Instruments for Activists: 1) Debate and discussions on Syria

Posted: 01/13/2016 by editormary in Activists and Activism, Grassroots Activism, Ideas and Projects, Internet and Communication, Middle East Issues, Opinions and Letters, People's Movements / Struggles, Syria

101677e1441761633o6071WRITTEN BY Mary Rizzo

There are various moments / instances involved in the act of participation in discussions/debates

  • Launching the argument (starting the discourse)
  • Entering into a discussion that is already in course
  • Leaving a discussion (or closing a discussion)

For each of these, there are factors to consider: among which

  • Who is the interlocutor
  • Who is the listening public
  • Preparation of the participants
  • Preparation of the public – present at public events, broadcasts (real) or / Internet, Facebook, comments on articles (virtual)
  • Expectations of the public

Therefore, it is essential to know three things:

  • One’s own level of preparation and that of the interlocutor,
  • Determine the interest that the public has to follow your reasoning (and therefore, to adapt yourself, if necessary, to the climate of the debate and to the new elements that have emerged during the debate),
  • Know exactly what you hope to obtain and also that which you are unwilling to compromise on in terms or conclusion. The public often determines a “winner” of a debate. This is true even regarding interventions that do not include rebuttals, because the listener evaluates whether or not his or her own position has changed as a result of what the speaker has said.

Regarding our own preparedness, we are personally responsible, therefore, we have to keep well-informed of the arguments to handle, do our research, have an archive of facts and information that are easily accessible to us. We also have to be clear and convincing in our presentation of the information. We thus have to believe in what we are saying and also be able to support it with arguments based on reason, logic, supported by data that is as recent, reliable and convincing as possible.

In consideration of the level of preparation of the interlocutor, we also must do our research. Often, it is a person who has expressed his or her positions publicly, therefore, before the encounter, it is necessary to prepare ourselves on the arguments of this person. This means that we should know not only the probable content of her or her interventions, but also the sources he or she uses, the communication style, if in the past he or she has obtained something for supporting a position (we must not forget that almost all of the Assad supporters in Italy and Europe have been guests of the regime in Damascus or they have been paid or remunerated for their interventions, articles and sites in Europe). We have to mentally anticipate the discourse of the interlocutor, know his or her sources and their reliability, and we have to understand where he or she wants to bring the argument, as well as where he or she does not want to be brought by us.

The climate of the debate could also be determined by the moderator, or when there is no moderator, by the persons on the discussion panel. At times the public could also influence the climate, particularly when the debate begins to get heated or during the Q & A. Each interlocutor always tries to have the public on its side, and therefore has to always be aware of the signals it is sending. Sometimes it is possible to know if the public is sympathetic, hostile or neutral. If one does not know, it is a good policy to assume that it is sympathetic, but not too much. The approach in this case is to explain / define some lesser-known points, but assuming that the public has basic notions and also has already formed an opinion. It is also correct to assume that your values and the values of the public are specular or similar. It is a good policy to anticipate (mentally) the questions and the worries of the public and to satisfy their need to obtain answers that are honest, concise and correct. If, during the debate, one finds oneself on the defensive, it is preferable to acts as if the public were neutral and in this case, rather than be argumentative or assuming a defensive attitude (which is not appealing to anyone), it is necessary to take a step back and explain basic concepts in which a common ground can be found once more. In this case, it is also a good practise to assume that the public is in good faith, just as you are in good faith, but only that it does not have some necessary information. Your task is to provide the information they are lacking.

Instances of discussions:  

Launch: When one begins a discourse, it should be clear what he or she hopes to obtain, but it should also be clear to the public. Therefore, decide and express immediately if it is an informational meeting, if the public will be involved in some way, if some kinds of  actions are being asked of them, if there is also going to be the presence and participation of persons with opinions that are in conflict with their own (debate), etc.

The introduction (prior to opening the participation in the debate to others) should also incorporate the point or points that are going to be addressed. It is an ACTION THAT PROPOSES AND SHOULD NOT BE REACTIVE.  It also should not anticipate conflicting opinions (which could emerge during the debate). It is important that if we are the ones to launch the discussion, the evolution of the discussion follows specific paths that we are the ones to direct. Therefore, we have to use the concept of “framing the discourse”, in which we do not allow that the argument is changed into a different argument,  we should avoid becoming distracted or brought too far away from our theme, we should not lose control and ownership of the discourse. Every time it becomes necessary, we have to know how to bring the discourse back on track. In these moments, the adversary could attempt to use various “derailment” strategies, trying to not allow us to conclude our line of reasoning, and to make us feel frustrated. It is important to NOT become frustrated, to not lose patience, but to communicate in a clear and reasonable way that the argument is going to get back on track now. Often we find that the adversary uses “argumentative or logical fallacies” which are violations of the rules of critical discourse, when he or she is unsuccessful in taking down an argument based on merit of logic of with facts. A fundamental resource of the discipline of Pragmatics and with helpful suggestions for persons engaged in public debates is the Journal of Pragmatics: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/03782166

In conclusion, if you are launching the discourse, REMAIN THE OWNER OF THE DISCOURSE.

Argument already begun: This is generally the case during events when you are on the panel but have not organised the event, when you are in the public and have asked a question or “challenge” one of the interlocutors during the Q & A, when you are participating in a radio or television broadcast, when you participate in discussion groups in Internet, when you respond to comments in articles in newspapers or on sites.

Differently from the first instance, you are more REACTIVE and are responding to the points already expressed by others. Your form of response in general would be one of demonstrating the errors (or reasoning, source, data) of the information that’s been presented, or, if it is not a contrasting opinion, but only one that is not complete, to complement the intervention with further information.

It is always important to not deviate from the theme, or you actually CAN deviate the discourse of the others as long as it is logical and correct, but NEVER violating the rules of discussion. Always avoid fallacies: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies

Leaving a discussion or closing a discussion:  If it is an event that we or others have organised, the time limit has generally been established, and we should keep the discussion always within those temporal limits. The organiser has to always advise the public that the event is coming to its closure at around fifteen minutes prior to the end, and during this time will also try to express a conclusion or, if possible, to have the final word. If you are responsible for concluding the meeting, it has to be closed in a climate that is pacific, calm and conciliatory, even if during the event there has been heated debate. Never leave the public with the sensation that you are argumentative and quarrelsome or that you hold grudges. It is equally important to avoid using expressions that are exasperated or excessive.

If it is a virtual intervention, (that is, without a known time limit or the need to bring it to a conclusion) we have to always consider if it is worthwhile to persevere or if it is more beneficial to leave the conversation. Elements to consider: number of participants, if others are influenced/can be persuaded by our intervention, how many colleagues we have to sustain us and contribute or whether we are alone against everyone.

In addition, we have to always keep in mind the type of public that is present, and to choose both the method and the arguments where we can find common ground. There are various ways to convince the public of the correctness of our argument, but it will be more effective if our language, the issues we focus on and our conclusions are easily assimilated. We should participate in debates where we can contribute in a positive way with our knowledge, and we also have to know the terrain in which we are not knowledgeable and to leave the space to colleagues who are more informed than we are or who have particular experiences and information that could reach the public. We have to be aware of our own limits and recognise the merits of others, asking them to contribute in our place when they could communicate the concepts better than we can.

Also in Italian in Le Voci Della Liberta

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