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Gurdon: In family debates, the moderator (Mom) is really on the spot

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Local,Meghan Cox Gurdon

" ... Alcohol and horse tranquilizer."

"Ugh, I'd forgotten that part, but did she -- "

"What's a tranquilizer?"

"Like a sedative."

"Whitney Houston, too, right?"

"What's a sedative?"

"Yeah, I think so, but -- "

"It's a -- "

"I wasn't asking -- "

"Well, I'm just trying -- "

" -- you!"

" -- to answer your question, will you let me -- "

"Well, don't!"

"Hey, guys, easy!" said the moderator, keeping her eyes on the road as the car merged into traffic on I-495.

The other occupants of the car had been engaged for some time in a friendly exchange of views. A conversation about speeding tickets had turned into a discussion about lawbreaking generally, from which point it moved to questions of substance abuse, and from there pretty quickly to the drug-overdose deaths of celebrities and the end of poor Amy Winehouse.

Rather suddenly, the whole thing had become fiery, fractious and heated.

"You can all have a turn," she went on, "But please stop interrupting each other and talking over each other. It's rude."

"As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted -- " began one child.

"I was talking -- "

"I was talking first -- "

"Knock it off!" The moderator snapped a little too angrily. The mobile debate hall fell silent.

The driver was chagrined. She hadn't intended to stop conversation, but merely to enforce basic rules of civility. Alas, like a prophet in his own country, the moderator is seldom loved in a debate.

At times when a conversation starts to boil over, the controlling legal authority -- or for our purposes here, the grown-up -- faces a number of options, and none of them is ideal. One is to let the participants shred each other all the way to fisticuffs. Another is to intercede and, in so doing, earn the wrath of all parties.

As demonstrated by the catcalls aimed from both sides at presidential debate moderators Candy Crowley and Jim Lehrer, this is a fraught business indeed. In family life, it is all the more important, frankly, because memories are long and old perceptions have an awkward way of not fading.

To a large degree, the wise parent will let his or her children develop their own bilateral relationships. This allows the wise parent to triangulate, Clinton-style, with a whiff of Swiss neutrality. Meddling and interfering in every exchange usually produces nothing but unhappiness and can leave everyone thinking that it is the moderator, as it were, who is at fault for making poor judgments.

It is regrettably true that moderators do make poor judgments. They may, for instance, give one person more time to talk, 9 percent more, say; or they may shut down another person's argument just as he is getting to his peroration. And as every parent of more than one child knows, there arise certain awful moments when you really do get it wrong, when you stick your oar in at the worst moment, or you come into an already simmering dispute and think you understand who is the aggressor when in fact you have got it backward.

In "The Lord of the Flies," the disputants are able to hold back incivility and barbarism, at least for a while, by handing a conch shell around during conversation. Only the person holding the shell gets to talk. Maybe this is something we should try for the next presidential debate. I should probably get one for my car, too.

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@ washingtonexaminer.com.

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