Friday, August 16, 2013

Is genealogy ready for argument?

Most of us come to genealogy thinking that we know more about it than we do. I certainly did. One tests we undergo is just how fast we can figure that out and adjust to how much there is to learn. In the process we get into arguments with our new-found colleagues.

I think argument is a good thing, both because it's a way of learning and because genealogy as a field of study has a long way to go.

So in my book it's fine to disagree, but it's also important to do it right. We don't have do be right, but we do have to play fair.

I can think of four simple rules for disagreeing without being disagreeable. Actually they're really just one rule plus commentaries. Please feel free to make additions or suggestions in the comments.

(1) Focus on the subject at hand, not the personalities. Don't say "You're crude and ignorant." Say, "I don't agree with [quote the offending matter]," and explain why. (Note that rhetorical tricks do not disguise personal attacks. It's little if any better to say, "Your statements are crude and ignorant," or "I think your statements are crude and ignorant." The point is not to draw filmy veil over our personal animus -- the point is to leave it aside and focus on the subject at hand.)

(2) Don't break rule #1 just because the other guy did.

(3) If you're not sure whether you're following rule #1 -- and even if you are -- ask yourself how you would feel if the other person said to you what you're about to say to them. Then don't do it. (Sometimes it helps to try turning your brilliant riposte into a series of inoffensive questions. Sometimes it helps to recall the last time you went ahead and said it, and how you felt the morning after. Ergo, sometimes it helps to just sleep on it.)

(4) When you do screw up anyway, back down and apologize. We all get to do this too.

I don't think there's anything snobbish or elitist or dishonest about these rules. (Do you? Why?). Nor do I think they're biased in favor of the status quo and doing things the way we've always done them. (Heck, I'm often not in favor of doing things the way we've always done them!) They're just a way for us to stick to the subject instead of getting into an actual fight -- because actual fights settle nothing.

No doubt one reason genealogists tend to be allergic to public argument is that these days most public arguments are abusive and don't follow these ground rules. Check out the comments section on almost any public (nonprofessional, nongenealogical) web site and see how long it takes the participants to start calling names.

Genealogists are already doing better than that. In a good argument everybody benefits.

Harper's Weekly, v. 3, no. 156 (1859 Dec. 24), p. 832; digital image, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (

Harold Henderson, "Is genealogy ready for argument?," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 16 August 2013 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


John D. Tew said...


Well said! Nothing to disagree with there and, as you said, it probably all boils down to a single rule echoed in your call to sleep on it, think of how you would feel if what you are about to say was said to you, and then if you decide you have transgressed, be big enough to apologize. It is another version of the age old "Golden Rule" -- "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." :-)

Nice post!

John Tew

Thomas MacEntee said...

Thanks Harold for your informative post. I've provided more details since your post is about me and my recent comments on a genealogical mailing list. I didn't want to burden your blog with the long story, so here's my post at GeneaBloggers: Genealogists: One Big Happy Fightin’ Family.


Harold Henderson said...

Thomas --

Thanks for your comment, but not everything is about you. This was a long-planned post, actually because I think genealogists don't argue enough! (I visited the same subject in a post May 17, 2012:

Wednesday's kerfuffle did not create this post, and it was not about that. I have no problem if you want to identify with it. Those events did motivate me to get it finished and posted, that much is true.

I encourage readers to visit your blog, and then to visit the archives of the Transitional Genealogists Forum to see how the exchange happened in real time, and form their own conclusions. As the moderator of the list, I was required to call you out for getting personal and not respecting the kind intentions of the list. Your response was basically to reject that rule and to leave the list. Fair enough. There was no firestorm and the list goes on.

BTW I also come from an argumentative family (so much so that I didn't even recognize the fact until I was in my 20s). That is one reason why I value the existing convention that you reject.

There are two substantive questions here that seem worth discussing:

(1) What standards do you think *are* appropriate for an email list? Is there some level of insult that you would not tolerate, even if the speaker felt that it was "honest"?

(2) What exactly is your "different vision of what it is to be a genealogy professional"? I really don't know and would not try to guess, given that we're coming from such different places.

I hope we'll get to discuss these and other topics somewhere down the road.

Thomas MacEntee said...

Thanks Harold for the follow up comment.

1) I appreciate the back story on the impetus for your post, but given the proximity to Wednesday's events, you can understand how I and perhaps others who had read the threads at the mailing list would make the connection. Having an ongoing discussion about "discussions" would be a good thing for genealogy.

2) Calling someone "rude" is not, in my book, an insult. I guess I could have said "Well, you certainly are honest!" and danced the dance. I made a statement of my view as to the previous comment in the thread. That's all there is to it and I won't be sucked into a whirlpool where we dicker over "he said, he said." It's been said and we disagree as to how it is interpreted.

3) It is your view that I got personal and as moderator of the list you can enforce the rules of the mailing list any way you wish Harold. I disagreed and I stood my ground as I continue to do so. You can construct any number of elaborate rules to get the conversational results you desire. Over several private emails with you, I gave you permission to remove me from the list if you felt I broke any of those rules. I left the list because I've left all mailing lists such as BCG, APG and others. I need a time out and I realize this. I don't think genealogy mailing lists are good for one's mental health.

4. As to the different vision - there is not time nor space enough to discuss that here, but I will be discussing it on my various platforms down the road. I'm evolving as a genealogist as my concept of being a genealogy professional evolves. I'm on my own schedule and time frame and you know that I'll share my views as much and as honestly as I can.

Sonja Hunter said...

Your first rule sounds like it could have come straight out of advice for married couples. Fight fair and respect the other person, whether or not you agree with them. It is probably easier to take things further when the other person is not right in front of you.
Maybe, in addition to your advice to "sleep on it" we all only post things we would be comfortable saying if we actually lived with the other person. That said, some people are used to more fighting in the family than others.

Geolover said...

My rules related to your #1 are first, if you don't have a dog in the fight, let the mainly disputing parties chew on their issues unless you have a really helpful insight into the nature of the disagreement.

#2, Silence can be golden. It gives the parties space to clarify meaning, time for someone else to add something better than you might, and allows for cooling of (forgive me) any bout of testosterone poisoning.

I found the latter especially useful in quasi-judicial hearings where I did not have subpoena power or authority to question the adversaries with insistence on a reply. Sometimes they'd just fill the space with the important data when given enough "rope".

Harold Henderson said...

Thanks for the good additions, Sonja and Geolover. I would only add (perhaps redundantly) that any "really helpful insight into the nature of the disagreement" will be more credible, and more on-topic, when not preceded by a personal insult.

Dave McDonald said...

Harold--completely off-topic: is that image Lincoln and Seward from Harper's Weekly in 1860?


Harold Henderson said...

Dave -- Good question. The cartoon's subtitle says "See Congressional Debates." What I had time to read of them did not immediately suggest who the fighters were, but since Lincoln at least was not in Congress I suspect it is two other guys. BTW, I had forgotten that Harper's is on line at Internet Archive, so somebody with more time may be able to run this to earth. -- Harold