I taught high school English for sixteen years. We discussed big issues, debatable issues, value-based issues. We did so with reason and civility. I taught through the rise of social media, cyber-bullying and snapchat. We talked about those issues too. There wasn’t one year that was better at it than another. There wasn’t one class in which the art of discourse was their birthright. They studied communications. They studied value propositions. They became artists of the spoken word and skilled orators.
And it didn’t come easy. There were heated moments when they wanted to fall back on logical fallacies like name calling (ad hominem) or diversionary tactics (non-sequitur) so they could release the boiling emotion that comes from feeling challenged, not heard, or the tiny rip in their viewpoint that allows for another’s perspective to be equally valued and “right.”
We had moments when students would excuse themselves to walk it off. We had moments in which I would table the conversation for the day so they could take time to reflect on why it was getting heated. When we returned the next day, they had rich, deep thoughts about the nuance of definitions and compromises to the either/or fallacy that had created a divide in the class.
When I walked down the hall from the classroom and entered conversation with others, it became clear that societally we were less intentional about communication and, perhaps, were taking all the avenues of inputs and outputs for granted. When the internet opened up the global library, it was like a firehose of information, and nearly impossible at that speed to figure out what was worthy and creditable. It hurt when we stood in front of the stream and it knocked us over. We built throttles through filters so we could narrow the stream, decrease the intensity, and get closer to the information we were seeking. It was a brilliant and detrimental tool we created. We could decrease the pressure of information to a trickle from only the sources that resonated with our current values and eliminate any counter arguments.
We created an insular chamber in which only our current viewpoints bounced off the walls echoing and validating our stance over and over. These echo chambers are pulling people apart and perpetuating the either/or arguments and fueling anger, resentment, and fear. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to destroy what we do not understand so we preserve what is known, even if it isn’t good for us. Afraid of spiders? Kill them, even if it is a daddy long legs, that actually isn’t a spider at all and doesn’t bite. Afraid of snakes? Kill them. Even if it is a garter snake, that isn’t dangerous to humans and eats small vermin and insects in the garden. But when we don’t understand something, and we react without thought or on assumptions (all spiders and snakes are bad), we destroy and create divides.
As I listened to those around me, I heard the echo chamber sayings bouncing around, but no true dialogue happening. When I looked, I saw people closed off, hiding behind their chamber walls, hurling anger bombs haphazardly with no concern where they landed. They created craters and uneven ground. They created fear and distrust with people never truly seen or heard. They created divides.
The art of communicating has been studies and written about for centuries, it isn’t a new concept, but like unused muscles, our ability to artfully communicate can and will atrophy without practice, without concentrated effort. If isolated to the walls of a classroom, we will not make gains or solve important problems that are complicated and require many perspectives. Effective communication does not mean everyone is in agreement or that people will leave hand in hand. It is about reasonable reactions, knowing when to walk it off, when to counter, or when to stand strong. Reasonable, effective communication respects people like boxers do in the ring.
When boxers enter the ring, they size each other up. They test their own strategy to see what will land and what will be deflected. They are learning their opponent’s style to understand how to counter, how to attack, and how to ultimately win. Professional boxers do not jump off the ropes swinging and hoping something lands. Great matches are equal, fair, and respectful. Wins for boxers are not just knock outs. Wins are a result of hours of practice, strategy, and focus. A win is not about humiliation or below the belt hits. A win is built on a foundation of respect for the sport and for the opponent. When boxers lace up to enter the ring, they do so with a plan and a goal, but remain open to learn from their opponent, to understand their stance and their strategy. It is a nuanced dance, much like the art of communicating.
In echo chambers, it is easy to lob anger bombs and think one is in the ring. But throwing slurs and digs are coward moves well outside the ropes of the ring. To enter the ring indicates a boxer has the skills and confidence to face an opponent. At that moment, they are fully seen. We, as communicators must be fully seen and not hide behind our chamber walls.
It isn’t good for our society to perpetuate echo chambers and polarized behavior by standing complacently by. However, if I wasn’t equipped to enter the ring, I would avoid it as well. What was it we did in the classroom, and was there a way to make it accessible to others? That is where this series of posts came from, a desire to give people, reasonables, the tools needed to enter the ring and be seen.
In the following posts you will find a quick acronym to practice so when the boxing rings of arguments arise, you feel confident to enter the conversation, assess your opponent, make room for their skills, and dance the nuanced dance of discourse and communication. I see our goal or win in these rings as consistent assessment. Did I learn something about my opponent? Did I learn something about myself? When we LACE UP, we enter the ring respectfully and reasonably prepared. We Learn, Assess, Consider, and Enter the ring recognizing that it is UP to us to bridge the polarized oppositions, to create a place for honest and considerate discussions, with the hope of mutual understanding.