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An Invitation for Meaningful Dialogue

A photo of a tan puppy and a gray tabby kitten sleeping together
Adorable, yes, but “cats and dogs together” isn’t actually the key to unity in post-election society.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about dialogue and understanding. Liberals just need to try to understand conservatives, They say. People get defensive when you call them (or, more often, even just imply that they might be) bigots, They say. If we want to get anything accomplished, we need to meet conservatives halfway (in which “halfway” is usually defined as “on their side”), They say. (In this case, “They” for the most part refers to journalists who think that because Their piece is set on a college campus and not a failing coal town in West Virginia, it’s totally novel and not the exact same article journalists have been writing since November 9 and before.)

Generally, the response from the liberal camp is, “Fuck that shit,” which is a position I myself have taken before. (I stand by it.) You can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into. “Actually, no, Latinos aren’t rapists” and “Actually, no, BLM isn’t a terrorist organization” aren’t going to be compelling messages to people who only take those positions to rationalize their own latent (acknowledged or unacknowledged) prejudices. “Supporting a bigoted campaign involves signing off on bigotry” isn’t going to convince someone who is struggling to accept that that’s what they did. It’s hard and unsatisfying, and maybe the New York Times needs to do a Dialogue and Understanding piece about people who are being asked to take on that struggle.

That said, dialogue can happen. Here’s how.

Privileged liberals: Put your privilege to good use.

It’s completely understandable that you might not want to engage with people who either embody or enable bigotry. The ones who embody it are miserable to be around — try spending time with someone who thinks that they’re completely justified in wanting to put Muslims on registries or block LGBT people from services like housing and medical care. And the ones who insist that they aren’t bigoted, because they disagree with registries and religious discrimination, can be almost as bad. For them, having negative feelings about those things, but not to the point that they actually do anything about them, is a mark in the Win column, and asking for anything beyond that — which is what we’re asking them to do — is a direct attack on their character. Having to handle them with kid gloves so they don’t get defensive is a lesson in frustration.

But if anyone on our side is equipped to do that, it’s us. We, the privileged, are the ones who can have those conversations with people who don’t want to destroy our lives (or at least accept it as collateral damage). We’re not trans people having to have conversations with people who are going to intentionally misgender us and justify transphobia to our face. We’re not Muslims having to engage in dialogue with people who think we’re terrorists. We’re not Latinos having to sit down with people who want to assure us that we’re okay, unlike the dirty criminals coming here to deal drugs and steal jobs. We’re not black people interfacing with people who act respectful to our face but think that if we get shot by the police, we must have been doing something to ask for it.

Talking with people like that can be frustrating and even painful. But at least we aren’t stuck with the job of having to justify our own existence to people who support marginalizing it in the name of a better country. Listen to marginalized people, let them tell you what they need and what’s best for them, and then use your privilege to take that bullet for people who sometimes have to face down actual bullets themselves.

Conservatives who decry bigotry: Police your own.

If you really are against bigotry and hate crimes, it’s not enough to sit around being against them. And it’s not enough to sit around complaining that liberals don’t want to have meaningful dialogue to understand your position — if you refuse to take action against bigotry because people aren’t asking nicely enough, you aren’t actually anti-bigotry.

Let me repeat: If you refuse to take action against bigotry because people aren’t asking nicely enough, you aren’t actually anti-bigotry.

(Liberals tone-policing marginalized people because you don’t think their activism is polite enough and also Martin Luther King and also you’ll be glad to support them once they calm down and act rational, that goes for you, too.)

If you really want to bridge these divides, you need to start initiating dialogue with people on your own side. There has to be someone you know whom you consider to hold bigoted views by your standards — a friend, a neighbor, a relative, someone who will talk with and listen to you. (And don’t try to get all smart and say, “My liberal friend is bigoted against working-class white men” — you know that’s not what we’re talking about here.) You consider yourself open minded — hell, some of your best friends are gay. Do you want your gay friends to have to sit down with your homophobic uncle to try to change his views, or would you rather spare them that experience and talk to him yourself?

Instead of immediately getting all #NotAllConservatives, recognize that there are some — #YesSomeConservatives — who do embrace and support bigotry. The swastika-spray-painting Sieg Heilers in suits are just the most visible and obvious example at the moment. People whose prejudices are subtle and inherent can be talked to (or at least that’s what we’re being told) and are more likely to listen to you than to the liberals they think are attacking them. So talk to them.

Show that you deplore hatred and bigotry by working to fight it, no matter what, unconditionally, even if you don’t feel you were approached in the right way.

Conservatives who decry bigotry: Police yourself.

This is probably the toughest one of all, because internal dialogue is one of the most painful conversations that can be had. It’s also one of the most important ones, because implicit biases and thought habits color every decision and interaction that we have, and it’s impossible to have actual, reasoned, meaningful conversation when our brain is busy rationalizing and/or fighting against every new idea that comes in.

Instead of immediately getting your back up, take a moment to ask yourself if someone is really calling you a bigot, or if they’re saying that your views and positions uphold bigotry. If you consider yourself open minded, and you aren’t defined by those views and positions, and your opinions can be changed with the right motivation, are you really being attacked and insulted? Or is it just one malleable part of your thought process being challenged?

What would happen if you challenged it yourself?

If you voted for Trump because of his economic proposals, even though his plans were openly damaging to marginalized people, it means you prioritized the economy over lives of people who aren’t like you. No matter how instinctive it can be to prioritize your own interest over someone else’s, where is the line drawn when lives and livelihoods are at stake?

If you blame undocumented immigrants for “stealing jobs” instead of looking at the business owners who are willing to screw over natural, naturalized, and and undocumented workers to save money, it means you’re shifting blame from people trying to fill their wallets to people trying to fill their stomachs. If the business owners and the workers are both breaking the law, why is your immediate instinct to blame the poor brown person and not the rich guy?

If studies show that black kids are disciplined more harshly than white kids starting in elementary school, isn’t it possible that the disproportionate number of black people in prison might be connected to longstanding institutional biases rather than increased criminality? Why might your first instinct be to assume that another race of humans is simply more criminal than yours, period, and that that’s the long and short of it?

If a doctor doesn’t want to treat a patient because they’re LGBT, but that doctor is the only person around qualified to administer medical treatment, why do that doctor’s religious beliefs take precedence over the LGBT’s person actual life? Would you be okay watching an LGBT person die on the sidewalk because the Christian doctor standing there won’t do an emergency tracheotomy?

If every Muslim is expected to denounce every terror attack by a Muslim, why isn’t every Christian pro-lifer expected to denounce every attack on an abortion clinic? If Islamic terrorists are reading their book as an endorsement of violence, and Christian terrorists are reading their book as an endorsement of violence, but the vast majority of practitioners of both faiths deplore it, why are you immediately suspicious of the Muslims’ sincerity?

(And, okay, this is just me being curious: If you’re a baker, and you get a request for a wedding cake for “Sam and Chris,” and you deliver it to the reception and find out that Sam and Chris are both dudes, do you just not give them the cake? Do you drop it off and then go home and scourge yourself until you’re cleansed of your sin? How does it work? Do you take the cake home and eat it yourself, and if you do, do you have to scrape the names off, or does the whole sin-cake have to go in the trash, but isn’t wasting food also a sin? I so want to know this.)

Journalists, for the love of God, stop writing these stupid pieces and start paying attention to the world around you.

Dialogue is cool. Understanding would be great. Demanding that marginalized people sit down politely with people who deplore their existence is unreasonable and ludicrous. (I know Auburn and Alabama football fans who can’t be in the same room together, and one isn’t challenging the other’s right to exist.) And you journalists who keep writing — keep writing — over and over again — these stories about Dialogue and Understanding appear to have completely insulated yourself from the people shouting that ludicrousness from the rooftops.

The people who are managing to have those dialogues, and doing it in a productive way? That’s a story. The challenges of having those dialogues in an environment of basically everything I said here? That’s a story. The people whose lives are being damaged while oblivious journalists call for unrealistic conversations? That’s a story. “Liberals, step out of your echo chamber” isn’t a story, it’s a cliche.

Journalists, it’s time for you to step out of your echo chamber and realize that the world is more complicated than open-mindedness and a beer summit, and start doing actual journalism. If it makes you feel better, we’ll say you’re initiating a dialogue between you and the marginalized people you’re actually bothering to interview.

21 thoughts on An Invitation for Meaningful Dialogue

  1. I’m an old union organizer. I believe strongly that there are some people who have belief systems that are not reason-based. Consequently, you cannot reason with certain people. Still, there are ways of persuading most to change their minds. First, you don’t call them names or tell them they are wrong. You don’t lose your temper. They will shut down. The day before the election I saw a bumper sticker that said “Liberals think you are stupid.” I thought, whoah – brilliant move. And so it was. That’s what working class people believe now – that liberals think they are stupid. That makes working class people angry because they feel disrespected. Of course that makes them mad. The only way to change their minds is to change the game. There are some who are so damaged and mean that they will never change, we stay away from them. There are many more who actually will change if we can respectfully convince them that it is the GOP who thinks they are stupid and gullible. It is the GOP who want to keep a compliant and cheap workforce, and who want to put them at risk of an impoverished existence and throwaway old age. In effect, we organize around the real issues that matter to working class people, not around our own prejudices or theirs.

    1. Coming back to this thread, I just read something from Digby’s Hullabaloo (referencing an article Digby Parton wrote for Salon) which made me think of what you wrote here, and why sometimes meaningful dialogue will never work. Obviously it’s not useful to over-generalise about whom it will and won’t work with, but this quote from Abraham Lincoln which Digby references is important to remember:

      In fact, America has been divided along two moving tribal lines for a very long time, and this odd reaction has happened before when this political faction came to power, although it doesn’t normally get this violent or this ugly. The political right often seems to take little joy in its victories, instead remaining focused on its defeated enemies. Compromise is unacceptable — right-wingers seem to demand total capitulation and when the their adversaries continue to resist, they are enraged.

      The best description of this phenomenon comes from Abraham Lincoln in his famous address at New York’s Cooper Union in 1860. Trying to explain how impossible it was to deal with the Southern slave states using normal democratic means, he asked, “What will it take to satisfy them?”

      This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly — done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated — we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas’ new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.

      This is why they are so angry. It’s not enough for them to win. Those who opposed Trump must stop opposing him.We must agree that Muslims should be banned from entering the country, agree we should torture and kill suspected terrorists and their families, agree immigrants should be rounded up and deported, agree there should be guns in schools, agree women should be punished for having abortions and agree to all the rest of it. Until we stop resisting completely and declare that we are “avowedly with them” they will continue to believe that “all their troubles proceed from us.”

  2. In many cases, we are dealing with people who LIKE being stupid, and will admit it in their more relaxed moments. They get a big ol’ hormonal charge out of hatred, want their brown neighbors deported so they can steal whatever they left behind, and have a streak of sadism in them a mile wide.

    Privileged? Hell yeah. Anyone who manages to avoid the modern dunciad has enough privilege to make me truly envious.

  3. What happened to Feministe? This place used to be vibrant, thriving relevant. Now it’s where blog comments come to die. Seriously, just curious why/when/how Feministe ceased to be relevant.

    1. the head of a giraffe against a bright blue sky: its mouth is pursed sidewaysYeah and while we’re at it, what happened to your face?

      ~Moderator Note: Due to this and other recent aggressive comments, this person's commenting rights on Feministe have now been suspended ~tt

      1. the head of a giraffe against a bright blue sky: its mouth is pursed sideways That’s what happened to Feministe

        ~Moderator Note: Due to this and other recent aggressive comments, this person's commenting rights on Feministe have now been suspended ~tt

        1. Agree with Andie – HowIsBabbyFormed’s response was substance-free smartarsery that led to the worst possible interpretation being taken, and then HIBF exulted in that aggravation instead of explaining/apologising. HIBF gets a timeout for that, because that was worse than unhelpful, that was actively vexatious.

    2. When Jill was heading up Feministe, Doing Feminism was her full-time pursuit, so posting volume and engagement were a lot higher. EG, tigtog, and I all have other commitments, which makes it harder. We lost a lot of regular commenters when posting frequency dropped off in the spring, but I’m trying to work back up to previously levels, and hopefully they’ll be enticed back when we’re able to start providing content more consistently.

      Short answer: Me, basically. Sincerely sorry.

  4. Many non-bigoted conservatives voted for Trump because they thought he’d better for the economy than Clinton, and that his talk about walls and registries was just bluster like Obama’s and Clinton’s former stated belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.

  5. I think this piece is really thought provoking and makes me think about how I can create a dialogue to others in the majority who are not really taking a look at the minority and how their actions or their lack of action affects them .

  6. You can talk until you’re blue in the face. When you vote for someone who forces people to pay for things they don’t want, your actions override your words.

    1. Every government uses tax money for purposes that not every citizen wants, because people don’t all think the same way. It is normal, and part of the art of government is balancing a plurality of competing interests and goals. Do you mind expanding on which particular “someone who forces people to pay for things they don’t want” you mean?

  7. Caperton – as a long-time Marriage Equality supporter, I can’t speak for opponents on exactly what they would or wouldn’t be willing to do in that cake scenario. I suspect the answer would vary from one individual to another. But I can feel empathy for those who feel caught between their principles and what society appears to be demanding of them, even if I disagree with their principles, because I was once in a similar position on a different issue.

    My maternal grandfather became an alcoholic for many years when my mother was growing up, following the premature death of his own father. That had a lot of consequences for the family. So she was vehemently opposed to the use of alcohol, although recognizing it as a legal choice that other adults could make, and I grew up in a teetotalling household, sharing my parents’ values on this issue until well after I went away to college.

    When I was a senior in high school, we were invited to a neighbor’s wedding. One of my favorite teachers was also there, and at one point during the reception, she asked me to get her a glass of champagne from the bar across the room. Now I recognized her right to make that choice, and I would have been fine with it if she had gone over to get the glass herself. But I did feel it was wrong, and I felt that actually carrying the glass to her would make me complicit in that wrongness. It certainly felt like a moral dilemma to me, trying to balance the demands of courtesy against my very strong desire not to be complicit in someone else’s drinking. I begged off with some excuse. She later came up to me, telling me that she had talked to the minister and learned of my family’s feelings about alcohol, and apologized for putting me in that position.
    Years later, when I was getting married, we arranged to hold the rehearsal dinner (which my parents were paying for) in a restaurant with a bar in a different room. That way, those guests who wanted to drink alcohol could go buy it in the other room and bring it back, without forcing my parents to serve or pay for alcohol as part of what they provided. Some people might criticize that choice as shirking a presumed duty of a host to provide the wedding booze. We saw it as a way to honor my parents’ desire to not be complicit in another person’s drinking, while still allowing those who wanted to indulge to do so.

    So when I read about opponents of same-sex marriage who feel that they are being forced to be complicit in something they believe to be wrong, I can remember how my 17 year old self felt and empathize with their feelings, while also recognizing the effect their actions may have on a couple who just want to celebrate their union like any other committed couple. At the very least, I recognize that there is a moral dilemma present that requires some sort of balancing of interests, and that the rest of us don’t necessarily get to minimize the opponents’ feelings of complicity just because the action involved would be no big deal for us. Lots of people would have thought that simply carrying a glass of champagne across a room to someone else was no big deal. It was a very big deal for me that evening.

    In seeking that balancing test, I think we need to consider at least a couple of factors. To what degree is the opponent in question being asked to personally participate in the wedding or reception? The higher the degree of involvement, the more I think we need to consider the opponent’s concerns. In my situation, I think I would have been ok if my teacher had asked me to call a waiter to come take her order (if that had been an option). Even though that might also be seen as a form of complicity, calling a waiter would be more indirect and a sufficiently generic action that I could accept it.

    A second factor is how easy or costly would it be for the couple to use someone else’s services? The easier it is to accommodate someone else’s scruples without injury, the more we should be willing to do so. Conversely, standing on abstract principles at the expense of ruining someone else
    s special occasion makes you an asshole, and we should try to avoid being assholes.

    So in your hypothetical cake example, I think both of the balancing factors point towards “just drop off the cake already” as the resolution we should support. The level of involvement in just dropping off an already-inscribed cake is about as minimal as it gets*, and if the cake is being dropped off on the day of the reception, there’s no time for the couple to get another cake. On the other hand, if I think about the woman who baked our wedding cake, she was a lot more involved. She spent hours in the reception hall setting up the cake and coordinating with the wedding planner, and she offered as part of her standard services to bake us a duplicate top level on our first anniversary so that we didn’t have to share stale frozen cake for the anniversary. So that’s a higher level of involvement with both the wedding and the couple than your hypothetical. If she had had a moral concern about our wedding, I would at least recognize that the issue was more complex than the hypothetical.

    In the case of wedding photographers, which was one of the early court cases about same-sex marriage involvement, I think the level of involvement is even higher than cake bakers. Can we imagine a different hypothetical in which a photographer might have moral concerns about the wedding? How do you feel about child marriage? At least until a few years ago, there were states where a person as young as 13 could get married with parental permission (Kansas raised their minimum age to 15 in 2006; New Hampshire seems to still allow 13 with both parental consent and a judicial waiver; South Carolina allows 14 with parental consent).

    So let’s say you were a wedding photographer in one of those states, and a couple comes in with her parents to make arrangements. The groom is 22, the bride-to-be is 13 (or barely 14) and homeschooled. If it weren’t for the magic words “marriage” and “parental consent” she would be well under the age of consent. As you see her interacting with her parents, you get a sense that maybe she is more going along with this to meet their expectations than out of her own desires. There’s nothing definite there, nothing you could use to call the cops or CPS, but maybe you catch her being a bit weepy in a moment you would expect most brides to be excited about. (Feel free to tinker with the details of the scenario if necessary to get the “it’s legal, but feels wrong” vibe that I’m going for.)

    They don’t just want some shots of the couple in your studio – they want you there during the service, taking pictures up front as they say their vows. Do you feel ok about that? Is it just another job, or do you want to decline to participate?

    My take on that scenario is that if it’s 4:30 on the day before the wedding and I can make it, I swallow my scruples and do it, because there’s a chance the marriage will work out, and I don’t want them sitting there on their 25th anniversary remembering the jerk of a photographer who is the reason they don’t have any pictures of the wedding (see not being an asshole, above). But if it’s four months ahead and there’s plenty of time for them to find another photographer, I probably decline if I can. Being personally involved in the service makes a difference to me.

    I hope this scenario is at least somewhat helpful in thinking about how we should or shouldn’t be willing to accommodate various concerns of SSM opponents.

    *I don’t think this contradicts what I said above about not getting to minimize how complicit someone else feels. They may still feel plenty uncomfortable about even this level of involvement, but we get to decide as a society how far we are willing to go to accommodate their feelings in constructing that balance. The balancing is partly a collective judgement.

  8. I knew a few LGBT folks who voted for Trump taking the lead from Thiel. It is likely that Trump will leave gay marriage alone, regardless of what the base wants, but even if he doesn’t the odds of a Orlando like incident would be higher under a president who refuses to acknowledge the issues of Muslim immigration. Also, I don’t get the wholesale demonization of white males and sometimes whites in general coming from many liberals (I’m non-white for the record). We know that labels can form a self-fulfilling prophecy. We talk about it all the time when we talk of black youth being disciplined more in schools and so on. So when we continuously talk of white males as bigoted and worse, then we shouldn’t be surprised if they wholesale decide to move over to the side they are supposed to be in anyway.

    1. Any party that claims to represent the working class but ignores what the working class want, will not get its votes. See the Australian Greens which can’t get past a 10-11% ceiling of largely uni-educated, inner-city voters

      1. The Australian Greens, as implied by the name, are mainly about environmental protection and sustainable social progress, including social justice. That includes a very pro-worker stance, but Labor doesn’t want to work with the Greens and prefers to demonise them as anti-worker, even though Labor has been gutless for a long time when it comes to protecting workers’ rights. If Labor actually bit the bullet and looked into caucusing with the Greens, and showed a willingness to entertain coalition government with them, they could easily end up being as successful in coalition as the Liberals/National Party coalition that is currently in government, a coalition in place for so many decades that even though we call it “The Coalition Government” and refer to the “LNP” more often than separately as the Libs or Nats, it somehow doesn’t register as “hey, but you’re a coalition” when the LNP raises the boogeyman of chaotic government whenever it looks like some other coalition might possibly form a government. It’s OK If You’re “Conservative” is a strong default stance all over the world.

  9. Then we get into the issue of many “Hispanics” not liking the term.

    “Hispanic” is a word that was recreated with a new meaning in the 70’s when there was an urgency to classify a particular group in the Census which had never been broken out before. Today’s Hispanics for the most part were included with “white” up through the 1960 Census, making it impossible to set percentages and quotas to comply with all the new EEO and equal opportunity legislation.

    One of my friend’s daughters has a T-Shirt that says, “I am not Hispanic. I am not Latina. I am Puerto Rican”.

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