“Have you heard about that case?”
We were in French class, working on creating an imaginary dialogue, when one of my friends asked the question.
There had only been one case that had captured national attention for the past year and a half. With a sinking feeling, I asked, “What case?”
“You know… the Trayvon Martin case.”
“I’ve heard about it.”
“What do you think about it?” She must have seen the look on my face because she quickly added, “It wasn’t about race. George Zimmerman was just protecting himself.”
We lived in a town that was 98% white and known for being a “bubble,” sheltered away from racial issues, so her answer wasn’t too surprising. I’d like to say that I handled the situation maturely and gave a thoughtful, clever response. I’d like to say I laid out the facts and launched a productive conversation that sought to cross racial boundaries.
Instead, I shut down.
I was afraid to continue the conversation, scared that I would uncover some ugly opinion about race that my white friend had. If one of my best friends thought that the Trayvon Martin case wasn’t about race, did she view me through those same colorblind lenses? Did she even think racism existed? As I tried to redirect our conversation– “How do you conjugate avoir again?” — I found myself staring at this unfathomably large gap between me and my friend. How had we reached two vastly different conclusions on the same event?
I don’t think it’s too naively optimistic to say that the vast majority of people value the same things– kindness, helping others, respect, all of the things that come with being a decent human. Even those who don’t exhibit such traits may still value them. So why is it that cases like Trayvon Martin’s divide us so deeply? After all, almost everyone who has heard of the case believes that the death of a boy is a tragic event. Almost everyone who has heard of the case believes in justice. Almost everyone who has heard of the case believes in the right to self-defense.
However, on July 13, 2013, the day George Zimmerman was acquitted for the shooting of Martin, two groups emerged–those who supported the decision and those who don’t.
As someone who fell into the latter group, I must admit it was easy to dismiss the other group as racists stuck in the ’60s. “Reading” think pieces by those who supported the jury’s decision was usually just an exercise in skimming them, mentally constructing counter arguments to each point brought up.
As I clung desperately to my own verdict of the case, I realized that one of the reasons the divide that emerges after these events is so vast and unmoving is because of another annoying human tendency– the need to be right. As soon as a person hears about the Martin case (or any similar event), they immediately form an opinion. From there, they likely seek out the facts that support their opinion, thus preventing them from ever looking at all of the evidence available. To alter their opinion would be to admit that they were wrong.
For this reason, I don’t think the people who emerged on the other side of the Trayvon Martin gap are necessarily all awful. In fact, I believe a minority are dyed-in-the-wool racist and genuinely think Martin deserved to die. I hope I am not too optimistic in believing that many formed an initial opinion and consumed media that encouraged their opinion.
The good news is that if this is true, then it is possible to educate others. Going back to that conversation with my friend during French class, I wish I had taken the time to actually discuss the case with her instead of clamming up and assuming the worst about her. Below are a few tips on conducting more fruitful conversations when attempting to educate someone.
A quick note: the steps below assume this conversation is between you and someone reasonable who is not trying to be antagonistic. Trying to talk about LGBTQIA+ issues with an internet commenter who is homophobic and proud of it is a waste of time.
If your goal is to have a productive conversation, you must be willing to take on both roles of a conversation– the speaker and the listener. Silently staring at the other person while formulating a response does not count. Attempt to engage with their comments, whether that means nodding or making the occasional brief comment. You cannot expect the other person to listen to you unless you give them the same courtesy.
Recognize the biases involved
The person you’re talking to will likely come from a completely different background, which will have shaped their beliefs. Likewise, your background will partially be responsible for your beliefs. Keeping this in mind will make the conversation much less infuriating. So no, the conservative you’re talking to is not a Republican because they hate poor people. A much more likely answer is that they come from a family filled with Republicans. Chances are that many of your own core ideologies reflect those of your parents or friends.
I’d like to start with the fact that “tone policing” is not, and never will be, a valid response to an argument. If the person you’re speaking to starts talking about your tone, they’re trying to derail the conversation. You have every right to be as angry as you want, especially if the issue is about something close to you. Unfortunately, the instinctive response to someone who is angry is to become defensive and dismiss them as being “irrational.” That means if your goal is to educate, you must remain as calm as possible since people are more receptive when they don’t feel as if they are being attacked. Remember that the person you’re talking to is not deliberately trying to antagonize you.
Ideally, once a conversation is over, both people will have learned something. That does not mean you suddenly have to abandon your beliefs. However, if you have been listening and engaging with them, you should at least have a new viewpoint to consider. The person you’re speaking to may not accept everything you’ve said, but that’s okay. The whole point of the conversation was to educate, not convert. Give it some time (and perhaps a few more conversations), and they’ll likely come around eventually.