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When debates sound more like radical EMS evangelism, everyone loses

Shouting “Show me the evidence or STFU!” squashes any chance of persuasion and intimidates those who want to learn

Let’s say you’re walking down the sidewalk, and there’s a strident guy up ahead shouting into a megaphone. He’s wearing a sandwich board with scripture on it, perhaps a verse from Revelation. Or maybe he’s quoting Leviticus, railing against gay people.

Do you stop and listen, or do you sidle over to the other side of the street and pretend you don’t see him?

Or perhaps you happen upon a group of people protesting in a local park. For the most part, they’re peaceful, but there’s one guy sporting a full beard and wearing a kufi, and he’s shouting “Allahu akbar! Death to America!”

Do you stop and engage that guy in conversation, try to determine what legitimate grievances he may have? Or does the xenophobia kick in, and you apply all sorts of fear and stereotypes to a man you’ve never met?

If you’re like most people, you assume those guys aren’t interested in a philosophical debate or even a civil conversation. And certainly, they’re not interested in your viewpoint. It’s best not to even engage them. Just walk on by.

And that’s what 95 percent of the followers on EMS social media forums do when we’re performing a keyboard beat-down on some poor schmuck unlucky enough to incur our wrath. Some unsuspecting commenter regurgitates a piece of dogma, something he was probably taught in EMT class, and the ravening horde descends.

“Anecdote does not equal data!”

“Willful ignorance!”

“Cite a study or STFU!”

“I’m not saying the commenter suffers from the Dunning-Kruger effect… but it’s the Dunning-Kruger effect.”

But when it comes to convincing people, we’re the ones guilty of illusory superiority.

We watch the likes pile up on our Internet smack-down, instant validation of the rightness of our position. Yet we fail to consider that most of the people liking our comments aren’t the ones we need to convince, and the guy we’re humiliating will likely never agree with us, either.

Meanwhile, 95 percent of the people whose opinions can be swayed are sidling over to I Can Has Cheezburger? to look at funny cat pictures. They’ve got the good sense not to get in the middle of an Internet war between poo-flinging monkeys, even if our side’s monkeys can cite sound scientific evidence.

Radical EMS evangelism doesn’t win debates

That’s a lesson it took me a long time to learn. Heck, I’m still learning it. There are still times when some commenters push my buttons, and I dash off an immensely satisfying reply, much to the amusement of my Facebook friend army. Except, that old adage often still applies: “If it felt good saying it, it was probably the wrong thing to say.”

That’s one reason I stopped following many of those Facebook pages. They brought out the worst in me, and it took the counsel of some wise friends to make me realize that I can be right and still lose the argument. I may be able to deliver the better insult, but the objective of the debate is to win over the guy on the other side, and all the people listening on the sidelines.

Shouting “Evidence or STFU!” at some guy on the Internet does not accomplish that, no matter how good it felt to say. It’s the “Allahu akbar!” of EMS advocacy and evidence-based medicine. It doesn’t encourage dialogue, it squashes it.

Passion alone doesn’t win arguments. You need persuasion.

A shameful lesson in intimidation

Long before there was Facebook, a few dedicated EMS professionals conversed on a number of Internet bulletin boards and email discussion lists. And I’d wade into those discussions, stating strong positions like I tend to do. I’d disagree with something someone said, and totally shred their argument. Most people on the list would choose sides, and the vast majority of the time, my side won the debate.

I have always adhered to a simple Internet code of conduct: debate fiercely and passionately, but never engage in ad hominem attacks.

But too often, my out clause was, “If someone engages in an ad hominem attack first, then it’s game on. Go for the throat.”

And then I’d get an email from the den-mother on the list, the one usually wise enough to stay above the fray. “Kelly,” she’d tell me, “you’re scaring the babies again.

Invariably, some of the lurkers would email her and ask, “What’s the deal with that Grayson guy? I mean, he makes a good point, but is he always like that?”

Come to think of it, “Well, HE started it!” never really worked on my parents or teachers in junior high school, either.

As an educator and EMS advocate, it was pretty shaming for me to learn that some people wouldn’t approach me simply because I intimidated them. I intimidated my first EMS employer 22 years ago, and just recently I learned that a former partner’s timidity on scene was because she was terrified of looking stupid in front of me, merely because of what she had heard about me from everyone else.

“Kelly’s so smart. He knows a lot about EMS. He can teach you so much.”

Flattering words, but they’re not very useful to a newbie paralyzed by performance anxiety. And sometimes, the newbie does like my partner did; never speaks up, never gets over her timidity. She just requests a less-intimidating partner, and maybe winds up with an amiable idiot who teaches her yet more dogma.

Nobody wins in that scenario, and I can’t help but imagine many of the lurkers on those EMS social media forums are a lot like my former partner. There’s a way to reach those people, and it’s by being less of a scornful know-it-all, and more of a wise and trusted friend.

Radical EMS evangelism may be great for making a big display of your own education and smarts, but it doesn’t win you many converts. columnist Kelly Grayson, is a paramedic ER tech in Louisiana. He has spent the past 14 years as a field paramedic, critical care transport paramedic, field supervisor and educator. Kelly is the author of the book Life, Death and Everything In Between, and the popular blog A Day in the Life of An Ambulance Driver.