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Why language matters -How to debate and keep safe

As many of you are aware, there have been a lot of stressful and heated debates in the media about gun control, Donald Trump, Orlando, Brexit, etc that have been discussed and hashed out across multiple social media platforms. This can be both a cathartic and educational outlet but it can also lead to aggressive, unwanted angry debates that could turn into abusive trolling and cyberbullying behaviours. There are also less heated debates and discussions online about every day interests such as celebrity culture and gaming but those topics equally can elicit strong emotions if it’s something we really care about. It's only natural.

I thought perhaps we could discuss what role language can play in a debate/discussion and how that may shape how it's interpreted and transmitted. Moreover, what language can we use that can help keep the discussion or debate healthy and how we may actually come to learn and respect each other’s differing views without resorting to cruelty, frustration or anger. I came up with three questions we can ask ourselves before getting involved in an online discussion:

- Is it crucial that this person agree with my point?

- Do I care and am I genuinely interested in learning more about their point of view?

- Will this discussion enhance open dialogue, education, tolerance and mutual respect?

If you feel after asking yourself some of these questions, that yes you would like to continue the discussion or debate, then how can we, collectively, create a safer and more reflective space to examine how we feel about the topic?


What I like about open ended questions, is that it encourages either party to examine and reflect on their own values and beliefs around the issue that they are discussing. This can help us to reflect on why we may feel a certain way. Through this self-examination, either side can either continue to stand by their beliefs or they may very well change how they feel. So instead of defending their point they can learn more about the other person’s beliefs and views. When we are being defensive it tends to encourage more defensiveness and neither side is usually willing to budge. Here are some examples below of open and closed ended questions:

OPEN ENDED: "I hear what you are saying. So what are your thoughts on how this could be handled better?

ClOSED ENDED: "Are you really going to stick to that belief?

OPEN ENDED: "Why do you suppose that is?”

ClOSED ENDED: “Oh come on. Are you serious!?”

I'm just giving some vague examples but hopefully you get the gist. Open ended questions tend to invite dialogue and closed ended questions can shut the conversation down or worse, turn it into an explosive debate with no end in sight. So using sentences like; Can you elaborate, Can you share your thoughts on this? What are you concerns? Can really help shift the conversation towards a more solution and less of a defensive based discussion.


Language is also important to consider when having a potentially heated conversation online. We may even be able to defuse an argument with a tiny shift in how we word our words. So here are a couple of suggestions;


-Swear or use derogatory, inflammatory words even if the other person does.

- Don’t put the person down and attack how they look, how they feel or their level of intelligence


- Ask open ended questions to better understand their point
- Use words and sentences like;

”I appreciate you sharing your view”
"I validate how you must be feeling, I don't agree but I appreciate you being so open in sharing your thoughts on this.”

Language is key in order for us to benefit fully from the interaction. Now in saying that, we do not, under ANY circumstances deserve to be yelled at, insulted, harassed or bullied for our views and values online. But we can minimize the potential of becoming a target by not matching the abusers language or tactics. We may even learn something from them! It's important to also set healthy boundaries so that if you don't wish to continue in the discussion and can feel yourself becoming agitated or uneasy then it's important to step away. This may need to be done through a polite end to the conversation or if they won't respect your boundaries, then you may need to block and report. When in doubt or if you need extra support, you can reach out to trained advisors here at Cybersmile 24/7 by emailing [email protected]

Do you have any further suggestions or comments on the above? What do you think may or may not work best when it comes down to language and how we engage in discussions or debates online?
I had to think long and hard about this one. I love your pointers and guidelines. It takes mental and emotional discipline (and strength of character) to do what you have listed here.

I will honestly share that there have been (multiple!) times when I have unleashed fury on Twitter.

In fact, I can think of one specific tweet last week. I had spotted a really racist, hateful, ignorant, spiteful comment ... directed at two people ... that was being retweeted by others who seemed to support this person's view. To me, the "retweets" amounted to a "gang mentality." I don't know if I can describe this well, but to me, when someone retweets a hateful or disparaging comment -- that is directed at someone else -- it's like that playground mentality where kids gather around to watch the bully hit someone else.

It infuriates me.

In those instances, I don't see it as a debate but rather a necessary action to step in and call the person out on it and level them with my own snark.

However, on reflection, it may not have been the best way to handle it. In the future, I will probably just let it go if I perceive that the intended victim is a strong individual who can handle himself/herself without my interference.

On the other hand, if it's someone who is fragile or at a disadvantage ... I'm stepping in. (I can think of a few people on Twitter who I know are elderly or have other difficult circumstances.)

Regarding debate in general ... I will not go out of my way to debate someone on the opposite political spectrum. If someone approaches me due to a religious tweet or a political tweet, I take a lot of things into consideration before I respond. That's another situation altogether.

This was great food for thought! Thank you for posting it!

I'm curious to see what other people are thinking on this topic.

In reply to heidilynnrussell

You raise some important points Heidi. I agree that it can be REALLY hard to stay silent or not wade in, when we witness racism, hatred or xenophobia online. But that is where I think, I would ask myself the point I made above;

"Will this discussion enhance open dialogue, education, tolerance and mutual respect?"

That can usually help guide me whether I want to jump in or not. Many times these racists taunts and mob mentality ( ganging up on one person or several) is perpetrated by Trolls who feed off and enjoy the tension etc. So reflecting on what their intentions may be as well, can help inform our role in jumping in to help. If we do want to support the person who is being attacked, you could always send them a message of support without tagging the instigator, or send a DM with a link to Cybersmile if you feel they could use the support.

But more often then not, hateful vitriol online is meant to cause offense. It is meant to create an angry debate and above all, it is usually meant to bring "saviors" into the mix to make it an even bigger production. While the trolls just sit back and enjoy the show. That is not to say that these individuals don't believe in their hatred of others (some do and some don't) but if that is the case, that they do, then a few tweets or posts probably won't change a life long value or belief system that they have been taught or which has been exacerbated by recent world events.

Now, this is just my opinion, but there are time where racism, bigotry and xenophobia is something we can address online. If we feel the person is demonstrating fear more then hatred, and is genuinely asking questions. Then if you gauge it safe to do so, you could try asking open ended questions to help understand why they feel so strongly about the issue that's being discussed. But usually you can tell right off the bat, whether someone is willing to alter their view or just want to cause a fight online.

It sounds like you do have some great coping tools when you are faced with potential debates about politics and religion. Definitely taking time to think your answer through is helpful and demonstrates self control and critical thought. Which many of us find so hard at times. It is so easy to be impulsive online especially when we care so much about the topic. I know in the past, I have acted out impulsively when faced with a racist discussion online. I could feel the trigger and literally watched myself hit send knowing I probably should have sat on that a bit longer. Another benefit to waiting before we hit send is, that It also allows the other person time to cool down as well. So self-reflecting and self-regulation can help both parties in the end, sometimes.

I know this is easier said then done. Especially now that we are experiencing so much change from a political, racial, religious perspective which means these kinds of discussions online are only going to increase. But it we find what works best for us, we can help minimize the stress it can put on us and even on the other parties involved.

What do you all think?

In reply to *Reflective_Joy*

Terrific insight. Good food for thought, and I'll ponder this and take it seriously.

Glad you brought up the entire topic!
I noticed this happening a lot after the Brexit vote in Europe. A lot of people who voted 'out' as a sort of protest vote saying they regret their choice getting a lot of abuse on socials. Also the racist slant of the 'out' campaign has caused problems with racists claiming they have 'won'.
With such extreme views being exchanged, many conversations are descending into vile abuse, from people who would not usually do this sort of thing.
I think, whatever the subject matter, when emotion takes over, reason and logic go out of the window.
I am aware of my own triggers and always try to be more eloquent and descriptive in conversations that start to get personal and emotional. I simply will not play that game, especially on social media. Make your point and move on is my strategy.

In reply to Adam

Hi Adam,

I think that's a great strategy. As you said it's knowing our triggers and try and be as calm, eloquent and stick to the facts as much as possible. I agree that when emotions come into play logic and reason can definitely be compromised! It's good to know what our buttons are, even if they are valid buttons ( like caring for the vulnerable, against racism and exnophobia) but to be mindful of how we allow those buttons to be pushed and stepping back when needing too.

Great discussion guys!

In reply to *Reflective_Joy*

This is a great topic and very timely and I just love the Heidi/Joy exchanges, in fact all the contributions are really on point.

I'm getting involved in #moreincommon and #hopenothate. From that angle I can see it coming that there will be social media aspects to the problem, as you obviously believe too.

I'd suggest a few rules of thumb (that I only know by breaking the corollary if you see what I mean) adding onto what youve said
1. Remember that the various platforms (especially facebook and Twitter) are designed knowingly to produce 'tribes'
2. That tribal warfare is normal and profitable online, so you will get 0 support from the companies (the more flame, the more clicks, the more clicks, the more revenue from advertisers)
3. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the diverters of revenue to love (because tho' lots of folks like a good war drama a good final reel where the factions make friends is the story that gets the oscar (ie potentially loads of clicks)) - so 'reaching out across the great divide' between hate and love can be potentially transformative - so this is the time to step IN to those debates
4. Love can be sick as i think you've all said, so watch your own motives
5 IRL talking is not forbidden

Typically my motto is: Just keep scrolling! (Feel free to sing it like Dory.) Especially if it's someone's own words. It's their opinion, right or wrong.
If, however, it is a repost of something untrue or a hoax, I'll comment a link to the correct information and whole story. Click it or don't. I've done my part.
Then, I go back to watching (and sharing) bunny videos.

In reply to bbear

Just now seeing bbear's comments -- wow, those are great insights! Good food for thought!

And VeggieBunnie -- haha, I agree with you -- bunny videos rock. I think they're better than cat videos, but let's not start a war on Cybersmile over that one with the cat lovers. :-D

BTW, welcome to the Cybersmile forum, VeggieBunnie!

In reply to heidilynnrussell

Thank you for the welcome!
I'm only slightly partial to bunnies. Anything fluffy and funny works for me. :)