Demonstrating Dialogue

Robbie Gringras

One of the questions that comes up a lot in our Argument workshops is about social media. How can we engage in healthy arguments on Twitter or Facebook? Especially when contrarians snarl and virtue signallers wave.

Something tells me that it would be helpful to find more respectful ways to understand the online signaller or the constant contrarian.

A few months back someone responded breathlessly on Facebook to a post that referred to the Reform Movement in the States:

Not from the Reform who have always maintained no connection with Israel or The Torah. Reform is an a la carte Judaism which picks and chooses bits of law that doesn't involve any true commitment to The Torah they convert non Jews who are not accepted by orthodox Rabbis and cause their to be problems when their children come to get married to a born Jew and causes terrible pain to the families involved.

We decided to apply the first rule of conflict resolution work: Show that we are listening, in an attempt to reflect what the organization, Resetting the Table, calls a “bulls-eye” response. We wrote:

Hi, it sounds like you have three contentions here. 1. That Reform Jewry has never had a connection with Israel. 2. That Reform Judaism is not committed to halacha and so chooses practice inconsistently. 3. That different conversion practices are the cause of pain. Is that right? And if so, are you interested in hearing responses to these points of view?

The disappointing yet unsurprising response came swiftly:

There can be no response the Reform has done more harm to the Jews… [long list] … need I say more?

I kept thinking about this response for a longtime. If this person didn’t want to talk about it, and presumably knew he wasn’t going to convince anyone, why did he post in the first place? (This quoted example was a "he”, though we have had similar exchanges with women, too).

The easy and dismissive response would be label them as mean-spirited. Or if the critique came from an opposite ideological stance, they might get dismissed as virtue-signallers (publicly expressing opinions to demonstrate that they’re good people). But if we’re actively seeking dialogue, in particular with those with whom we disagree, it doesn’t seem altogether productive to write these folks off as operating in bad faith.

And then came the current conflict with the judiciary and the regime here in Israel. Lots of standing around, shouting slogans, and blocking roads. And it gave me an idea.

Perhaps these contrarians and virtue-signallers are better understood as demonstrators? What if social media has effectively given every one of us the opportunity to go on a demonstration of one? And if these posters are demonstrators, how might I listen to or speak with someone on a demonstration? How would a demonstrator open up to an in-depth conversation questioning precisely what they’re demonstrating about?

I think this framing is of benefit for two reasons. First, it allows me to give this person respect. They are not mindless keyboarders moaning in their basement, they are demonstrators. They have opinions that they hold strongly enough to make them public.

Second, it allows me to clarify my expectations, and to search for solutions. I imagine myself trying to challenge someone’s views while they are standing in a demonstration holding a sign. Quite apart from expressing their own views, they are also standing in a crowd. Their response to my critique will not only emerge from their own opinions, it will also come from significant peer pressure. During the demonstration is not the time to have an open conversation, and in public with other demonstrators is not the place.

What if I were to approach a demonstrator and invite them for a coffee the next day? With words like, “I know you’re busy right now, but I’d love to understand more, and perhaps share with you some of my thoughts?” (Trying not to be too creepy…).

What would be the online version of doing that? A private message? A private message sent at least 24 hours after the public contact? I am sure there are many more strategies available to us, the moment we begin to see the demonstrator and not the obstructor.

It might not work. It probably won’t work. But every now and then, it might…

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