I think I have a peculiar set of personal ethics when it comes to communication that I haven’t fully articulated (somehow, at this late stage).
For instance: Sometimes after an argument with my wife or a friend, I’ll think of some easy devastating point I might have made. But I don’t regret not having said it. I realize I didn’t fire not because I was slow on the draw, but because my hand wasn’t even on my weapon. For I wasn’t trying to destroy the other person by delegitimizing their point of view … I was trying to win the argument or at least come to peace by making them understand mine. (This doesn’t mean I’m a wholly virtuous arguer; I exaggerate a lot in oral arguments. And I am less restrained in written arguments in general, for the same reason everyone else is.)
Meanwhile, I try and sometimes fail to practice what I call “rhetorical nonviolence.” I’ve come to believe we can always do more social good by doing less rhetorical harm, and I don’t believe it’s any less criminal to use words to hurt people than to use bats. It might look like I violate this principle a lot, but 20 years ago, the term wouldn’t have even meant anything to me.
One thing that you will never hear me do, however, is to wholly reframe an argument by telling you what an issue is or is not “about.” That strikes me as heavy-handed to the point of domineering.
If you bring up an issue, I must tell you my thoughts on it, if I have any. I must not tell the issue you brought up is not actually “about” the issue you brought up, but rather “about” another issue I prefer to discuss.
The gall of that!
I hear talking heads and politicians and activists do that a lot, and it always offends me.
“This isn’t about domestic abuse, Honey, it’s about your vow to obey your husband.”
“This isn’t about my affair, it’s about your low libido.”
“This isn’t about four centuries of racist policy, it’s about maintaining American meritocracy.”
“This isn’t about cancel culture, it’s about social accountability.”
“This isn’t about rights, it’s about responsibility.”
You hear it all the time. It’s bullshit every time.
Because anyone arrogant, desperate, sociopathic, domineering or slick enough to tell me that the thing I think is irrelevant because the conversation I’m trying to have is actually “about” something else altogether—and this really does seem to include a lot of people these days—this is a communication crime that ought to be punished with loss of argument, and a $100 fine.
If the pen is mightier than the sword, then communication ethics are at least as important as the law.
Jim Reische says
This is now my favorite post of yours for quite some time, David. And that’s saying something. I’m especially drawn to your concept of “rhetorical nonviolence,” when it seems like our lives are dominated by rhetorical violence. Many of the same concepts apply as with the physical kind: hurling epithets, twisting words, torturing logic…
David Murray says
Thanks, Jim. When someone like you tells me they like a piece, I go back and reread it, hoping maybe I can do another one like that someday.