Constructive Dialogue for Dummies

Thinking before you speak in the digital age

By Hugh Upsher

So far, 2016 has seemed to be an endless stream of important social dialogues online. No matter what your perspective is, there's no denying there's a greater sense of woke-ness about the last year or so. I have arguably learned more from hashtags like #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall and #BlackLivesMatter than I did during my four years of tertiary education. Navigating these layered and sensitive issues is a skill in itself – a skill I have had to develop through much trial and error and time. Here's what I’ve learned so far.

Listen Up

In online conversations, try your best to avoid knee-jerk responses. You’ll see a headline and it irks you in a way that ignites some righteous crusade within you. It compels you to stamp down whatever pours out of the top of your dome in that moment. Once posted, you feel vindicated, like you’ve somehow slain some digital dragon, only to realise two hours later that not only did you miss the boat entirely, but you’ve belly flopped into the harbour water below too.    

Basically: More reading, less writing. More listening and less disrupting.

Don’t be an ass

Knowledge is power, and when you make assumptions it displays a dangerous lack of knowledge. Everyone makes assumptions every day. It’s an organic way for your brain to create shortcuts so it doesn’t have to think too hard all the time. The reason why this doesn’t work so well is because you’re filling in blanks to a story you have no way of knowing. Like when you assume a new bar will have a card machine because it’s 2016, but it doesn’t and your night is now ruined. Unless you’re intimately familiar with the struggles a person has been through to get to the point that they're at, you’re better off holding on to your two cents.

Basically: Assuming is a form of pre-judging, and prejudice is an action linked directly to sexism, xenophobia and racism (which we can all agree is wrong).

Be a feminist

You don’t need a literal badge or hate all penises to join this club. A feminist is simply someone who wants equal treatment of all people. It means you acknowledge that things like wage gaps, street harassment and Donald Trump shouldn’t exist in 2016. It means not always going out of your way to play devil's advocate for any progressive argument put forward by a woman.

Basically: Acknowledge that we live in an unequal society and strive to be part of the solution.

 Don’t believe the truth

The internet has brought on the democracy of information, and this beautifully flawed system has given a voice to the voiceless while simultaneously smearing filth around like a dog that's rolled in its own shit. What I mean is that the source of the information you take in is now just as important as the information itself. If you wanted to know what kind of person your new crush was like, you’d get two very different answers if you asked their mom versus asking their jilted ex. Every author will have an agenda, whether it’s rooting for a particular side or sensationalising a story for more attention. The author usually has the best intentions but the road to hell is paved with those.

Basically: Keep in mind that every story has seven sides to it, so always try to get a balanced viewpoint before taking a stance.

If you choose to engage in online conversation around a sensitive subject, remember to be compassionate, open-minded and respectful. Speak to people as if they are in the same room as you. Don’t be that condescending dick that hides behind a digital wall and blasts ill-informed generalisations and illogical comparisons. As the classic South African proverb goes “Don’t be kak, be lekker.”