Monday, November 11, 2013

From Ironic to Irenic: Changing How I Disagree on the Internet

Well, I ain't a bad guy once you get to know me,
I just thought, there ain't no harm—

     Hey, just try minding your own business, bud!
     Who asked you to annoy me with your sad repartee?
     Besides, I never talk to strangers anyway.

—"I Never Talk To Strangers Anyway," Tom Waits and Bette Midler

Empathy, empathy!
Put yourself in the place of me!
—"Empathy Song," Adventure Time

I learned a new word a little while ago in a conversation with my dad: irenic. We were talking about how to interact with people we disagree with, especially interacting over the internet, and he mentioned that he tried to be as irenic as possible in such situations. "You mean 'ironic,' Dad?" was my reply. No, he explained: irenic is something quite different; in fact, it means "promoting peace."*

I've written before about the difficulty of persuading people with strongly held opinions to change their minds. Basically, it boils down to this: you can't really do it. Not reliably, not often, and certainly not by just having the better argument.

While it seems that more and more we are surrounding ourselves physically with likeminded people, I think most folks I know still regularly encounter people online that they strongly disagree with, whether through social media, reading articles and opinion pieces, or other means. Given that changing someone's strongly held opinion is next to impossible, should we even bother trying—particularly online, where we have, probably, even more abysmal chances of success? I don't think so, not most of the time anyway.

What are the alternatives, then? I think the easiest alternative is dismissal, refusing to engage with the other side on any level. It's easiest because I waste almost no emotional energy; all I need to do is calm whatever anger or annoyance I may feel at seeing something I regard as foolish or wrong. (Dismissal is my typical reaction to things like Facebook memes insisting that I need to repost them if I love Jesus. Though, uh, not in the case of that post that I wrote about it.) The next easiest is hostility, which can take the form of straightforward insults or, perhaps worse, displays of verbal irony, AKA sarcasm. This is easier than persuading someone, because I can vent my feelings without spending energy on persuasion, and I take no major risks, since no one can prove me wrong. The worst that can happen is someone insults me back, and if I'm already angry, that isn't a big deal. (I can't think of a time when I've ever insulted someone on the internet, but I can definitely remember delivering a witheringly ironic response to someone I debated on Reddit who suggested I check out a link that turned out to be the Wikipedia entry on "correlation does not imply causation." I was not amused.)

Not actually my angry face, but close enough.

These approaches are a lot easier than persuasion. But easier isn't necessarily better, and in fact, both of these have pretty obvious problems. The isolation and anonymity of interaction on the internet seems to lend itself to such conflict-generating responses, but I think it's worth looking for more "peace promoting" approaches. Instead of dismissal, hostility, or ironic detatchment, I really think the best approach to this issue is something I'm going to call creative empathy. I'll give an example.

When I drive with my fiancée, we often have cars pass us at ludicrously high speeds and tiny car-to-car distances. While I grumble about how utterly insane and dangerous this is, she typically has a more positive remark: "When I see people like that, I just imagine they've got a woman in labor in the back seat." This is creative empathy. And I think it's the most irenic way to approach this kind of thing.

Or, you know, maybe they're just on Ecstasy right now.

Empathy, "putting yourself in someone's shoes," is of course an incredibly important tool for getting along with people. Recently, my roommate caught up with an old friend who I also know; I'll call this friend "Marcus." I talked with my roommate afterward, and he said that hanging out with Marcus had been pretty good, except for the fact that Marcus had been spouted off noxious Men's Rights rhetoric here and there throughout the night. Given that my roommate and I are both feminists** we were naturally a bit mortified and even angry, but I immediately started wondering how Marcus could have arrived at such a different viewpoint from me. And I realized after a moment that there was a big incident in college in which he had suffered a quite a bit, and I knew Marcus felt he had reason to blame both a specific woman and, more generally, women's "privilege" for his suffering. I still disagreed completely with Marcus's point of view on gender issues, but I stopped being angry about it. When I myself caught up with Marcus a few weeks later, that really made all the difference in my interactions with him.
When we see people suffering or having a bad day, most of us can and sometimes do put ourselves in their shoes emotionally and feel what they feel for a moment, which can help us treat them with more kindness. It's easy enough to do this when we can see what is behind someone's actions, but on the internet, it's usually a whole different ballgame. Often all we have is a name and some words, and much of the time, the name's not even real!

To empathize effectively with such a person, then, creativity is required. These days, when I see something online coming from an opposing point of view, something that makes me angry because of how wrong it is, I try to stop and tell myself a story that this point of view fits into. I think of an experience that could have led to it, or (if I want to be extra anthropological) a culture and a set of values that could produce it (looking at maps like this one has triggered such thinking lately for me). This is especially helpful if I'm actually going to try to talk to the other person, because it changes the goal from "tell this person they're wrong" to "find out where this is really coming from." And that's an irenic goal if there ever was one.

(This post was inspired in part by this piece on how Christians can better relate to each other across the progressive/conservative divide.)

*He went on to explain that it comes from the Greek word for peace, ειρηνη (eirēnē in Latin characters), because he is my dad.
**Which is to say, we think women are people, and are weirded out that large portions of society don't seem to get that.

Photo sources:
Photo 1:
Photo 2: Me
Photo 3:


  1. I subscribed to your blog a couple of months ago and I'm just now catching up. I don't even remember how I found it, but I quite like the stuff you've written.

    The irenic approach is something I've been striving for recently. My dad always argued to give people the benefit of the doubt and I think that's important.

    Another thing. I consider myself a feminist too, but I also think that men's issues are a feminist issue. Both women and men suffer from the noxious effects of sexism. And I don't mean that in the obnoxious "reverse sexism" way that man MRAs do. Perhaps in the spirit of being irenic, it's good to identify with both. I think the intersectionality of 4th wave feminism is addressing this finally.

  2. Glad you're enjoying the material here, friend.

    I agree that men's issues need to be addressed by feminism, and I hope to see them so addressed, because they are real and the MRA movement strikes me as toxic. I will admit that I have relatively shallow knowledge of feminist theory and literature, but I have seen some of the reactions from within feminism to the charge that it is not addressing the inequalities between the genders.

    Generally speaking, I think the feminist movement has more potential to effectively address them than the men's rights movement, but I'm more interested in seeing the issues resolved than in which group gets them done. My issue with MRAs is not, for the most part, their goals, but their rhetoric and the social theory that underlies it, which tends toward hate, disparagement, and other unnecessary unpleasantness.