I first started participating in internet discussions in college back in 1988, when the internet was still called "Bitnet." I particularly enjoyed the political discussions, so I am well used to the heated arguments that tend to develop.
I'm also still amazed at how often people resort to insults and name-calling. The ad hominem attack isn't new. We see it a lot on what passes for television commentary today, but poet, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), was a master at the ad hominem. (Two poems about a politician named Richard Tighe, with whom Swift disagreed.) Still, it may be old, but it's not a very useful type of argument. It only serves to make the individual you're arguing with either angry at you, or depressed about themselves, or both.
I like to put a little twist on the schoolyard chant:
Sticks and stones
may break some bones
but the hurt from words
There's a poem, Incident, by Countee Cullen (1903-1946) that makes this point well.
About 12 years ago I read a book that made an incredible impression on me. "Words that Hurt, Words that Heal" by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. He talks about the power of words, mixing religious quotes, with anecdotes from the newspaper and history. He covers a lot of ground from malicious (and non-malicious) gossip to criticism to public humiliation. He also discusses how to use the power of words for good.
Telushkin begins by arguing that the tongue is the most difficult muscle in the body for most people to control. If you think you can control your tongue, he suggests attempting to go 24 hours without saying something negative about anyone. To their face, or behind their back. And if we can't do that, we have to admit we have a problem, because if we can't go 24 hours without drinking, or without smoking, we know we are addicted. And we know we need help. [And I'm not referring to negative things about politicians. I'm referring to negative things about your neighbor, your postman, your cousin, your co-worker, or even your friend.]
It should be noted that Telushkin admits he struggles with it at times. I do, too. All of humanity does. But the point is to struggle with it, and reduce the hurt we cause from our words.
A few quotes
Whoever shames his neighbor in public, it is as if he shed his blood.”—(Babylonian Talmud. Bava Mezia 58b)
Before you criticize somebody, ask yourself three questions:
1. How do I feel about offering this criticism? Does it give me pleasure or pain?
If part of you is looking forward to it, hold back. Your motives are probably at least partly insincere (you don’t so much wish to help this person as relish cutting him down to size) and your listener will probably respond defensively and reject your critique.
If the thought of critiquing another pains you, yet you feel impelled to speak up, do so. Your motives are probably sincere; your concern for the other person will shine through, making it likely that he or she will be able to accept, or at least hear, your criticism.
2. Does my criticism offer specific ways to change?
3. Are my words non-threatening and reassuring?
When offering criticism …remember the three sugestions of Moses Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher and RabbiIf you'd like to read more about what Rabbi Telushkin has to say:
1. Administer the rebuke in private.
2. Speak to the offender gently and tenderly
3. Point out that he is only speaking for the wrongdoer’s own good.