Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Empathy for the Devil

Please allow me to introduce myself
I'm a man of self and haste
Pounding around many a ear
Strolled on many a man's poor face...

Perhaps you recognize the lyrics I've mauled from the Rolling Stones song Sympathy for the Devil?

In our divided society today, many of us engage in personal attacks. We insult the human rather than discuss the idea. We place our own views in front of their person, objectifying them, demeaning them, and in the process lessening who we are or can become.

Here are some quotes lifted from the comment section of a recent headline story on a popular news website:

"Does your dumb ass even know what Fascism is?"
"I know you're stupid as a snake screwing a stick."
"You're just another nitwit who doesn't live in the 'evidence based world'."
"What worries me about these idiots is that we will run out of tin foil, for their hats."
"Why do you lick xxx's balls so much?"
"You're just another wing-nut wacko conspiracy theorist ."
"I don't believe she's capable of having any thought that's not given to her!"
"That sounds pathetic as well as insane."

Our opponent?
An ad hominem is an argument made personally against an opponent instead of against their ideas. These personal attacks are made to reduce the opinion of a challenger by reducing the opinion of the person. Personal attacks are a form of verbal bullying. A word-based way of doing violence upon another human being.

As long as we adults continue to speak like we are on a school yard playground, shouting insults at each other, we will not advance our causes. Ad hominem attacks are self defeating. Personal aggression spoils the conversation. The person on the receiving end of the attack rarely changes their minds. The person on the giving end of the attack, is often trying to boost their own self esteem.

One technique I find very useful, when engaging in debates, is to empathize with my opponent. As when we play chess, I try to imagine what the world looks like from their viewpoint. This does several useful things. It helps me overcome my own emotions and be more rational. Empathy sometimes causes sympathy for a position and changes my mind, thus allowing me to grow. By understanding the argument being used, I am also able to craft a better argument in order to disprove their assertions.

I said that about you?
When I am the object of an ad hominem attack, there are several strategies to counter it effectively; ignore them. avoid them, or point them out.

By ignoring the attack and proceeding with my own logical thoughts, often the anger in my opponent can be toned down. Kind people who are in high emotion can be brought down from their often hormonal motivated peak to a calmer place when those around them emit calm.

When attacks grow more brutal, sometimes it is better to walk away and cease the violence upon my person. The enraged opponent may believe they have won, but that costs me nothing, as nothing has actually changed. The fuming may relent to a more placid state when the debate can be re-engaged.

Pointing out that an other is engaged in assailing my person rather than my idea, often will force them back to the issues at hand. This can be done both by simple statement, “That was a personal attack.” Or on occasion more subtly by using a fantastic ad hominem attack in return, showing the silliness of the attack. I do not recommend this later path of counter-attack, as it often can back-fire if not done with great skill.

Online this is always true.
A debate where one person changes there mind is useful for everyone concerned. A debate that has no opinion shifts can still be educational for one or all. A debate where both sides feel insulted often leads to further conflict, sometimes escalating to closed minds, or worse; physical violence.

Empathize with the devil. 
Do not take his "de-bait".  
Stand in his shoes. 
Walk in them if you can. 
You will find more mileage from the effort.

1 comment:

  1. Great post and a good beginning discussion to why debate with a level head (all sides) is a keen concept for advancing one's thinking.