In the months since Donald Trump was elected president, pundits have been endlessly trying to figure out how we got into this mess (and how we can get out). Many suggest that ideological echo chambers — from all across the political spectrum — helped create our current political divide. With the recent incidents of Sarah Huckabee Sanders being asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant and Kirstjen Nielsen being heckled while dining out, many have called for civility in our political discourse and for people to talk to those who disagree with them. Only then, pundits say, can we escape the pitfalls of motivated reasoning and tribalism.
In a 2016 study, three social scientists found that Facebook users shared articles that reaffirmed their personal narratives even when the articles were fake, and they doubled down when shown evidence that contradicted their worldviews. Brian Resnick of Vox refers to this psychological phenomenon as “motivated reasoning” and explains how two people with different points of view can look at the same piece of empirical data and come up with two completely different interpretations.
While there is no guaranteed magic formula to make a person completely unbiased, most experts agree that being skeptical about one’s beliefs and deliberately reading different points of view can help people see things from another’s perspective. I agree to an extent. I am a hard-left-leaning progressive bisexual nonbinary transgender person, but I read articles by Bari Weiss and Conor Friedersdorf — both of whom are to the right of me on many issues — just in case they might be right about something.
In order for civility to work, both sides have to act in good faith. And that’s not always the case.
However, there are those who say reading articles isn’t enough. Some, like YouTube talk show host Dave Rubin, say that the only way to break out from an echo chamber is to have a civil conversation with someone who disagrees with you on everything. It sounds good on paper, but for many people, there’s a risk of exposing ourselves to vicious personal attacks on our humanity. What is meant to be an honest discussion about social justice can quickly turn into another example of the onus being put on marginalized people to end our own oppression.
Granted, there are a few success stories. For starters, there’s Daryl Davis, a black man who befriends Klu Klux Klan members in order to get them to abandon white supremacy. There’s also former Westboro Baptist Church member Meghan Phelps-Roper, who left the hate cult in 2012 after having several civil conversations with people, including Jewlicious blogger David Abitbol. Honest and civil conversations that change people’s minds about the humanity of certain lives do exist. In my experience, however, they rarely happen.
One does not even have to attempt to break bread with oppressors in order to get vicious attacks out of nowhere for simply existing. Anyone who is not white, straight, cisgender, male or some combination thereof is an automatic target. Consider the horrendous online backlashes against Melody Hensley, Ijeoma Oluo, Rebecca Watson, Anita Sarkeesian, Monroe Bergdorf and countless others. Consider the fact that, last year at least 28 trans people, most of them trans women of color, were murdered in the United States alone, which was, according to the Human Rights Campaign, “the most ever recorded.” Consider how white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, charged toward several progressive people of faith — many of whom were LGBTQ, of color or both — who were peacefully preaching against racism at a rally. When oppressors have violence in their eyes and their hands on you, trying to engage in civil discourse won’t save you.
It’s more important for people with prejudiced views to step out of their echo chambers and see us as human than it is for the oppressed to humanize oppressors.
Liberals often say the cure for bad speech is more speech, but that doesn’t always work for people of color or queer people. I’m not advocating censorship, mind you. I’m just saying that the more-speech approach often makes situations worse for people without power or a platform. In her essay “Power in Public: Reactions, Responses and Resistance to Offensive Public Speech,” Laura Beth Nelson cites interviews with women and racial minorities about why they don’t respond to hateful public speech. Some said they have neither the time nor the energy to educate people, while others said they don’t want the situation to escalate. Given the threat of violence that many marginalized people face daily, it is understandable why so many would rather walk away than put themselves in a potentially deadly situation.
Having said all that, though, there is still room for dialogue and education. I’ve managed to educate a lot of people in my social circle about bisexuality, trans issues and what it means to be nonbinary. I think civil discourse still has a place in society. In order for civility to work, however, both sides have to act in good faith. I don’t want to waste my time trying to have a conversation with someone who just wants to own me in a debate.
Also, I’m only one person, with limited time, energy and resources, so I can take someone only so far. As Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldua once said, “We cannot educate white women and take them by the hand. Most of us are willing to help, but we can’t do the white woman’s homework for her. That’s an energy drain … We are in danger of being reduced to purveyors of resource lists.” The same goes for any marginalized person; we can definitely help people unlearn bigoted indoctrination, but we can do only so much.
Recent Supreme Court decisions about LGBTQ rights and the travel ban against Muslims have shown that the battle to end systemic discrimination is far from over. The onus is on those with privileges that perpetuate systems of oppression to start with what little bit we have already given — our stories, feelings, experiences, etc. — and then continue their own education. In the end, it’s more important for people with prejudiced views to step out of their echo chambers and see us as human than it is for the oppressed to humanize oppressors. We have our own lives to live and everyday struggles to survive, so it’s not our job to end our own oppression.
Trav Mamone is a bisexual genderqueer (“they”/“them”) writer based in Maryland who focuses on the intersections of social justice and secular humanism. They also host the “Bi Any Means” podcast and co-host the “Biskeptical” podcast.