The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

A Question on Dialogue

There’s a question that’s been in my mind for a while now, arising from past experiences and present discussions on this blog, and while I think I’ve answered it for myself I want to hear what readers of this blog think.

Is there a point at which, or circumstances under which, it’s pointless to attempt a dialogue with some people?

In the past I’ve engaged in long discussions with various people in the comments on some posts here. (BTW, you may have noticed that some of them don’t comment here anymore.) And there have been and still are times when I think it’s a waste of time and energy to do so.

Let me explain it this way. When I first came to D.C. to work in politics, and to work specifically on gay rights issues, I was told and came to understand that people fall into three categories when you’re working for social change:

  1. The people who are on your side.
  2. The people who aren’t on your side, but could be if they’re persuaded.
  3. The people who are not on your side and never will be.

The first group you need to talk to in order to keep them informed and motivated. The second group you need to talk to in order to make your case and move them to your side. Talking to the third group is a waste of time and energy better spent shoring up support in the first group and winning support in the second group.

Then the people in the third group come and comment on your blog. For the most part they drop by for one comment and then leave. But some of them keep coming back and keep commenting, which leads me to believe that they know talking to them is a waste of time because they know they’re never going to change their point of view. Sometimes they monopolize the discussion. Sometimes they’re even abusive to some of the regulars. (I banned at least one person from commenting for exactly that reason last summer.)

So I start to wonder, given all the above, why they’d want to waste their time in a dialogue where both parties are immovable. It’s then that I wonder if, for the third group, engaging in dialogue or at least pretending to is a tactic because if you’re talking to them you’re not talking to the people in the first and second group. And if you’re not talking to the people in the first and second group, spending your energy arguing with the third, then you aren’t making any progress on your goals.

I want this blog to be a place where the people in the first group can talk and shore up support, and where people in the second group can come, ask questions, and join in a discourse. I don’t see much of a place for the people in the third group, because talking to them is ultimately a waste of time and energy.

Am I right about this? Am I wrong? And what should I do about it?

17 Comments

  1. I’m having this exact problem myself.

  2. That’s a tricky one to figure out sometimes.

    Sometimes at least nominal dialogue with the third group is called for when those folks are also family members with whom I’d like to sustain mutual respect. The dialogue isn’t so much about trying to convince them as giving them an opportunity to see that I’m a person with hard-won, deeply-held values and beliefs just as they are. I encourage them to remember that they have powerful disagreements with other loved ones yet manage to coexist with them, mostly peaceably, and I’m looking for the same.

    Sometimes, having known loved ones in the third group, I recognize that they harbor deep hopes that the right words from them will release a spiritual power upon me which will magically and instantly convince me that they are right and I was wrong. (Or, the corollary, they feel responsible for giving me clear and stark warnings of my fate after death, giving them a clear conscious — “Well, at least he was warned.”)

    The key to me is whether relationships are part of the context. If a relationship already exists between us, I’m going to look for common ground and shared understanding which may at least make ongoing relationship possible. Or, if the person has no connection with me but is willing to do some nominal relationship-building (listening to me as well as talking, and making a reasonable effort to avoid shouting and incriminations), then I’m going to be more open to dialogue.

    But, if it feels to me like someone is trying to find the right intellectual, emotional, or spiritual point that they believe will flip a magic switch deep inside me, I’m not going to spend much time or energy on dialogue. Too often, those folks don’t even pretend to be working toward mutual respect, compassion, or understanding.

    I’ve invested plenty of energy in trying to understand the faith-based anti-gay/ex-gay subculture. I’ve gotten to know some folks with whom I disagree yet have appreciated personal contact. That’s not an easy road, and it’s not like I feel close to them. It does help me connect with them as fellow citizens and human beings, though, and helps me (often, not always) fend off the inclination to demean and dehumanize them.

  3. Oh yeah… and, if a person supposedly wants to dialogue but is not interested in basic evidence or scientific research, the opening for thoughtful conversation generally isn’t going to be there.

  4. Sometimes it’s useful to engage the people in the third group in order to test your reasoning. You can also use the argument with them to appeal to group two. On the other hand, there’s an old Irish proverb to keep in mind: Never try to teach a pig to sing. You’ll only waste your time and annoy the pig.

  5. Oh yeah… and, if a person supposedly wants to dialogue but is not interested in basic evidence or scientific research, the opening for thoughtful conversation generally isn’t going to be there.

    Yuo. Not long ago, on this blog, I had a discussion with a guy who absolutely refused to consider anything from the realm of science because “the Nazis used science,” so in his mind it was clear that science could be to (a) support someone’s prejudices and (b) to justify horrific acts like genocide.

    Of course I argued that religion has been used to justify slavery and genocide. The American slave trade and “manifest destily” are but two shining examples from recent history, before even getting to the Crusades or the Inquisition.

    Of course, he wouldn’t hear that either. So, yeah. Reasonable, thoughtful dialogue was basically at a dead stop by that point.

    In the case of family members or others with whom you have a close relationship, of course one makes exceptions.

    But for those in the third group with whom I have little to no relationship, I don’t think we really have anything to say to one another.

  6. I think the danger is that we start feeling responsible for “educating” that third group. Their attitude appears to be that we believe differently because we are evil — we seem to think that if we just explain the logic well enough then they’ll come around.

    My personal experience has been that continuing a dialogue with that third group hurts me a lot more than it ever will them — so I prefer to just not bother. Where contact is unavoidable, I try to be civil and open about my life, perhaps hoping actions can speak louder than words.

  7. I agree with Meri. The effort spent trying to win over the third group with logical arguments could better be spent swaying the second group and fortifying the first.

    With the third group, we must agree to disagree without being disagreeable, but that’s as far as it will go. By the same token, i refuse to let them hijack or divert to their agenda my conversations with the first two groups. To that end, I edit the comment section of my blog. I have no problems deleting comments sent by those whose responses don’t fit my agenda. It is after all my blog. It is not an open forum for those on the other side to present their views. Let ‘em get their own damn blog.

  8. So I start to wonder, given all the above, why they’d want to waste their time in a dialogue where both parties are immovable. It’s then that I wonder if, for the third group, engaging in dialogue or at least pretending to is a tactic because if you’re talking to them you’re not talking to the people in the first and second group. And if you’re not talking to the people in the first and second group, spending your energy arguing with the third, then you aren’t making any progress on your goals.

    That, plus those in the second group may have a point or two of affinity with those in the third. Keeping their points in front of group two serves the same purpose for them as for you…and YOU’VE put in the effort to draw them together. It’s parasitical on a certain level.

    They are in NO way looking to engage you in conversation. If they were they’d have a consistent view rather than just flipping your arguments over and over.

  9. With the third group, we must agree to disagree without being disagreeable, but that’s as far as it will go. By the same token, i refuse to let them hijack or divert to their agenda my conversations with the first two groups. To that end, I edit the comment section of my blog. I have no problems deleting comments sent by those whose responses don’t fit my agenda. It is after all my blog. It is not an open forum for those on the other side to present their views. Let ‘em get their own damn blog.

    I think that’s where I basically come down. In some instances, I can see publicly engaging with people in that third group to some degree, if only because others win the first two groups will “overhear” the discusion and thus there’s some possibility of moving people.

    However, there’s always a point at which it stops being worth it, and it’s usually about the time you start repeating yourself and start hearing the same arguments over and over. (Or about the time when the other party declares themselves unmovable.) To that end, I’ve banned a couple of people from commenting here in the last couple of years, when it became clear they’re participation wasn’t going to be constructive.

    And I don’t think it qualifies as censorship, since anyone with an internet connection and 5 minutes to spare can go to Blogger.Com, start their own blog and say whatever they want. After all, there are about 75,000 blogs launched every day now. There’s always room for one more.

  10. There are certain people who, upon entering a blog, if I see their names I know what to expect and it’s quite pointless “getting into it” with them. They like to come in, set a trap, and then revel in the ensuing chaos. That’s not dialogue.

  11. Here’s my useless half cent of opinion.

    The third group must be addressed at least one time, in order to acknowledge that you aren’t intolerant and ignoring anybody. Then take what they say and break it down with facts to substantiate your opinion (mostly for readers of the undecided group who wander by), then when they talk again say, ‘I’ve already covered that’ with a link to your previous comment and move on?

    You don’t want that middle group to think you are as close minded as the third group, so downright ignoring them doesn’t seem to work (and they know this). But you can deal with it one time and then let them know it’s been covered and the rest of us are moving on to other discussions.

    Your profession is in this, mine is not, although I love political blog debates and am in them all the time. I ALWAYS am talking to the middle group, even when I’m talking to someone on my side or in the third group. It’s always done in the context of knowing that the middle group is out there somewhere reading.

  12. I think we are responsible for educating the third group. Shouldn’t we at least try? But I do agree that when the conversation starts to repeat itself you have to draw an end to it. Some hateful people do have the ability to change.

  13. I just think you have to use common sense with each case.

    Reasonable people can disagree.

    I personally really dislike it when blogs are full of people saying ditto. You get these circular groups with people posting the same thing and agreeing with each other on each of their posts and everything seems to be less like discussion and more like cheerleader practice.

    The worst friend to have is one that agrees with you all the time.

    I think dissenting opinions keep ideas and discussions closer to the ground and pragmatic instead of flying of into a wacky ideology driven roller coaster that jets to one end of the spectrum.

    Common sense has to win out.

    There are people around who just don’t get it. Not all discussion is good. You just have to be able to see that line where there is a reasonable person disagreeing with you and when someone is just bat shit crazy and is sucking the integrity out of the discussion.

  14. I have left fora and blogs which do not seem to respect respect. I will engage in dialogue with anyone who treats me with courtesy. Part of the battle is to humanize the debate. We may not feel that we can change a person’s opinion, but you never know. There are several folks who were gung-ho Bush, with whom I respectfully disagreed for years, who are now listening to me. And, even if you don’t change someone’s opinion, if they come to a point of accepting you as you are, even if they don’t accept others they don’t “know”, you have planted a seed that may ultimately be harnessed. Or they may become ashamed of themselves, and suffer from their prejudice.
    So, if someone is engaging with respect, they should be engaged with.

  15. To me, it really depends on whether they are interested in a “discussion” or if they’re just interested in confronting your ideas. If nothing else, engaging in a discussion with those who’re willing to engage rationally will give you some insight on their perspective and opinions that you can use to craft a rebuttal if those in the second group raise that issue.

    There is this one person I discuss issues with who happens to be, on most issues, on the opposite side of the political spectrum from me, but we have this understanding that when it seems that we’re not going anywhere on an issue we “agree to disagree” and we move on. It keeps the discussion respectful, fresh, and interesting, and keeps us from beating on a dead horse.

    That said, if you come across some persons with whom having a rational discussion is not possible, of course you can, and should, refrain from engaging. It’s like throwing good money after bad.

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