One of the most simultaneously eye-opening and trying experiences of my short lifetime was the year I lived in the same room as someone at the complete opposite political spectrum as myself. In the words of my formidable roommate, this was the year I learned to “disagree without being disagreeable”. Sometimes we completely failed at keeping things civil; thus, ensuing a 24 hour awkward silence, broken only by our third roommate bringing up how much that day’s ice cream selection had sucked. Neither of us could resist the opportunity to hate on Sodexo, so, BOOM, just like that – we were back on speaking terms again. But, I digress…
I don’t think I would be the same person I am today had I not had to critically defend my political beliefs. By the end of my sophomore year I felt I could disagree with anyone, and, not only carry on a pleasant conversation with them, but - hell - I could respect them too. In a political climate such as this one, I hope my few tips will help Wellesley Alums engage with non-like-minded people on tough issues. The past 2 years of Congress coming to a stalemate on so many important issues is the perfect example of what happens when Americans stop working towards progress through collaboration and compromise. Whomp whomp.
I think it is also important that these tips be kept in mind for those of us Wellesley Alums who decide to debate a whole slew of issues on web-based forums. Yup, you guessed what I am referring to: Community for Wellesley Alums in Withdrawal. Anyone who knew me during my 4 years at Wellesley can tell you that I was not one to stay silent in a good (read: heated) debate about race, sexuality, class, or privilege on Community. But, by my senior year, I had experienced enough of these “debates” (read: flame wars) to know that not everyone posting had gotten the full spiel on “netiquette”. So these tips are also intended for all of you out there that might have fallen asleep during, or knowingly skipped, the part of first-year orientation where we were handed that little green (I think it was green) guidebook.
So, without further ado, here is my list.
1. Don’t raise your voice. As a Latina, this was a hard one for me. But I kid you not, this has been the best tip I repeat in my head when I find myself starting to see red during an argument. Anyone you are trying to meaningfully engage will tune out the minute your voice becomes louder than theirs.
a. I understand that this particular tip can be seen as me trying to appease people who did not grow up in POC environments. Some POCs don’t understand why they must censor or alter their styles of communication to appease the white-western standards of “respectable debate”. Let’s be real honest, though: Ain’t nobody from the opposite side of the aisle respecting Bill O’Reilly or Jon Stewart when they start yelling. So don’t get it twisted. Yelling, while it expresses your passion behind an issue, will never give you the upper hand while you are disagreeing with someone.
2. Don’t dehumanize the person you are arguing with. Put the shoe on the other foot. Wouldn’t like it so much if they did that to you, now would you?
3. Don’t delegitimize the experiences they might be citing from their own life. There were many times when I wanted to roll my eyes when I argued with my roommate, but I had to take a step back and understand that this was her reality before stepping foot on Wellesley’s campus. If I wanted to get through to her at all, it was my job to thoughtfully explain why her perception might be skewed by things like race and class privilege. It doesn’t matter if you think the other person is bat-shit crazy. No one responds well to being told their experiences aren’t valid. A different experience is not a lesser one, it is just different.
4. Never never never never never become condescending during any point in the argument. Just don’t do it. It will only end in tears.
5. Never never never never never use profanity. Save the more colorful words of the English language for face-to-face arguments with your good friends. The Wellesley alum who graduated before you even stepped foot on campus is going to read your post on Community for Facebook, and she doesn’t know you like that. How you are trying to get your point across is just as important as the point. You take away the power of your own words when you decide to throw in F-bombs. As with my first tip about volume, peeps are going to tune out. Especially on internet based forums!
6. Don’t make personal attacks. Once it gets personal, it’s over. You cannot engage in any sort of productive debate or discussion when you personally attack them. This includes calling someone racist, misogynist, privileged, etc. Labeling someone in the middle of the conversation gets you nowhere. You can, however, highlight when a comment made by an individual is racist, misogynist, privileged etc. A great video on how to approach these kinds of encounters was put out by an amazing individual named Jay Smooth. Click here to be enlightened.
7. Always try to end your disagreement with a laugh. If not a laugh, then make an effort to connect with the other person on some small level. People are more at ease and willing to reengage in arguments with someone they can at least share a smile with. The human experience is pretty comical whether you’re liberal or conservative.
While these have helped shape the way I approach conflict and debate in my personal and professional life, I completely understand that they might not work for everyone. But, as someone who thinks small bits of advice can go a long way, I hope you can take away the bits that work for you. At the end of the day, it is up to you to pick your battles wisely in the first place.
Alyssa Beauchamp ‘10