It’s the one-year anniversary of the Fancy Comma, LLC newsletter! Thanks for sticking with us in 2021 — we wish you happy holidays and a happy new year ahead!
In non-COVID times, the holidays have stereotypically been a time for awkward discussions at family gatherings. Indeed, it can be tough navigating the discussion on hot button topics. In this post from Fancy Comma, LLC’s Kelly Tabbutt, learn some tips for writing about hot button topics.
What is a “Hot Button” Topic?
What makes a topic a “hot button” one? A “hot button” topic is one which stirs emotional responses and compels discussion and decision-making based on knee-jerk reaction rather than informed reasoning. Today, a few of the most salient “hot button” topics include COVID vaccination, US-Middle East policy, racism, marriage equality, immigration, crime, and the criminal justice system.
It’s important to talk about hot button topics, because if you can’t talk about a problem, you can’t work towards its solution.
Here are a few tips to help you talk or write about hot button topics. Above all, you want to make sure that you are working to build a dialogue or productive debate rather than a shouting match. The keys to maintaining your cool and inspiring others to do the same are to focus on reliable, unbiased facts; avoid incendiary or opinion-based language; and seek to present and understand all sides.
1. Stick to the Facts
Hot button topics are often productively discussed with reference to facts. Of course, there are some topics where the facts can tell many different stories, or even topics which are not debatable with facts. There, your strategy could be to seek understanding, empathy, and common ground. Where facts (such as statistics, interviews or observation, or experiments) are a relevant basis for discussion, one thing that can help is to direct the discussion to the most straightforward meaning that is agreed upon among field experts.
If you are discussing a “hot button” topic, you likely already have some idea about the merits of the argument(s). However, even if you are making an argument – especially so – you must let the facts speak for themselves. This will not only ensure that your discussion stays well-reasoned, but it will act as a check against your own biases. Rather than saying that a perspective is valid, state the relevant facts and let the validity be determined by those facts.
2. Use Reliable, Unbiased Sources
Focusing on the validated theories, careful research, and (if available) peer-reviewed findings of field experts is vital. For example, when discussing your views on COVID-19 vaccination, you can draw from findings in the biomedical research realm, perhaps incorporating the most up-to-date thinking about the causes of vaccine hesitancy. Peer-reviewed research is the gold standard for science, and unless you have verified evidence to the contrary, it is best to focus on commonly-held theories and interpretations in the mainstream. Of course, it is also important to have sufficient science literacy to make your own judgement about the science. If you have a science background and are discussing science with nonscientists, you will also have to rely on your science communication skills, which matter just as much as the facts.
Sticking to recent, commonly accepted, tested research increases the likelihood of reliability. However, it may not ensure impartiality. It is important to determine what “horses” the researcher could have “in the race.” For example, what biases or objectives might the funding source(s) have for this research? Is the validity of the researcher’s previous work at stake?
3. Avoid Emotive Language
Sticking to the facts and making sure those facts represent commonly accepted and validated theories and methods is vital to maintaining a balanced discussion. However, it does not guarantee a cool head. It is critical when discussing contentious topics to maintain a neutral tone. This means avoiding emotive or incendiary language. Think about the connotations your words may have or the emotions they may inspire: do they read as inherently negative or positive?
Use precise language. This includes avoiding absolutes, especially when talking about a group: avoid saying such individuals or group always/never does something. It also includes the “ecological fallacy” (equating the group with the individual or vice versa). Do not confuse discrete actions with trends: when discussing individual behavior, do not equate it with group tendencies, and vice versa. When you discuss trends, be explicit about the context of the trends.
4. Avoid Editorializing
Similarly, and related to the idea of sticking to the facts, when discussing contentious “hot button” topics, it is critical to avoid editorializing. Editorializing generally means painting a one-sided picture which relies on or expresses personal opinions rather than facts. If you must state your opinion, but explicit that it is opinion and not fact.
Sometimes our ideas and conclusions, especially around “hot button” topics, can become so entangled with our beliefs and opinions that it is difficult to distinguish them. Avoid basing your discussion on statements of opinion. Sticking to information from reliable, unbiased experts will help avoid this pitfall. In expressing the meaning of a fact, avoid making moral or character judgments. Try to avoid discussing something as inherently good or bad (a value statement); rather, think in terms of benefits and detriments.
5. Play Devil’s Advocate
When discussing a “hot button” topic, particularly one that relies on information that could have multiple interpretations or is inherently unable to be proven with 100% assuredness, it is vital to take the position that “there are two sides to every story.” This does not mean that each side is based on equally validated or unbiased information. However, it does mean remaining skeptical about each side and understanding that there may be some validity in each.
Regardless of how valid or invalid any one side of the argument may be, to have a productive discussion you must understand all sides of the issue. Playing devil’s advocate is a useful practice for this purpose. It is the practice of fighting from both sides of the debate. Essentially, it involves pre-empting alternative explanations or counter evidence. Not only will it make for a more holistic viewpoint, it will also illuminate the gaps in each side of the argument.
Cooler Heads Will Prevail
Stark polarization around “hot button” topics involving politics, race, gender, sexuality, and criminal justice are trademarks of the current era. These topics, and opinions about them, seem to confront us everywhere we turn. If you are teaching, learning, writing, or just talking about these important topics, whether in a professional, academic, or lay setting, it is vital to maintain a cool head. There are many pressing problems in society today, and we must all work together to solve important problems of our time. It is vital to seek connection rather than contention.
What we’ve been reading (and writing):
Freelance journalists, have you seen this blog about ways to get on an editor’s go-to roster?
Assessing business risks is an important part of being a freelancer and small business owner. I like this post about 5 Silent Risks to Your Business (including what to do about them) from Black Freelance.
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