Let’s say a friend and I are on the subway, discussing what we consider to be Obama’s failures. We have discussed political matters before, and thoroughly — so that the abuse of the fillibuster, the extremism of the Tea Party, and basically all relevant matters that a reasonably informed person would discuss in this context have come up in previous conversations, the results of which are reflected in what we’re talking about now.
Then let’s say someone overhears us and says: “What you guys are ignoring is the role of Republican obstructionism.” We’re only seconds away from this person’s stop, and so we have no chance to follow up. What is our response likely to be? I’d say we’re most likely to think this person is, at best, presumptuous. The odds that we’re going to take the comment seriously are near zero — the person has made basically zero impact.
Now let’s propose another scenario. This person makes the same remark, but still has some distance to travel. What is our most likely response? “Sure, we know very well that Republicans have obstructed Obama’s agenda to an unprecedented degree, but….” Given my experience, such a person will likely reply defensively: “But no one could’ve told that you knew that from your conversation — you were just dumping one-sidedly on Obama.” At that point, the exchange is likely to remain at that meta-level, where we debate about the person’s “right” to make the comment. Productive exchange is unlikely.
It seems to me that we could tweak the second scenario somewhat to make a productive exchange possible. Let’s say that the stranger enters our conversation, not with a proclamation of our inadequacy, but with a question — for instance, “But don’t you guys think we should cut Obama some slack given how unhinged his opposition has been?” We might then respond, “Oh, absolutely — but even in areas where he has a relatively free hand, he hasn’t done what’s necessary….”
See how that works? No one is put on the defensive, and the space is opened up for a substantive, non-meta conversation. I think that this little thought-experiment is helpful for online conversations as well! Maybe when entering into a new conversational space, one should be relatively humble, given that one is by definition not fully aware of the background of the discussion. And maybe if you come in guns blazing, you shouldn’t be surprised when people react negatively! They are of course responsible for their contribution to the exchange, but you bear extra responsibility as the one who initiated the exchange and set the tone.
If people could follow the same common-sense rules when joining an online conversation as they would use when jumping into a conversation among strangers at a bar, I think a huge number of blog fights could be averted.