I’ve occasionally remarked that social media is an occupational hazard of nonprofit promotion. This has felt especially true the past couple months, as I’ve begun cultivating an active, daily presence on Twitter. On the plus side, Twitter’s proven a surprisingly effective means of connecting with people outside my social and Sudbury circles. Less surprising has been the difficulty of conducting a robust argument in this forum.
The reason for this lies not so much in the obvious fact that Twitter is defined by its limited, 140-character soundbites. Rather, what I’m discovering is that my experience in the Sudbury world has led me to expect more developed and widespread skill in arguing than appears to be the case in society at large.
Another regular observation of mine is that it’s easier to argue politics and religion than education, because disagreeing on the running of the country or universe is nothing compared to disputes on raising children. After 17 years of promoting Sudbury schools, I’m used to people reacting with varying degrees of discomfort at the notion that young people not only can, but should, be trusted to direct their own education, that giving them full measures of freedom and responsibility not only works but leads to the most beautiful sorts of growth.
The aspect of this growth that I want to focus on today is the way in which time in a Sudbury environment develops one’s ability to argue—by which I mean not merely disagreeing, but doing so in a way that respects the other party or parties and focuses on the issues rather than the individual personalities.
Because democratic governance is so fundamental to Sudbury schools, students and staff get lots of practice debating all kinds of topics. Running a school with the input of multiple individuals means a near-constant series of discussions and disagreements. Should a given rule be added, amended, or removed? What’s the most fair resolution in situations where someone claims someone else has broken a rule? How should the school’s money be spent? Should this visitor or that special event be approved? What staff should be rehired for the next school year, and under what conditions?
Formal meetings at Sudbury schools are supported by procedures like Robert’s Rules, which help ensure orderly, respectful discussions. Yet even in the never-ending conversations that occur outside of meetings, I’ve noticed in my Sudbury career a level of decorum that seems sadly lacking elsewhere. Even when we Sudbury types disagree profoundly, mutual respect keeps our arguments and our relationships intact: we normally remain mindful that disagreements need not be personal, that facts, logic, and evidence should decide issues, not assumptions, wishful thinking, and force of personality.
To quote the venerable comedians of Monty Python, at Sudbury schools we remember that “an argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition,” that unlike contradiction (“the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes”), argument “is an intellectual process.” Looking to American pop culture, Sudbury people tend to mimic the coyote and sheep dog of the old Warner Brothers cartoons: during set times, we’re locked in combat; but once the whistle blows at the end of the day, we return to our cordial, respectful relationships.
I don’t believe I can overstate the importance of this. It was really brought home for me in 2012, during both the Aurora theater and Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. Obviously gun violence is a polarizing issue, one that stirs me up just like most people. Thus, what I found most amazing in the aftermath of these terrible incidents was how my Sudbury friendships enabled me to participate in reasonable discussions even on one of the most charged issues of our time.
Because I am connected on a deep level to people with widely varying beliefs, I found that we could speak directly to the issues themselves, without resorting to or being held back by instinctive, knee-jerk reactions. Because I respect my Sudbury acquaintances as individuals, and because I have experience debating respectfully with them, I could approach things from their points of view. I’m more willing, and much more able, to get past seemingly outrageous statements to see the rationale behind them.
And tell me, how often do you see that sort of thing in society at large? Seriously, I think the civil discourse, as well as the diversity of perspectives we bring together, marks yet another way in Sudbury models what’s possible and desirable. Unlike the echo chamber of Facebook and other media, and unlike the clenched-fist, playground bickering too common on Twitter, our schools show it’s possible to have entrenched differences and yet argue as equals, on the merits of each particular case. We don’t have to reach consensus; we simply have to remain rational and respectful of each other and the process.
Arguments on Twitter have revealed to me that my aversion to confrontation isn’t entirely shielded by the virtual component; nor have the equanimity and compassion I cultivate in my Zen practice attained the solidity I’d prefer. However, I am very grateful to all my Sudbury and Zen experiences for helping me remain present even in the midst of the most challenging arguments.
By the way, my Twitter handle is @numbalum89. I invite you to come join the fun and trade soundbites with me sometime…