mode and collaboration mode.  Power mode is all about personal control and dominance. Collaboration mode is all about co-operation, relationship, and problem-solving. Whether you’re in the power mode or the collaboration mode, you tend to assume everyone else is in the same mode as  you.

If Dogberry had been in collaboration mode, he might have made the same point by entering the conversation like this:

“Be careful not to assume that people like Brenda are simply dumb or that they’ve been hoodwinked. She could have good reasons for backing Republicans. Besides, if you think of her as dumb and gullible, it won’t help you change her mind about anything.”

But he was in the power mode.  The power-focus world is a frightening place, because if you are not successful in controlling others, they will control you. So he came blasting in with insults.

The others, who were in collaboration mode, responded peacefully.  But when a power-focused person hears something like, “We’ve said that Brenda isn’t dumb. Farming takes brains and hard work,” the power-focused person will hear only an attempt to undermine his authority. And so the conversation deteriorates.

Recognizing toxic debate

The key, according to Evans, is to be alert for that moment when someone changes the conversation from problem-solving to power-seeking.

Evans inventories several characteristics of abuse, which are also present in toxic debate. For example, Dogberry’s rhetorical questions revealed–if people had been looking for signs–that he was in the power mode. His comments included  “How is that not obvious?” and “So what else is new?”

Other tip-offs include:

  • Countering: A flat-out denial or negation of another’s statement with no attempt to offer information or to seek clarification. A Dogberry example is, “To suggest Brenda’s insurance problems are the fault of Republican policies is ridiculous.”
  • Discounting: Portraying another’s statement or point of view as unworthy of consideration. A Dogberry example: “That remark shows only that you are wearing political blinders.”
  • Diverting: Avoiding or changing the topic at hand. While everyone else in the discussion was interested in why Brenda does not support policies that would help her family, Dogberry asked, “When have public employee unions ever put any effort into helping farmers?”
  • Accusing: Acknowledging problems but placing blame rather than discussing solutions. Dogberry: “If public employee unions had fought for the farmers years ago, they wouldn’t now have a governor trying to destroy them.”
  • Name-calling: Slapping labels onto others or their ideas. When Dogberry was at his most heated, he referred to another local writer as “a liberal columnist in a liberal newspaper (who) takes the usual liberal approach, …a paid political propagandist.”
  • Denial, perhaps the most crazy-making technique. When the owner of the Facebook page told Dogberry that the ‘paid political propagandist’ remark was an intolerable personal attack that might cause him to shut down the entire conversation, Dogberry denied he had done anything beyond critiquing his colleague’s writing, even though everyone could see his actual words simply by scrolling up.

Responding to toxic debate

Evans advises targets of verbal abuse to end the exchange as soon as they realize it has become abusive, but she is counseling vulnerable spouses. But civic debates are necessary for self-government and even at their most energetic rarely create a risk of physical attack or destruction of intimate relationships. So we can keep trying within reason to engage the toxic debater in constructive conversation.

The first step in dealing with toxic debate is to make sure you’re not doing it yourself. I twice resorted to mocking Dogberry, which Evans calls verbal abuse disguised as a joke. After he posted four comments in a row, I teased that his insistence on having the last word had finally driven him to need the last word against even himself. Later, after he repeatedly accused me of ‘condescention,’ I joked about giving him an example of actual condescension by correcting his spelling.

Of course, my adoption of his power-mode tactics merely confirmed his success in creating a mudfight; closed his ears even more tightly against anything I might say; reduced the likelihood he will engage with me in future discussions; and might have made me look like a jerk to others who were following our debate.

Because nearly all of us can switch between the power-seeking mode and the collaborative problem-solving mode, it’s often useful to assume–even against obvious evidence–that a toxic debater is only temporarily deranged. In my experience, many toxic debaters are only playing at the power game. When they realize their conversation partners are not going to be drawn into that sort of competition, they will either leave the conversation (good riddance) or switch to collaboration mode.

So don’t play their game. Ignore their insults as if you didn’t notice it was an insult. Dispassionately correct any misrepresentation your ideas or positions. When they choose the most inflammatory words they can, mentally translate their remarks to more civil language, and respond to that instead, as if they actually said it. When they try to lead the discussion off-topic, don’t follow. Ask for clarification when they make overly broad or false statements.

Finally, keeping your own remarks clearly focused on the basics of logical argument can enable you to highlight the nature of the toxic debater’s contribution without shifting the focus of the discussion onto his conduct. Act as if you believe his every statement is based on a logical argument in which all the pieces (premise/evidence; inference; conclusion) are present if not always explicit. (In a good conversation, that is the case.)

So when your Dogberry says something like “To suggest Brenda’s insurance problems are the fault of Republican policies is ridiculous,” either point out its irrelevance to the logical argument under examination (e.g., “Dogberry, you seem to be contradicting a premise that’s not on the table. The premise is not that Republican policies caused Brenda’s problems, but that they won’t help her.”) or direct attention to the absence of logic in his statement (e.g., “Dogberry, can you state your premise more explicitly? Are saying that Republican policies have actually helped Brenda’s insurance situation to the point where it explains her support for them? If so, you’ll need to cite some evidence.”)

A right-wing colleague at my former job used to stop by my desk whenever he had some news that made ‘his side’ look good. (For people in power mode, everyone is on a ‘side.’) He would open the conversation by making some inflammatory statement about liberals or the left-wing. I would reply with a calm, sincere collaborative request for more information. Over the course of four or five back-and-forth comments, I could almost always arouse his curiosity enough to drag him back into a collaborative discussion of ideas or search for information (e.g., Exactly what is the ‘Bush Doctrine’ that liberals are so opposed to? Did Bush ever state it clearly? If so, when and where? Let’s look that up…) .

If those methods don’t work and the toxic debater stays in the power mode, go ahead and end the conversation. It’s not really a conversation anyway. It’s some kind of sick game you don’t have time for. Save your energy and spirits for conversations that help to build civic understanding among responsible self-governing people.


About Karen McKim

Retired from a 30-year career in public sector quality assurance and management auditing, I now spend my time in civic activities promoting our ability to exercise our right to self-government. I have two focuses: verified accurate election results, and skills for talking politics with our fellow citizens. Based in Wisconsin.
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One Response to Snake-handling: An essential skill for democracy

  1. earthslang says:

    Such good insights on dialogue. We see the same aggressive, disrespectful, incendiary language from the bully pulpit that we do from abusers. Let’s keep working on win-win dialogue when we can and handle snakes when we can’t. Thanks for sharing.

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