Let’s talk about talking.

I recall that in high school, I took issue with the practice of “debating”. Now, before I go any further, I will acknowledge that I have never tried it, and would have been unlikely to excel if I had. If you wish to chalk my opinion down to sour grapes, I’ll allow it. But also be aware that attacking my argument on the basis of my perceived motives would be a logical fallacy. Accuse me if you dare.

I once asked a debate-enthusiast friend, regarding a topic I felt was particularly difficult to defend, how it could be considered fair to be expected to argue a point with little intrinsic merit. I was told that debating was not about the quality of the topic, but about the quality and style of the argument used to support it. And I felt then, as I do now, that formal debate incorrectly prioritises winning over learning.

In life, prevailing over an opponent who has a superior ideology using superior discussion skills or force of personality should be considered a net loss. (Climate change, anyone? Smoking? Lead additives?)

Now, you might defend formal debating practice by arguing that fencing is merely a formalised, limited adaptation of real combat and should not be criticised for eliminating the fatal aspects of sword fighting, and that formal debate is a likewise a limited, formalisation of ‘real’ communication for competitive purposes. Fair enough.

But you wouldn’t be able to argue that fencing doesn’t teach real sword fighters bad habits (it might, if real sword fighting was a thing). Whereas listening to your opponents argument only long enough to formalise a cutting response is a very real problem worldwide, and very much so in South Africa. Now that I think about it, hot topics in social media are rather a lot like fencing.

Of course, I don’t really believe that learning to debate in high school is the cause of such a terrible failure to communicate – that was just an amusing analogy. Rather, it is a symptom of a deeper problem. (One I haven’t seen identified).

And that problem is this – people are generally FAR more adept at speaking than at listening. They take deep satisfaction in their own sarcastic, condescending replies, and resent condescension in response. They write long, cutting responses to an opponents position which they have appeared to listen to, but have only analysed deeply enough to criticise the semantic errors.

Even more interestingly is that this phenomenon transcends the barriers of race, intellect, education and most any distinction you care to draw. When I’ve trawled the deep recesses of the internet (not THAT deep), I might expect to encounter, “U ignurant $%@#, I hope u’r on mothr murders u and fds u’r korps to dogs.” (I picked a tame one.) And in more intellectual locations it might be, well, equally condescending and more snobby. Possibly but not necessarily less violent.

I’m probably guilty of it myself a few times in this piece.

Maybe social media, in it’s own small way, encourages the problem by emphasising outgoing information rather than incoming information. My twitter feed, for example, has very few responses in it. My own responses have generally gone ignored (/passive aggressive whine). <Swearword!!!>, most big websites, news and social media, seem structured to support an opinion but not a conversation.

What to do about it? I honestly don’t have an answer yet. I don’t know anything, remember? I mean, I’d like to think I know everything, and turn my observations into a soapbox session. But that would be incongruous with this blog and especially this thought.

And then again, a conversation needs somewhere to start.

On an individual level (for many of us), learning to listen better would help. A former mentor of mine taught me, “Seek first to understand, before seeking to be understood.” I’ve seen a few initiatives via Twitter which encourage communication, but not enough.

As part of the initiative of which this blog forms a part, I’ve decided to be more communicative in social media. Almost-ironically, that involves me speaking more, but the intention is to question, and thereby learn, and maybe pass those lessons on. I want to challenge (respectfully) things not otherwise being challenged. I want to take conversations (perhaps more accurately stated, ‘exchanges of words’) beyond the initial barrage into deeper understanding. And with some luck, I want to inspire more real communication. The scale may always be small, but hopefully not insignificant.

As Helen said when she announced she would not be available for re-election, “South Africa is in a race against time to save our constitution and ensure our democracy succeeds. We cannot waste a single minute or a single vote.” Or a single conversation.

Speaking of irony, the wikipedia page for “Debate” looked like this at the time of writing: Debate

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