Communication Norms in a Polarizing Age

The following norms were created for an online discussion group which aims to create a space for people across social, political and religious lines to discuss issues with those with different positions and world views. These norms were designed out of the experiences and insights of group participants and may be revised as the need arises. These norms are meant to serve as a guide and are not meant to be taken as hard, rigid rules.
BRIEF OVERVIEW OF NORMS
1. Inquiry Balances Advocacy means to practice being open about others’ perspectives and experiences and to hold back from advancing our own view without listening to others.
2. All Topics Discussable means that we won’t shut down any topics unless they advocate violence against entire groups of people. This also means we won’t ridicule or dismiss an idea or topic as unworthy of our consideration.
3. Evidence and Facts over Narratives means that we commit to backing up our claims and don’t rely on popular narratives, authority of certain authors and books or even ideologies to make our points.
4. Labels Stigmatize reminds us to avoid name-calling in all its forms
5. People are Individuals reminds us that even if the ideology we follow groups people together and assigns characteristics to entire identity groups, we try to experience individuals as themselves rather than as representatives of a group.
DESCRIPTIONS OF NORMS
1. Inquiry Balances Advocacy
Open-minded inquiry is a challenging task in a community, whether it’s a social media group, a church, school, company or any other group in which people come together to talk or to get things done. We can set a reasonable standard for discussions by balancing the desire to advocate our own positions with the commitment to inquire into the positions of others. Demonstrating curiosity and interest in other views can help to build relationships with the people we are talking with, build mutual understanding, and foster new learning and growth for all parties. Engaging others with an inquiring attitude is not the same as relentlessly interrogating to find fault.
Patterns to Look For
Immediate shutdown when opposing viewpoints are expressed; Endless repetition of one’s own views without acknowledging other views; Not asking an opponent (or participant) to explain his/her/their/xir reasoning during discussion; Controlling the conversational space to advance one’s point of view; Refusing to offer one’s thinking or reasoning (e.g. Because it’s 2018, that’s why!);Relentless interrogating to find faulty logic or morals instead of genuinely inquiring into another’s view(s); Name calling; Justifying, rationalizing, defending, Ignoring proposed alternatives to existing frameworks, Not acknowledging the reasoning of opposing viewpoints; Using the tactic of stony silence to express disapproval (in person); Choosing not to respond as a tactic to leave opponents feeling “out in the cold”
2. All Topics Discussable
Welcoming all topics for consideration is important because undiscussed topics can have a potentially devastating impact on goals, relationships, and outcomes on all scales, including relationships, communities, neighborhoods, towns, cities, states, nations, and the world). As we have seen throughout the centuries and in our personal, professional and political lives, all issues will come to the surface somehow and in some way, no matter how much we have succeeded in suppressing them. Preventing, ameliorating, handling, or healing conflict in all its forms requires that a community actively works to place all views -even unsettling or uncomfortable views- on the table.
Patterns to Look For
How dare you bring that up; That is inappropriate; That’s bigotry! (without investigating the claim); You’re just playing the victim; We already figured this out, no more dialogue; You’re centering yourself [or your tribe] in this conversation!; Your issue is self-serving because you’re privileged!; This problem isn’t even a “thing”; This issue is not that serious; You have no right to mention this problem; Your feelings as an oppressor will not be discussed or even recognized; How dare you try to silence other voices by asking us to listen to yours?
3. Evidence and Facts Over Narrative
Narratives are important, but they are not sufficient as arguments unless they are backed up by evidence and facts. It is best to start with evidence and facts and to search for patterns based on additional evidence and facts to formulate a strong and credible narrative or theory (inductive) than to start with a narrative based perspective based on biases and desired outcomes and searching for evidence and facts to justify the narrative (deductive). In the age of “fake news”, propaganda and extremely adversarial one-sided narratives that are often unsupported by hard data, we need to maintain intellectual rigor in conversations and dialogues that aim to discover credible truths and workable solutions.
Patterns to Look For
Unwillingness to step out of one’s own experience or set of beliefs about the world to truly listen to what others are saying; Reluctance to hear questions or challenges to the narratives we have either read about, inherited or formulated in our own minds to explain the world; Refusal to change our mind’s about phenomena when we have been presented with new variables and compelling evidence or hard data that challenges our narrative; Staying committed to a narrative that is unsupported by hard evidence -especially when the narrative pushes a view that is adversarial against specific groups of people based on their socio-cultural characteristics (.e.g. Jewish Zionist conspiracy theories advanced through Nazi Germany’s propaganda machine)
4. Labels Stigmatize
Stigmatizing people with labels can be helpful when we know with certainty that the labels are accurate. However, when over-applied, stigmatizing labels cause the targets of labeling to either double down or leave the conversation or relationship altogether. Using labels (whether sincerely or manipulatively) effectively discredits people (usually with an opposing or simply different framework or set of beliefs) and serves to shame or frighten others into silence. If circumstances arise in which a person’s view can be reasonably assumed to be biased or bigoted, it is helpful to describe the real world impact of actions carried out in accordance with the offending views and the impact of the views themselves than to use name-calling.
Patterns to Look For
Accusations of some form of ”ism”, of holding immoral beliefs, or of having a disagreeable character or moral foundation instead of addressing the substance of the argument
Examples: Oppressor! Racist!, Colonizer! White Supremacist!, Homophobe!, Transphobe!, Sexist!, Ableist!, Social Justice Warrior!, SJW!, Right Wing Nut Job!, Garbage person!, Libtard!, Lefty Fascist!, Race-baiter!, Feminazi, b****ch, Cis-het!, Cis!, White Male!, negative, divisive [if not actually divisive], crybully, bully, angry (discrediting the “tone” without acknowledging the message), troublemaker, self-righteous, opinionated; arrogant; liberal elite; stupid conservative; idiot; loser
5. People Are Individuals
This is very simple. In this highly polarized era in which identity and demographic groups are in continual conflict, the commitment to treat people as individuals is key. While many ideological frameworks across the political, social, philosophical, and religious spectrum suggest a homogeneous, one-dimensionality on the part of specific groups of people, many of the claims are not supported by scientific evidence. Though there are cultural meta-patterns and generally predictable belief systems and culturally-based behaviors in all groups, it is best to suspend judgment about individuals we are relating to and to keep an open mind.
Patterns to Look For
Expecting others to speak for or to represent their demographic identity group, based on age, gender, skin color, race and ethnicity, religion, body type and size, physical ability, political affiliation or other factors; Relying on generalizations about individuals based on the socio-cultural groups they are perceived to (or actually) belong to; Discrediting statements and beliefs from individuals based on the demographic group they are perceived to (or actually) belong to