So I’m taking part in some online discussion or other, and I mention in passing a particular view that I hold.

Not in the context of trying to persuade anyone else that my view is right – just mentioning it, in the same way that someone might mention they prefer vanilla to chocolate, or that they are into Dr Who, or, perhaps an example that is closer to the sort of thing I mean, that they’re vegetarians because they believe eating animals is wrong.

Say someone mentions in passing that they’re vegetarians because they believe eating animals is wrong. Say you disagree. First I think you need to ask yourself: is this relevant to the discussion we’re having? If it’s a debate about the rights and wrongs of eating meat, then obviously your views on the subject are relevant. If it’s a discussion about the cost of hamburgers at McDonald’s vs. Burger King, then the fact that this person believes it’s wrong to eat meat is irrelevant, they’ve probably just mentioned they’re vegetarian as a way of explaining why they aren’t personally interested in these hamburgers.

But even if it is relevant to the discussion, there are ways and ways of expressing your disagreement.

Here’s one way I’ve come across, which I feel is disrespectful: without finding out how the person came to the conclusion that eating meat is wrong, you start lecturing them about why eating meat is perfectly ethical, saying things that pretty much everyone has heard already so they’re highly unlikely to be new to this person, and telling them categorically that a balanced diet must include meat.

I’ve heard women refer to this sort of thing as “mansplaining” (a hybrid word made up of “man” and “explaining”) – a patronising thing men sometimes do, starting to explain things to you as though you are an imbecile, as though you obviously don’t know anything about the subject in hand, as though you can’t possibly have researched it and thought it through. Much as I’m tempted to go with this term (because I have seen men do this) I can’t, because I’ve also had women do this to me sometimes, lecturing me as though I’m an idiot and need to have everything explained to me very very slowly, starting right from the beginning – just because I happened to disagree with them.

It seems to me that sometimes people simply hold their view so highly that they can’t conceive of the possibility that an intelligent human being would come to the opposite conclusion, so if you mention you believe the opposite of what they believe, they automatically assume that you can’t possibly have thought it through and that if only they explain it to you, you’ll immediately see the error of your ways.

I know there are people in the world who hold views, even strongly, without having thought them through. I’ve met people like that. I just wish people didn’t assume that about me. I find it patronising, and totally unhelpful to constructive debate. If you want to engage with me in dialogue about stuff we disagree about, start with the assumption that I have actually thought about this stuff and that I know the basics.

And start from an acceptance that there is room for more than one point of view. Start from accepting my right to hold opinions even if you think they’re rubbish.

Also: just because the general consensus in Western society in 2012 is X, that doesn’t mean each and every person has to accept X as right. (This should really go without saying, especially considering that the general consensus seems to be that people are entitled to have their own opinions and to express them.) If Western society today said we should all jump off a bridge, here’s hoping some of us wouldn’t.

Questions? Thoughts? Talk to me - I don't bite :)

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