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Can I Get a Puppy and a Rainbow?? Some Thoughts on Respectful Dialogue

I think election season is getting to me.  I love politics and current events.  Callum refers to the den where the radio is as the “Diane Rehm” room if that tells you anything (you might be an NPR junkie if…).  One of the biggest reasons I love Facebook is because it turns up all sorts of interesting reading material and food for thought (thanks interesting friends!).  But what I’m really hating recently…is well, the hate.  Now I fully expect to find vitriol in my news feed come UNC vs. Duke game night (go Heels!) and I recognize and appreciate the diversity of opinion about all manner of “politics.”  But real debate and discussion seems to be sorely lacking this political season (and this is true of both sides); instead, we seem to have an overabundance of hot-headed fact distortion and rhetoric intended to incite.

But really this post isn’t about politics.  Because I think what’s happening this political cycle (and I realize it’s always there but it seems increasingly ugly) is symptomatic of a greater problem that has been nurtured by (if not started by) the internet and social media.  It’s like we’ve forgotten how to be …polite.

Now, I don’t think people need to come rolling out with fake sugar on their tongue – I’m Southern and well aware of the passive aggressive sort of “nice” that’s worse that “rude to your face.”  What I think is missing from public discourse is some simple respect for each others’ humanity, a recognition that words posted on the internet reach other people.   Instead of dialogue about choices, we have screaming matches.

Take the so-called “mommy wars” that rage on, fueled by sensationalist media grabs (recall the recent Time magazine attachment parenting/extended breastfeeding cover debacle) that depict parenting as some sort extreme reality show.   Read any parenting article posted online…and then read the comments.  Sometimes I feel like the article (like this recent rant on Huffington Post) is designed more to solicit angry comments than it is to present some sort of cogent point.  Sorry Nicola Kraus, if you want to rail against attachment parenting, it might help to have an idea of what attachment parenting is actually about first in order to better make your case.

But not to pick on this one piece or this one particular parenting “camp.”  Find a news story about breastfeeding in public – comments will run the gamut from “breastfeeding in public is child abuse” to “feeding your child anything other than breast milk is child abuse.”  Ask a question about circumcision and you’ll get everything from “not circumcising leaves your kid with an ugly penis that will get him laughed at in the locker room and give him STDs” to “chopping off foreskin is no better than female genital mutilation and should be made illegal.”  Or if you really want to incite a “flame war”, dare to ask about cry-it-out:  “if you don’t your child will be dependent and spoiled and you’ll never have a sex life” to “you are going to scar your child for life and really I’d pretty much call that child abuse.”   Extreme, yes.  Uncommon, sadly no.

I’m very guilty of getting caught up in these arguments; I love debate and I’m opinionated.  And I think people should take a stance on issues and be able to argue their point with conviction and evidence.  But there’s a way to do that respectfully that encourages mutual understanding (which can happen without agreement) and a way to do that that accomplishes little than offending those who don’t agree.  If you want to show someone the merit of your argument, offending them is usually not the best approach.

I sometimes dance delicately in writing posts for fear that I will come off as off-putting or even offensive.  One of my most popular posts – “Thinking Beyond the Bjorn” – originally had the title “Why You Should Avoid Crotch Dangler Baby Carriers” (a title which sadly lives on in the url but which I haven’t changed because it was widely linked).  A reader named Holly, with better sense about this than I, pointed out that the “crotch dangler” term was easily alienating to those who had used the carriers I was advising against and that my message (which was not intended to vilify users of any carrier) would be lost as a result; the comments of several other readers proved this to be true and I belatedly changed the title.   Sometimes even when our message is well intended and meant to create dialogue, our wording or tone sends a different message.

I don’t think we should shy away from controversial topics and I don’t think we should waffle on our opinions at the risk of offending others.   Having a strong stance is great; sharing what you know and believe is great.  But I think it’s also worth remembering something I used to tell my high school students about argumentative writing – it’s not enough to simply state your opinion.  You must also really understand the other opinion/s around the issue, be well-informed about the issue, and be able to defend – with evidence – your argument.   If you can’t do that, you are merely repeating someone else’s propaganda, not defending your own position.  And if you allow your defense to become overrun with high emotion and wild claims…well, that’s not a very defensible position to take.

In several online communities I participate in, posters who are disappointed by the occasional rudeness they find are sometimes told to look elsewhere for “puppies and rainbows.”  And I think one might dismiss this post as “puppies and rainbows” or even “holier-than-thou.”  And that’s ok.  I think we could use more puppies and rainbows in the world.  Having kids has made me even more aware of the need to engage in dialogue not shouting, to model respectful engagement and passionate, but rational, defense of a position.

Whether we are talking politics or parenting it’s worth remembering even if we don’t cheer for the same team, we ultimately all share the same ballpark – we are all parents and all world citizens – we are all people worthy of respect.


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Published in Balance Parenting Popular Simple Living