There’s a joke you probably know:
A dairy farmer wants to increase the production of milk from her cows. To do this, she hires three consultants – an engineer, a psychologist, and a physicist.
After a week, the engineer comes back with a report. He says: “If you want to increase milk production, you need to get bigger milk pumps and bigger tubes to suck the milk through.”
Next comes the psychologist. He says: “One way to get the cows to produce more milk is to make them calm and happy. Paint the milking stalls green. This will make the cows think of grass and happy fields.”
Finally, the physicist comes to present her ideas. She says: “Assume the cow is a sphere….”
The point of the joke is pretty straightforward: over-simplifying can lead to irrelevant models. Cows aren’t spheres: they are complicated, messy creatures.
So are humans.
I like to debate. It’s one of my favorite ways to learn. I find myself engaging in discussions, especially online, every day. But it can be incredibly frustrating to see people enter a conversation with a spherical cow mindset: as though the discussion exists in a perfect vacuum, undisturbed by the particular histories of the individuals debating, by their personalities, by the medium of the debate, by the tones adopted and the power dynamics involved in who is framing the debate and who is speaking and when.
I call this the spherical elephant in the room, because these factors have a vast yet unacknowledged influence on the outcome of a discussion. They’re in play in any debate, regardless of topic or participants, but they’re especially critical when talking about oppression or with members of an oppressed group.
I have seen conversations where one discussant turns the lived experiences of another into “interesting hypotheticals” as though it’s trivially easy to be unemotional about memories of abuse, harassment and discrimination. I have seen people demand that the person they’re debating explain a concept to them without respecting that oppressed people are frequently asked the same questions over and over and that it is often trivially easy for one to educate oneself. I have seen people use silencing and derailing techniques without even realizing they’re doing so.
If your goal is understand or to persuade, rather than to “win”, it behooves you to recognize the subtle complexity of any given discussion. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to make sure you’re not ignoring the spherical elephant in the room:
- How does the topic we’re discussing affect individuals lives? Could my discussion partner have experienced those effects? Could their loves ones or community members have experienced them?
- Is this a conversation my partner has had before? (If you don’t know, you can ask!) Have I educated myself on the topic before engaging?
- Am I controlling the flow of conversation? Am I asking most of the questions? Am I interrupting their responses? Is one of us speaking more than the other?
- What medium are we using? If it’s a public or recorded medium, does my partner face professional consequences or the potential of attacks from trolls? If audience members are known to my partner, might that influence or limit what they feel comfortable talking about?
- What tone am I using when debating? Am I coming across as aggressive, condescending, or angry? Is my discussion partner likely to have been socialized to be less assertive?
This is not an exhaustive list – and yet it sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? But with practice, these questions become second nature. And by asking them, you cultivate two important traits – important for debaters, and for people, generally: good will and empathy towards those you interact with, and respect for the messiness of life.