Sarah's critique

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Sarah Street Cyber One: Nesson, Fall 2007

Response to Bless Who? Stop Responding to Sneezes

“Bless who?” contains an entertaining and simple argument, that responding to sneezes has no real social significance, wastes time and should be eliminated. Responding to sneezing is socially pervasive, thus changing attitudes about this practice requires reaching a large group of people of various backgrounds and beliefs. The platform used to convey the argument along with the clarity, simplicity and brevity of the argument itself succeed in making the argument palatable to a large section of the computer using population. The substance of the argument, however fails at being universally empathic.

Evaluation of the Method of Conveying the Argument

The argument is conveyed through a facebook group, which I believe was a wise choice. Facebook is used by students and members of the public as a social networking site. It is easy to use and has thousands if not millions of diverse users. Features of facebook make it ideal for spreading an argument beyond the creator’s initial group of online friends and acquaintances. This is particularly true when the argument is regarding a topic that is not widely considered by the public.

Internet users find websites in a variety of ways including clinking on links sent by friends, searching the web or stumbling upon a site. Here, the topic of the argument is something that most people have not deeply considered. Most internet users would not seek out debate on acknowledging sneezing thus viewers would likely only reach the site after being referred to it by a friend. If the argument was conveyed through a website it would be difficult to attract a wide audience.

Facebook provides quick and easy access to the general public and allows for fast distribution of an argument to a diverse group. There are millions of facebook users, many of whom spend hours surfing around the site. Clicking, viewing and spreading a facebook group is simple; requiring little effort or time. A facebook user’s group memberships are displayed to his online friends. A facebook user is certainly more likely click and view a group regarding a topic they had not deeply considered which appears on a friends page, then to search the internet for the same topic. This is because it can be done simply and quickly. Facebook allows the message to be passed from person to person and spreading the argument from the initial viewer to all the viewer’s friends requires no action by the initial viewer other joining the group.

The universal nature of responding to sneezes requires an argument advocating change to be simple and straight forward so that everyone can understand. “Bless Who?” puts the argument in terms that everyone can understand, while not over simplifying the key points. The argument is brief and takes only minutes to read holding the readers attention on a subject they may not necessarily care deeply about. Most people would be willing to invest the minute to read the argument. The argument’s concise nature and use of humor helps to ensure that the average reader will not get distracted or bored and leave the page. In sum, “Bless Who?” conveys its message in a highly effective manner.


Substantive Evaluation of the Empathic Argument

In order to make a compelling empathic argument, the speaker must make an initial attempt to understand the other side’s viewpoint. The speaker must then frame the argument and issues in a manner that both parties can agree upon, creating a universal shared foundation for discussion and persuasion.

Attempting to understand the other side’s point of view is far more difficult and complex then simply imaging stepping into the other side’s shoes. When we attempt to imagine stepping into another’s shoes, we inherently draw on our own perspective and history as imagine and interpret the other side’s viewpoint. In simple terms, we imagine them being us and not necessarily themselves in a whole form. As a result the “understanding” created by imagining another’s viewpoint relies heavily on assumptions and fails to appreciate the complex personal perspective and histories that form the other side’s view. A better way of attempting to understand the other side’s point of view is to acknowledge that there may be aspects of another person’s viewpoint which are formed by personal history and perspective that we are unable to understand but are important and valid. Understanding is formed by creating space and dialogue for the differing perspectives and histories which form the other side’s viewpoint.

A speaker desiring to make an empathic argument must frame the facts and issues in a way that creates a common ground which recognizes and accommodates a multiplicity of perspectives including those which the speaker is unable to understand. This requires the speaker to give the audience the power to apply the argument to their own unique realities. In creating this common ground and making his arguments, the speaker must actively resist relying on assumptions regarding the other side’s viewpoint or constraining the applicability of the argument by use of universalisms. This is particularly true when the argument is being made to the general public over a medium such as the internet due to the diversity of perspectives. 1

The argument contained in “Bless Who” advocates for an end to responding to sneezing. The basic argument is saving time and minimizing interruptions is important and beneficial to our lives thus wasting time and interrupting conversation should only be done for an important reason/ people respond to sneezing for reason X,Y, and Z which are all unimportant/ therefore people should not respond to sneezes. The substantive argument in “Bless Who” draws heavily on perceived universalisms and assumptions regarding the other side’s point of view. Thus it creates an overly narrow argument that largely fails at being a strongly empathic.

“Bless Who?” begins with the assumption that saving time and minimizing interruptions to the conversational flow are universally important. This is framed as the primary harm of responding to sneezes. This initial assumption is problematic because it limits the applicability and empathy of the argument only to those who share the perspective that saving time and reducing interruptions are important. Additionally, this assumption excludes the possibility that there may be other valid reasons for ending the practice of responding to sneezes. “Bless Who?” fails to consider and make the argument relevant to those with divergent perspectives. While we live in an age of fast food, speed dating and a “time is money” mentality, more and more people are challenging the assumption that faster and streamlined is better. This can be seen in the growing “slow movement”2. It would have been a stronger empathic argument to acknowledge his perspective on the benefits of ending responses to sneezes and encourage the public to consider if there would be benefits from their own perspective3. This would create a broader more universally applicable and empathic argument.

“Bless Who?” cites several common reasons why people continue to respond to sneezes, then attempts to persuade the audience as to why these reasons are frivolous. This draws heavily on the creator’s own perspective of the merit of these reasons. The argument attempts to persuade and convince the audience to share his perspective. Framing the argument this way only allows for acceptance or denial of the speaker’s perspective and does not encourage the audience member to make the argument his own. A stronger empathic argument would outline these same common reasons acknowledge the speaker’s perspective their merit then to encourage the audience to consider and critically evaluate their own reasons, compelling the audience to make the argument their own. This changes the argument from advocating for agreement with the speakers perspective to an argument which advocates that the audience member critically consider their own reasons according to their own perspectives.

One highlight of the argument in terms of empathy is found in the summation. It encourages individuals to respond if they feel it to be necessary and argues against an all or nothing approach. This allows for multiple divergent perspectives and individualized considerations. The best empathic arguments enable the speaker to persuade across differences of perspective, encourage the speaker and the audience to work collaboratively and persuade the audience to make the argument their own. This specific argument achieves those goals and reflects potential to create a larger empathic argument.

1 My understanding of empathic argument is drawn from class discussion. In addition, my understanding draws on the work of Iris Marion Young “Asymmetrical Reciprocity: On Moral Respect, Wonder, and Enlarged Thought," Constellations: An International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory, Volume 3, no.3, January 1997, pp. 340-363

2 The slow movement argues that fast pace and streamlining cause a host of problems and advocate for people taking things slowly. It originated in Italy with the Slow Food Movement which critiqued fast food and has grown into a larger subculture which includes slow travel, slow living, and slow shopping. Personally, I am a fan of the slow movement. Check out www.slowmovement.com www.theworldinstituteofslowness.com and the very funny www.slowdownnow.org

3 It is possible that someone who responds to sneezes because they want to let the sneezer know they care about their health and well being may choose to stop responding in order encourage themselves to make that acknowledgement to the persons they care about more overtly. Ie Instead of saying God bless you when someone sneezes make a point of telling the people you care about how you feel. This argument would be applicable to people who do not prescribe to the view that saving time is important.