On Engaging Respectfully

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“Engaging respectfully with others” is a theme in all my textbooks, as is the need to learn how to engage with people you don’t agree with. I’ve been brought back to this topic lately close to home. I live in a small, managed community on the northern California coast dedicated to “living lightly with the land” and one another. The pandemic has brought hardships here, as everywhere, and tempers have frayed—lately over issues such as carbon sequestration, expansion of our homeowner association facilities, and—most acutely—over astronomical legal fees few seem to understand and steep increases in dues.

While I have seen far more vitriol on social media, some rancor has been evident on our local list serv, though people disagree even on that: some say there’s been no rancor or vitriol, just “the truth and tough facts,” while others disagree strenuously.

Lately some members have made pleas for better and more open listening, and especially for “more respect, kindness, and humility in our discourse.” One person recommended that we remember, and carefully consider, the Rotary International Four-Way Test­—"Is it the TRUTH? Is it FAIR to all concerned? Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS? Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?”—while another sent in a “think before you speak” poster from her elementary child’s classroom that asks of what you are going to say: “Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it important? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” And yet another person recommended that as we communicate with one another, we will be wise to focus on “Inquiry over Advocacy, Learning over Blame, and Impact over Intent.”

All good advice—in fact, words to live and act by. But these guidelines rest on an enthymeme—or unstated assumption—that all people are worthy of and deserve respect. Articulating this assumption has provoked big-time response from my students, so much so that I have to allow plenty of time in class for discussion and debate, and we have to agree on some rules of the road, such as how long any one person can speak, how we will take turns and respond to one another, etc. I find students pretty evenly divided right now, with many insisting that respect is a human right that applies to everyone and with many others disagreeing. Both sides can offer multiple examples in support of their conviction, and a few insist that “it all depends.” Almost all students I’ve explored this question with draw the line at personal safety, saying that engaging respectfully demands that you be safe from attack, violence, and harm.

Of course, this principle raises other thorny questions, such as what constitute “harm.”

The best we can usually do is work through a few hypothetical case studies together, trying to decide whether the people involved can and should engage respectfully or, if not, what they should do, just how they should disengage, or how they might de-escalate the situation.

These are scenarios and questions I would not have thought to ask my students 20 years ago, but today they seem important and necessary. Now I’m thinking hard about how to answer them in my textbooks that want to help all college students. It’s a tall order, and I’ll write more when I have a better handle on practical, helpful guidelines and suggestions. In the meantime, I would be grateful for some help from my wise and generous colleagues.

Image Credit: "Speech bubbles at Erg" by Marc Wathieu, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.