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Elucidation as Self-Improvement


Writing about writing is the sort of thing Sundays are for around here, so that’s what you’re getting. Granted, it will not be an extended set of thoughts–perhaps in the future.

Most of my rhetorical development has come out of two sources: debating online and debating with friends. Both involve different approaches and dynamics, but I will try to summarize my experiences with the two.

  * Debating with friends requires a level of sensitivity in offering corrections or potentially volatile information. It also means acknowledging when the other participants are right--making it more of an exchange, a give-and-take. If all involved feel as if they came away better-informed, I'd call that a success. Rarely have I had it devolve into acrimony.
  * Debating online is more of a hornet's nest. You generally don't know the participants personally, nor do you know their motivations--some people are, of course, posting in bad faith, and/or merely trolling. Just one or two dedicated troublemakers can poison the well and make the entire experience hopeless. _Ideally_, it is more the way debate unfolds between friends: with a degree of care and the goal of exchanging ideas and information, even if you don't ideologically agree. In practice, this happens rarely, except in very well-moderated spaces.

Both environments have helped me refine my rhetorical skills. To be honest, I’d long been primed for the latter mode of discussion, which makes it easy to resort to various kinds of dismissals and simple tricks to make people look foolish or irrelevant. This is not productive in and of itself. At best, it might drive off people who have no interest in real discussion, but it can be a double-edged sword and discourage people who have interesting perspectives to offer.

In any case, spelling out my thoughts, thinking about them, clarifying them, has gone a long way toward helping me develop them, as well. My opinions on various topics have evolved–slightly in some cases, dramatically in others. Generally, this has been the result of many discussions, as well as lots of reading. When it comes to debating, being forced to defend your statements with arguments others will accept is a great way to test their validity. Of course, this depends on having people who are worth debating–it’s pointless to try to have a serious discussion in YouTube comment sections, for instance. But a well-moderated forum or a group discussion with the right friends can be very fruitful.

It’s only been after many years of these discussions and debates that I’ve felt comfortable writing out my thoughts on a blog like this. I’ve blogged sporadically in the past, but was always reluctant to make potentially controversial posts. I did so occasionally. Each time, I had reservations or second thoughts. With this blog, however, I haven’t. I won’t say I have always been right–nobody is, least of all me–but I have tried to balance making my points without being too incendiary. I don’t appreciate rhetorical bomb-throws. They can be a cheap and effective way to convince people, but there’s nothing underlying them. There’s no real reasoning or rationale–the purpose of such devices is to entertain and validate, not argue or educate. I have tried to shy away from such methods here. I definitely have a point-of-view and I’m not shy about that, but no one should just take my (or anyone else’s) word for everything. I encourage seeking out information on your own, from a variety of sources, and discussing it with others. I think discussion is the best way to form a coherent worldview, as you must encounter other worldviews and, in attempting to understand (or deconstruct) them, learn what works and what doesn’t.

I think debate and discussion have forced me to think through my ideas and opinions, and given me a better framework through which to approach the world, which has helped me be a better person and global citizen overall (in my opinion, at least). It disappoints me when I encounter people unwilling to discuss sensitive topics like politics–subjects so critical to the world around us. I suspect it is because attempts to discuss become heated so quickly, and becoming defensive is easier than questioning one’s existing beliefs. Patience and open-mindedness go a long way, though.

Photo by Kathleen Tyler Conklin