Telling people how to act online is a tricky subject, because it’s hard to come off as anything other than patronizing.
As such, I’m not here to insist that there is any right way to act online, but I am here to share some tools I use to have effective conversations with people who disagree with me and my positions. These tools are not politically associated and I recommend their consideration by every person who uses social media.
Before I go on, I want to share that I didn’t learn this stuff from studying textbooks or judging other people. I learned it by making every mistake I could trying to educate people as a trans activist.
The biggest failure I ever had was when I lost a respected friend, who accepted me during my transition, because he was concerned with the issues surrounding trans youth using locker rooms.
I felt betrayed by his position, but instead of offering reasonable dialogue, I attacked him and compared his beliefs to hate groups. I threw away years of friendship and it took me months to admit I was wrong and years to get over my shame and apologize.
I wasn’t wrong to disagree, nor was he, but I was wrong to not listen to his concerns. It’s easy to see a hundred ways someone’s argument doesn’t work and point out flaws, but doing so is never a convincing argument.
What matters to a person isn’t what doesn’t work, but how they think it does. Every belief has to come from somewhere and has been reinforced by life experiences, or else it wouldn’t exist. If a person doesn’t listen to and understand where someone’s belief is coming from, they can never have an actual honest conversation about the underlying issues that give rise to it.
Without that, neither person can learn or grow.
The thing is, a person should never get into a discussion with the mentality of winning or convincing. Relying on airtight arguments, scientific studies, moral reasoning, or anything else that will supposedly crush a person’s beliefs, really only evokes the “backfire effect.” That’s where a person becomes more steadfast in their belief and it happens because they perceived they are being attacked. They don’t see someone calling them out or saying they’re wrong as being helpful or trustworthy, they’ll see everything as a weapon to ignore or fight.
It can feel righteous to call people out, to shut down Milo Yiannopoulos, and tell men to stop whining about the friend zone. However, when a person does that, they are not addressing or understanding the systemic issues that create those people and positions. They aren’t looking at the insecurity or the toxic masculinity that justifies it. They crush the consequence, but ignore the effect.
This isn’t to validate those positions, but regardless, learning happens over time. It isn’t reasonable to expect people to fully understand feminist theory or to already have a few sociology classes under their belt. It isn’t reasonable to expect people to always be perfect, to get every term right.
I used to believe if you lost an ally after your criticized them then they weren’t an ally, but now I believe we share an equal responsibility in that relationship. That maybe they stop trying, because of such steep demands that get met with such toxic consequences.
That’s why my goal is never to demand that someone be perfect culturally aware, but to edge them closer to acceptance of people who are different, because it takes time to learn. This isn’t always easy and there are people who only want to pick fights, hurt feelings, and be smug on their high horse.
In that regard, it is important to only engage if someone is emotionally ready. Of course it pays to first assess the situation and see if there is anything that can be added to the conversation or learned from it, because nothing is less effective than three people shouting the same point over each other.
The most valuable benefit in engaging online is that you always have spectators. Every heated debate is out there for people to see, to follow, and to judge. My intent in most conversations is to reach these spectators, because while the person I’m talking to may not be willing to listen to me, if I present myself in a reasonable, non-judgmental way, everyone following that conversation, and observing the conduct displayed, has an opportunity to reflect and learn.
Personally, I never try to change someone’s mind, I try to represent my concerns, offer education, and provide perspective, while actively listening in return. I know I don’t know everything, so I value talking to people who disagree or challenge me. Fundamentally, I believe in humans, maybe against reason, that they are more decent than they are awful and that we can change towards a better future if we keep trying.
[Faye Seidler is North Dakota Safe Zone Project Spokeswoman]
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