Thursday, August 01, 2013

Start Your Day Right

UntitledAfter our trip to the park this morning I was walking back into my apartment complex with our neighbor, D, and her dog and saw that a woman was talking to the guards. Just before we reached the door to the security booth she burst out and, leaning forward a little, loudly and directly asked, "Does anyone want to do anything about people partying and smoking pot in the courtyard until 5:30 in the morning?" Her voice was shrill and her gestures big and a little wild.

D and I stared back at her a moment. Finally D, who spent enough years as a special ed teacher to have finely tuned awkward social interaction reflexes, said, "Were they?" She sounded polite and genuinely interested. The woman expanded on her experience, her voice rising in pitch and volume. Her elementary school aged daughter lingered in the doorway unsure what her role was supposed to be.

I jumped in and said, "If they were smoking pot you can call 911."

"I called 911!" the woman cried. "And 311 and the management office and..."

I tuned out here a little so I could grab the phrase running through my head. "Outrage kills nuanced discourse," it was repeating. That was something that Schmutzie tweeted yesterday that stuck with me. She's written about it before (though I'm damned if I can find the link) and the concept has been really useful for me as I wade a little deeper into political discussions both in person and online.

Chili often writes about how she is dinged for being passionate about her convictions. She said a few days ago that people tell her she "feels too much." Having known her a while (30 years is a while, right?) I understood the spirit of what these people were saying but I didn't agree that feeling too much was true. I didn't, however, know exactly how to describe what was true so I kept mum and kept thinking.

Mary Beth Turns out it's the outrage, even justifiable outrage, that does it. I agree with Chili almost universally on socio-political issues. When she's incensed about something it's unusual for me not to feel exactly the same. Sometimes, though, she'll come to me asking me to jump into a discussion and I'll decline. I've explained it to her by saying that when I don't feel there's a reasonable expectation of changing someone's mind then I'm going to reserve my fuel for places where I can move people. I'm in it for the marathon and I know I can't sprint a whole marathon. I won't presume to speak for her but I think she's disappointed when she hears that.

Like the people who say she feels too much I think I worded my reasons poorly. When I decline to participate in those discussions there is usually an element of (sometimes justified) outrage in someone's response that has lit a fire under the conversation and made it exciting to watch but basically an engine for destruction. I believe Schmutzie, outrage kills nuanced discourse and without nuanced discourse we can't solve anything. It doesn't mean you can't get angry, but it does mean that your anger isn't going to make your argument convincing.

I agreed with the ranting woman this morning, too. I've participated in discussions on our neighborhood listserv that I assume she has also been part of. I fought for years to lessen the problem of inconsiderate and noisy neighbors ignoring the house rules on my side of the courtyard and I've tried to give good advice in those discussions to the people fighting it now on her side. We're working for a polite, respectful community, it makes sense that we're all on the same side.

When she came roaring out that door and whipped her head around to pin us against the scaffolding with her voice, though, I couldn't talk. I couldn't participate in that discussion because it wasn't one. It was someone with completely justifiable outrage spewing her anger and frustration all over anyone who crossed her path. She wasn't actually looking for solutions she was simply overflowing with feelings. Before she was done, though, another neighbor came by. This woman is mentally ill and sometimes doesn't take her medication. She gave us all a sustained middle finger, called me a white bitch and D a black bitch and by the time she'd finally gone the original woman had disappeared.

So much for nuanced discourse. Maybe next time.


  1. "outrage kills nuanced discourse and without nuanced discourse we can't solve anything. It doesn't mean you can't get angry, but it does mean that your anger isn't going to make your argument convincing."


    I don't know that I've written what I really want to write about this, but I like what you've got.

    1. I like it, too. It gives words to my reluctance to enter discussions that I feel are already at the boiling point.

  2. There's a lot to say on the topic. It's hard to argue effectively in emotional situations. All we can do is try to get better, I think. Thanks for helping me work through the process.

  3. Suzanne J-W10:31 AM

    Thank you for putting in to words what I often feel when presented with an overly-passionate argument. Often I agree with the speaker, but where I don't agree is the point at which someone thinks that yelling (either literally or digitally) is going to bring about an outcome that brings us further towards where we need to be.

    I spend a lot of time working with teachers and other adult learners. One of my main goals is to get them to think beyond the black and white, to wallow in the grey for a while and see where that brings you (and in many cases your students). That is where critical thinking and questioning happens, and I think that is where reasoned discourse can actually get us somewhere. Truly, if my own children leave childhood behind with the skills they need to look at situations critically, then I will rest a bit easier for the world.

    Of course, I spend as much time working with those same teachers to move them away from the "sage on the stage"-style of teaching and to more collaborative teaching/learning environments. It's a tough slog most days, but to me, it's one of the important parts of my calling.