How to have a meaningful conversation online - Guest post by Steve QJ
Decoding online discourse with numerous punchlines
I first came across Steve QJ’s work through The Commentary on Substack. On The Commentary, he publishes the best (and worst) of his online exchanges pursuant to his articles on Medium, where he writes about any number of highly sensitive, if not charged topics (race, culture, politics…). Steve is someone who is not afraid to weigh in on some of the most difficult topics and he does so with great purpose. As such, he has become a beacon for those looking to engage in the art of asynchronous conversations online. Steve’s writing never leaves you neutral. And in this guest piece he wrote, he has done it again. His punchlines are salty and worthwhile.
On the morning of June 27th 2022, a Twitch streamer named Jade-Anh tweeted the following message to her ~400k followers: “I have never felt this mentally well in my whole life.”
There are, of course, several potential reactions to this. Curiosity. Camaraderie. Congratulations. But you'll be relieved to hear that it took less than an hour for some guy called @ABDarrus to respond with that staple of online discourse; contempt:
"What a fuckin time to post this," he said.
When Jade-Anh asked what she'd missed, @ABDarrus reminded her of the then-recent decision by the United States Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs Wade. Only a conservative or an idiot could be thoughtless enough to express happiness under such circumstances.
And while you might find it curious that a man is telling a young woman how to feel about abortion rights, while you might think she's entitled to celebrate good news regardless of what else is happening in the country, while you might believe that Americans should respect each other's right to free expression, the punchline here is that if @ABDarrus had looked beyond himself, even for just a second, he'd have noticed that Jade-Anh is from Germany.
Experientially speaking, there's not much difference between arguing on social media and playing one of those text-based computer games. Words appear on the screen, you type a reply, and it carries on until you win or lose or get bored.
More importantly, there's no need to think about where the words are coming from. Not just geographically, as in @ABDarrus' case, but philosophically. The internet creates a buffer between what we're saying and the human being we're saying it to. We can be cruel without having to acknowledge the pain we've caused. We can lie without having to look anybody in the eye. We can disrespect people without, as Mike Tyson so eloquently put it (https://www.worldboxingnews.net/2022/05/17/mike-tyson-internet-trolls-truth/), the risk of getting punched in the face.
Over the past three years, I've had 3,146 conversations with people from all over the world. We've talked about racism and social media and the various skirmishes of the culture wars. We've debated gun violence and abortion rights and the newly controversial definition of the word "woman." We've discussed education reform and social justice and our growing political polarisation. And if those conversations have taught me anything, it's this:
Conversations are more meaningful when we remember there's a human being on the other side of the screen.
The most obvious reason for this is that conversation is a collaborative art. When we make a genuine effort to understand another person's point of view, they're more likely to do the same for us. The machines will surpass us in everything eventually, but they can’t do curiosity and empathy just yet.
And more than that, if we hope to learn something or change somebody's mind, we first need to understand where their mind is. Here, we can take inspiration from a hero of mine, Daryl Davis.
Daryl is a musician who, in his spare time, travels to rallies across America and deradicalises members of white supremacist organisations. In the process, he's befriended around twenty white nationalists, including the "imperial wizard" of the Maryland chapter of the KKK.
The punchline here is that Daryl is a black man.
As you've probably guessed, many of the people Daryl speaks to aren't particularly receptive to what he has to say. So he doesn't try to persuade them by quoting statistics or debunking race theory or proselytising about systemic racism. He doesn't call them bigots or criminals or racists. Instead, even under those extreme circumstances, he tries to understand why they feel the way they do. Then, he offers them a better way to think about that information:
“You cannot change anybody’s reality. If you try to change their reality, you’re gonna get pushback, because they only know what they know. Whether it’s real or not. It’s their reality. So what you want to do is offer them a better alternative perception. And if they resonate with your perception, then they will change their own reality."
As Daryl points out, conversations aren't just a meeting of ideas, they're a meeting of realities. More often than not, people cling to bad ideas not because they're true believers, but because they don't have a better way of looking at the world.
Daryl has helped between forty and sixty people to leave the KKK, and those people have deradicalised over two hundred more. Conversations don't get much more meaningful (or complicated) than that.
In his seminal work, The Resolution of Conflict, Morton Deutsch lays out the difference between productive and destructive conflict.
"Conflict has destructive consequences if its participants are dissatisfied with the outcomes and they feel they have lost as a result of the conflict. A conflict has productive consequences if the participants are satisfied with the outcomes and feel they have gained as a result of the conflict."
Most of us imagine that being satisfied with the outcome of a conversation (just like being satisfied with the outcome of a game) means we need to win.
Whether it's Hillary Clinton calling millions of Americans "deplorables," Donald Trump's rhetoric about Mexicans and the "China Virus," or @ABDarrus attacking an unsuspecting German girl because she isn't depressed enough about America's abortion policy. The idea that only people who agree with everything we say are on "the right side of history™" permeates our discourse.
But the most satisfying outcome of a conversation, the most valuable thing we stand to gain, is a better understanding of the opposing side. When we remember that we're not arguing with a set of talking points or an ideology or an enemy, but a person.
Most of our conversations won't change the world. They won't shift policy or end bigotry or transform people's lives. But if we look beyond ourselves, even for just a second, we can deepen our understanding of the world and each other.
The punchline here is that we learn the most from the people who disagree with us.
About the author: Steve QJ
Steve QJ is a writer, based in England. He’s author of a highly popular publication on Medium under his name, as well as an engaging publication on Substack, The Commentary, a collection of beautiful, brilliant and bizarre conversations about race, politics and culture.
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