Tracey Barnett
Tracey Barnett is a Herald columnist

Tracey Barnett: Good arguments turn bad without some respect


A couple of years ago, a crowd of about 500 people at Auckland University were milling about after a talk given by a visiting international journalist.

Three young men, maybe students, suddenly yelled out across the room towards the author, who was seated at a table signing books, and in my direction. The room quieted for a second, unable to get the gist of their outburst. When their shouts didn't continue, people began talking again, ignoring it.

A few minutes later, when my partner and I walked out of the building to leave, the same young men were outside.

When they noticed me, one began yelling in my direction to get my attention. I suddenly realised their original shouts had been directed at me, not the author.

I approached them and tried to listen to their arguments about US involvement in 9/11, asking a couple of questions, but it was obvious that frustrated them more. They wanted a verbal fight, a scene to showcase their bravado. I wasn't helping by not fighting back.

After a few minutes, when I realised the loud words were more important than getting me to understand what they believed, I gave up and excused myself.

One of the three even tried to apologise as we left, perhaps realising how aggressive they had been. In the midst of it, I noticed my partner had moved a few steps closer to me.

What has always stayed in my mind, even years later, is that I am still surprised that their first approach was shouting. I have no memory of the content. All their arguments melted away under the weight of their aggressive anger. The thing that I appreciated most in their original intent - their passion - was completely buried by how they presented it.

I'm in the business of argument. No one need apologise to me when they feel passionately about an issue.

I appreciate a good fracas. But that one interaction has always felt like a sad marker of something I've seen change even in the last decade, a middle finger to our ability to respect the person alongside their argument.

I walked away wondering how these men first learned that yelling wins. That disdain works. That common civility doesn't apply to an individual if you don't like their views.

That exchange was rare, but there is a flip side to this weird division between private actions and public respect.

Without doubt, the thing I enjoy most about being a columnist are reader responses. You make me laugh, keep me honest, educate me - some of you are obviously paid $5 cheques annually by my mother to say nice things - and I usually try to respond. But something strange happens when I do: I don't think anyone expects it.

This is especially true when the comments are particularly cutting and personal. A letter might allude to placing my views where the sun 'n' air don't shine but everything changes when I write back - that is, when I become real.

Suddenly, their demeanour improves. They go from Ozzy Osbourne to Justin Bieber. Words are tempered into kinder, and more socially acceptable language. Immediately, that strange wall of safety, that false anonymity, is broken and usually a respectful exchange is restored.

There is a civility split the moment we perceive our arguments are either safely anonymous or for public digestion. Why should anyone be perfectly comfortable saying revolting things in a crowd, but may not have the heart to say it one-on-one over a beer?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not preaching against scrappy, impassioned diatribes - they're the best kind. What I'm saying is this: Don't split who you are. Apply the same standards of respect in every element of your life.

Be able to say the same words, with the same amount of personal consideration in a blog post, on the floor of Parliament, or in an unsigned email, as you would face-to-face.

During the George W. Bush years, I once went to an event at the American embassy in Ireland. There in the foyer of this beautiful estate were framed "family" pictures of my least favourite politicians of the day, Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld. I couldn't help myself. I turned over the Bush portrait and put it face down on the desk. It was ruining my digestion.

I've always wondered if I would have had the civility to shake Bush's hand if I had met him while he was in office. I like to think I wouldn't have. But the difference is, I know I couldn't have brought myself to spit at him, or yell, or waterboard his dog. Just to say my piece, I would have simply begged like hell to sit next to him at dinner.

* Note to my good readers: I will be on hiatus for a while. I look forward to seeing you back here in a couple of months. or Twitter @TraceyBarnett

- NZ Herald

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