Should We Talk to the Other Side?

Should We Talk to the Other Side? June 12, 2017

This is a hard conversation to have.

First, a bit about me. I’ve talked to the other side almost all of my life, which is why the name of my blog is “Barrierbreaker.” You might not know this, but up till about 5 years ago (I was 28 years old) I was a far right conservative Christian and a rabid anti-SJW. I only left because of hours and hours of talking to the other side and reading what they had to say. Countless all-nighters debating online, seeking out debate forums, confronting professors, reading books, reading articles, etc. That hasn’t stopped; it’s in my nature. If you look back in my comments sections, you’ll see me often engage with the other sides of debates. Sometimes I can be quite “strident” in my debates, but they are debates nonetheless, with sides I disagree with.

This translates to my everyday life, too. My day job often requires me to be a fair moderator during discussions on a wide range of controversial issues. Most of my family is conservative Christian, and the people I am with from day-to-day, at least in person, are nearly all either from the far right or libertarians. Up until Trump won (when I kinda unfriended a lot of them for personal reasons) even my personal Facebook page intentionally had a wide range of perspectives associated with it. If I was arguing with someone elsewhere, as I often did, and they seemed to have more knowledge and used more reasoned arguments than the average person on their side, I would often friend them so that I could sharpen and develop my own perspective. So they’d keep me honest.

This practice of talking to the other side is an extension of who I am. I have learned, in talking to people, that this is not who everyone is. And even I have to sometimes take a break from these conversations. We all need a place away from the noise where we can relax, regroup, and think while pondering ideas others have expressed. These days, I do it with relatively small groups of friends online, a few in-person friends I see once in a while, on my blog, on twitter, etc. But offline? Virtually all of my in-person discussion is with people who disagree with me. And I mean REALLY disagree with me. People who want Assad to kill all the Muslims (nevermind that Assad himself was Muslim), that think that it would matter if Michelle Obama was a trans woman and firmly argue that she is, that are nearly dancing in glee every time something negative happens to the Democratic party, that will defend everything Trump says, etc. I constantly argue, argue, argue with the other side, and even online most of my conversation is with people who disagree with me. Part of this is due to the circumstances of my life — where I live and the people who happen to be around me.

But some of it is, admittedly, enjoyment. I like, in doses, long, multi-hour conversations with well-informed people who drastically disagree with my viewpoint. Seeing the commonalities and differences seems like an adventure. For the most part, we both leave with more understanding, even if we strongly disagree with each other. We’re all human, after all. I wasn’t any less human when I was a far-right Christian conservative. I was just wrong.

At the same time, sometimes something happens that makes me remember that this is not just an academic debate; it affects real people. And I really care about real people. So when that reality settles in, the debate often stops being fun. It begins to feel like what it often actually is: a fight for the well-being of people who matter.

And this is a very important fight to engage in. However…it is my choice. Not everyone has to engage.

There are people I deeply care about who cannot afford to talk to the other side about the basic dignity of their place in the world. It gives them trauma. It ruins their emotional health. It makes it hard for them to cope with their lives. I know the other side denies this happens. They’re simply wrong. I’ve seen it too often. If you don’t think this happens, frankly, you need to open your eyes and get out more.

And I don’t think these vulnerable people should have to talk to the other side. I mean, why should they have to justify the color of their skin, their sexual preferences, their gender, their disability — why should they have to fight other people to be treated and respected like human beings? They shouldn’t have to do that. Really. I think that when we are talking about something they ARE, we should accept and love them. Debating perspectives is one thing. Debating someone’s right to exist or their basic value due to something they cannot change is another.

This is part of the reason I was so saddened when Trump won. I realized that, however hard it was…the facts were that if more — not all, but more — of us don’t have conversations with the other side, we will lose much of the human dignity that we want protected, that is so vital to being in the world as a positive force.

It’s important to underline here that these conversations should not be necessary. We should be able to talk about tax policy — we can often do this fine. But you shouldn’t have to defend your right to be treated fairly if you’re gay. You shouldn’t have to argue about your right to not be kicked out of your apartment simply because you’re transgender. You shouldn’t be bullied and told you don’t deserve the space you occupy because you’re overweight. You shouldn’t have to defend your right to be treated with respect and not harassed as a woman. You shouldn’t have to fight for respect if you are disabled. You shouldn’t have to defend your right to be treated equally in spite of the color of your skin.  You’re a human being. We should respect you as a human being.

So these are basic things you shouldn’t have to defend. But Trump becoming President was a rude awakening to me that revealed to me a simple truth.

If we do not talk to the other side even more, we will lose.

You can say that we should not have to do that, and I’ll agree wholeheartedly. I do not think this is fair. I do not think this is right. I do not think it should be necessary. I do not think EVERYONE has to do it.

And if someone less horrifying than Trump was in office, and if we didn’t have a conservative House, Senate, and Supreme Court, then I would say this is less necessary. But I’ve been looking at the way things have been progressing over the past few months, and through tears, hours of watching the media, watching Trump speeches, arguing with Trump supporters in person and online, and reading articles on several sides of the debate…I came to the semi-conclusion that we simply have to talk to the other side if we want to make sure we make an impact.

And when I realized that, I cried, because people should not have to protect their basic humanity. Like a military strategist in the war room trying to draw up plans and continually coming up with one that will result in enormous casualties, but is unavoidable to every person’s basic dignity, I got frustrated and upset. But I could not see another way. If we don’t do it, things will get unimaginably worse. Fast.

BUT…

I think we need to talk to the other side in a way that always has an eye out for protecting the rights and well-being for those conservatives most want to take said rights from. This means embracing, not distancing ourselves from, those who aren’t ready to talk to the other side. We should understand and validate their discomfort. Because, again, we should never forget that these are conversations we shouldn’t have to have.

Engaging more is not a principle of moral virtue; it is a matter of unfortunate necessity, and not everyone has to do it. We still need people to fire up the base. We still need people to nurture those who come back for healing, wounded and hurt by the vicious attacks on the most intimate aspects of their identities. We need people who provide ammunition in the form of arguments and statistics. We need strategists. We need political leaders who can negotiate with others in our interests.

Most importantly, we HAVE to do this with the most vulnerable people in mind. We have to always make it clear that what we are doing, we are doing for them. Even when we talk to and are friendly to the other side, like diplomats. There is no mistake (or shouldn’t be, anyway) that the ambassador from the United States who negotiates with China is squarely on the side of and representing the interests of the United States. There should be no mistake, with our diplomats, which side is being defended. That is, if we are going to protect the dignity of people through a hostile President, party, and cultural landscape.

“But,” you say, “Why this talk of sides? Don’t you have to be open to changing your mind?”

On a personal level — obviously, the answer is yes. As I just said, I have changed my mind countless times. But if you change your mind, and you turn against those who you once protected, they may not trust you. Their basic dignity and rights as human beings are often going to be at stake — if you’re not for them, you are likely taking away support from those who need it most. And so those of us who still care may have to make clear that your support is no longer being provided — which would be unfortunate, but I think, given the circumstances, should be understandable.

If you’re ready to fight…strike up conversations with your friends. Make some videos. Volunteer for a campaign. Create a blog. Post your views on Facebook. Share people who make good points with others. Join marches. Sign petitions. Do what you can to resist and make your voice matter. Join the ones who are making a difference, if you are able, and let’s do what we have to do to fight for basic human dignity and rights, as if a better nation depends on it.

Many are already doing this, but the more join the fight, the more we can increase the difference we can make…which is absolutely crucial going forward.

Thank you for reading.

PS: I have a Patreon, in case you want to help me keep writing.

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