In her writings about how people debate and discuss political and social issues with each other, one of the points Iris Marion Young tries to impress upon her readers is the importance of certain norms of conversational etiquette, such as the “greeting”, to the project of respectful dialogue. We often view things like a greeting as a polite but fundamentally extraneous pleasantry that is outside, external to, and irrelevant to substantive content of the exchange. Young argues instead, though, that acts such as the greeting serve important functions that are essential to mutually respectful engagement — affirming people as part of the discursive community, signaling that they are a welcome part of the discussion, representing them as equals.
The importance of conversational norms to this project was further impressed to me by the experiences related to me by my girlfriend while she was taking a seminar on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Many elements of Rousseau’s writings Jill found to be quite sexist, and she would say so in class. She’d get the chance to speak her piece and then … it was as if she never said anything. It wasn’t that she got shouted down or her points belittled as stupid. It was more that the other members of the seminar didn’t view her concerns or arguments as something important enough to be acknowledged, as against what they wanted to talk about. Understandably, Jill felt disrespected, and did not feel like she was being allowed into the conversation as an equal.
This came up between Jill and I because, regrettably, I’ve done similar things in conversation — transitioning to the topics I find interesting and want to talk about without any recognition that what was said to me was important and meaningful, at least to the person who said it. That’s patronizing at best; at worst, it can be deeply hurtful when what was said to me was something that the person felt was extremely important to their sense of personhood, their equal standing as a human being, or their physical security.
Any time in conversation you want to change the topic to something different from the main thrust, you run the risk of signaling to your interlocutor that you find what they’re talking about unimportant or a waste of time. That risk is magnified when the subject of their speech is deeply tied to their personhood, identity, or human dignity. Weighed against that is the fact that conversations need to be able to evolve — they can’t stay tied to what the first speaker wants to talk about indefinitely.
I put the rest of this post below the fold — I think what needed to be said has been said, and there isn’t much purpose in pressing the issue further.
It’s time to get the obvious out of the way: this post was motivated by the interplay between my post on the anti-Semitic mob at York University and Maia’s post indicting how I talked about the YU strike in the course of my own discussion. In the comments, I expressed that I found it distressing that Maia’s post nowhere acknowledged (much less affirmed) what we both agree was the main point of the post I made — namely, the events at York University were an extremely scary manifestation of anti-Semitic activity. I rendered this objection in the comments to her post, noting that by using my post as a “hook” to talk about supporting the strike, without acknowledging the main thrust of what I was talking about or affirming it as valid, it created a “tenor” that the transition was a dismissal of the importance of what was said before. Maia said she did not want her thread derailed by discussing my concerns there. I understand that sentiment, but I regret the consequences of it, because I think creating a new and specific post on the topic represents a significant escalation and I’m not happy about that (which was the reason I wanted to try and hash it out in the comments first).
Anyway, Jill’s rule of the thumb for respectful transition is as a follows:
(a) Acknowledge: Make it clear that you were in fact, paying attention to what your interlocutor was talking about it (and find it worthy of acknowledging).
(b) Affirm: Expressly state that you affirm what your partner is saying is important and valid. Even if you disagree with some of it, or even most of it, unless you find the entirety of what was just said wholly repellent, try and find some kernel inside of it that you can sympathize with.
(c) Segue: Explain the particular move you’re making: why and by what steps you’re specifically jumping from topic A to topic B.
(d) Transition: Now, make the point you wanted to make.
This doesn’t need to take long. It can usually be accomplished in a sentence or two. In the present case, it would not have been difficult to preface with something to the effect of:
“I, too find the mob violence David described abhorrent [acknowlegement and affirmation]. But I just wanted to pull out something in how he described the York University strike, which I found deeply problematic. [segue]“
I don’t think that would have diluted the content of Maia’s criticism in the slightest. But it’s still really important to present. Seguing represents an express acknowledgment that one recognizes the other as an equal partner in the dialogue, whose contribution matters and is meaningful. It also demonstrates that the desire to talk about a different subject isn’t stemming from a belief that the prior subject or contribution is worthless or a waste of time, or passive-aggressive opposition to the point that was being made.
This is particularly important when there are aggravating circumstances which might increase one’s sensitivity to the perceived slight. I already mentioned how the risks are heightened when the prior topic is one that the speaker clearly feels is very important to them on a personal level, but other things can exacerbate the situation. The more tangential the transition is to the prior topic, the more important I think it is to segue, as an explanation for both why one wants to move on, and why one wants to move from point A to point B. If the new topic is going to be antagonistic towards the prior speaker, that I think makes it absolutely critical that a segue happen, because otherwise the immediate reaction is to view the new topic as an attack against the old.
Situations where there might be mistrust amongst the parties is another good indicator that one should segue. In close relationships, one might be able omit seguing because many of the signals it sends are already implied — we (hopefully) know that our spouse or partner thinks what we’re saying is important and worthy of attention. These same qualities can’t be assumed in more casual relationships, and they may be completely absent in situations where there is outright mistrust. In these cases, the functions of the acknowledgment and affirmation do not “go without saying”, and it is a positive good to make them explicit.
Seguing also serves to contextualize, by specifically relating the new topic to the old, allowing new participants to understand fully the terrain which gave rise to the controversy in the first place. In the present case, as we agree, my post was focused on an instance of mob violence targeted against Jews at York University. The strike was mentioned in passing, both as background and to note the contrast between what putatively “caused” the mob to form, and the slurs they chose to use (anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist, and anti-Israel). It’s quite possible that the way I described the strike in the four or five lines it showed up was problematic from the perspective of one who thinks this strike is (or strikes in general are) worthy of support. But I think knowing the context would indicate that in all likelihood, I was not focusing on the strike as a political issue when writing the post. That was not the location where I was carefully weighing my word choice, not the area in which I was seeking to forward a statement of support or opposition. My attention, I have to say, was elsewhere.
That doesn’t render it immune to criticism (one can still use problematic language when one isn’t concentrating on a topic — indeed, I’d guess it’s more likely), but it does change the perception of the event. I think it tamps down on potential conflict by framing the issue as an issue of oversight while concentrating on something else, rather than a conscious decision to stake out a particular antagonistic political position. By contrast, the lack of the segue obscures the context and makes it easier to think that the or a primary (or at least significant) part of what I was getting at in the post was a statement on how we should view the York University strike. I humbly submit that a charitable reading, given the context, would belie that supposition.
Indeed, an important function of the segue is that it avoids getting into situations that we’re in now, one that I fear is rapidly spiraling out of hand. A significant chunk of Maia’s comment section and now a whole ‘nother post on AAB are now dedicated to “hashing out” something that could have been averted by the insertion of a two line preface expressing a sentiment that (I hope) Maia already agrees with.
Without the segue though, we’re left with significant questions about why it was absent and why Maia is reluctant to insert it upon request, and those questions hold a lot of potential for causing problems. Maia indicated in referencing another strike in the UK which utilized racist slogans that her response to that would be to support the strike while condemning the racist imagery carried out in its name — in other words, roughly the same position I want her to take here. What’s the reason she won’t do so? Several options present themselves to my ears. I don’t know which, or if any, are correct, but in large part that isn’t the point. The point is that the absence of the segue starts to raises these specters — avoiding the perception that they’re the case is worth avoiding on its own.
Unfortunately, the most obvious answer as to why Maia won’t write a quick segue acknowledging and affirming with the main point is simply that she doesn’t agree with it — that she does not believe that the mob violence is worthy of condemnation. And I honestly have questions as to whether that is her position, based on how I understand and have experienced her views on “solidarity”. I don’t want to tag her with that position based on suspicion. But if she does believe that, while that’s her prerogative, she should come out and say so rather than playing hide-and-go-seek.
That isn’t the only candidate though. Another is that she disapproves of the mob scene, but doesn’t consider it important enough to mention (or alternatively, finds it so obviously wrong that she thinks it goes without saying that she opposes it). But if that were the case, one would think she could throw a bone. If I disagree with something, but either find it such a trivial or such a clear case that I don’t even think to publicly register my opinion on it, if someone then exhibits distress at my silence and wants to be reassured that I do, in fact, disapprove, I think it’s an act of respect to accede. It requires very little out of me, and it comforts a partner in the conversation. That’s reason enough to do it (and refusing to do it again raises the question as to why — what makes it so important that I refuse the request?).
A third alternative is a sort of free speech absolutism: the idea that one has no obligation to talk about anything other than what one wants to talk about. Here, the resistance to the request to make the segue is a statement of principle of one’s right to determine entirely for oneself what one talks about (at least in their own thread).
Once again to the last, I think the question that has to be asked here is “why is this principle worth so much to you if the only upshot of its application in the present case is to make someone else upset while preserving ambiguity on an issue you agree on?” It’s akin how PG talks about folks who deliberately flout “PC” norms to shout out a commitment to free speech. What they’re saying is that they find this particular affirmation of “free speech” to be significantly more important than avoiding gratutiously causing pain.
But also I think we’re seeing something flowing out of the norm that’s been articulated here, that because Maia created a new post her dialogic obligations were exhausted. I understand the spirit in which she created a new post — she wanted to talk about something other than my topic, and didn’t want to derail. I appreciate that. But, the new post is still in a relationship of dialogue to the old one, and this is what makes it distinct from a situation where, say, Maia wrote a statement supporting the strike in a world where I never posted on Alas. She had no obligation to say anything in response to my post (affirming, critiquing, whatever). But once she joined the conversation — once she used my post as a “hook” to transition into the topic and specifically cast herself as against what I had written — that triggers the norms and standards I’ve been articulating.
Maia post was a response to my post, albeit only part of it — still, my post was the proximate cause that led to the writing of her post. Her post is best seen not as atomic vis-a-vis mine, but as a move in the conversation. They are in a relationship with each other, and that needs to be kept in mind when thinking about how we frame what we write. Consequently, the obligations latent in respectful dialogue, including the obligation to segue, are still present.
Indeed, this whole controversy exhibits a problem with viewing every thread — even threads which are clearly linked together (in this case, literally) — as atomized and isolated. The problem I had with what was going on fell in the interstices between the two threads: it was about Maia’s post, but it wasn’t about what Maia’s post was about. One can punt and just create a new thread (which of course, is what has just happened), but again, that feels escalating. Better, I think, to explicitly view posts that are in dialogue with each other as being part of a conversation and proceeding from there.
The point is, something as basic as a segue — pairing a transition to a different topic or speaker with an acknowledgement and affirmation of what came before, and linking the new to the old — is more than just a polite pleasantry. It occupies an extremely important role in making discussion possible. It affirms equal standing, it reduces conflict, and it offers an antidote to mistrust as to why one is changing the subject. It is, I think, the best way of mediating between the twin obligations in conversation: the need to respect what the interlocutor is saying, and the ability for the conversation to branch out and move in new directions.