I just had an interaction online with an author on Medium. It will be my last one with this author. His style of "discussion" is not for me.
The author is one I have had interactions with in the past and they have been mostly civil and optimistic. Increasingly, I notice that he's being more free with his words. And I dismissed it last time when he dismissed my ideas as "crazy talk". This time, I have more data points to notice a pattern.
As background, the author is writing because he would like to get people off of the sidelines and into the streets in support of Black Lives Matter. In his recent article, the author stated:
What I don’t get is how anyone who believes they’ll never be able to understand what it’s like to be black in America (I interpret that as “because I’m not black I’ll never truly understand, so why try”) can believe that the Black Lives Matter movement is making the plight of black people worse?
It sounded like a statement of honest inquiry. So, I wrote two replies: One about how there is no substitute for direct experience. And another relating my experience of initial and evolving reactions to the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.
And it turns out that he wasn't interested in understanding such a perspective any better. Maybe he's frustrated, but he was also disrespectful in his reply and I decided that maybe we weren't people who could have a discussion after all.
What I notice is that he engaged in name-calling rather than to acknowledge that my sharing of what I notice may have some value as part of the discussion, even as he might disagree. I also noticed some assymetry. As pertains to his cause, he wants you to relate to his experience (i.e. "Understand what it's like to be black in America..."). But as pertaining to my experience, a quick glance at his reply suggests that he only wants me to understand his reasoning.
Empathy isn't a one-way street. Is it?
What sort of person expects your empathy but grants you none in return? Apparently, a person that also can't seem to talk about your perspective without also diminishing it at the same time. He called my words, "floating a turd" and included quips like "no shit". Is this respectful?
Now I have no problem with disagreement. But my minimum bar is respect for what I have to say. And if my interlocutor can't grant me that, our interchange does not qualify as a civil discussion.
Maybe he feels like blame and name-calling and false either-or dichotomies are the way to get people off the sidelines but I know nearly no one who will join a cause because a proponent of that movement was disrespectful to what they had to say.
What An Invitation Looks Like
How would I go about inviting people to come off the sidelines?
Look... You may not agree or even get what Black Lives Matter is about but we are on the streets to protest unequal handling by law enforcement. We may not know exactly what policies to propose, but if you joined us for a walk, we can at least show that we do not support the way things are now. And if you're there, fewer bad things may happen to us while we are out there. We don't want trouble, we just want the law to be applied equally to all. Can you walk with us?
I wouldn't tell you what you ought to think or how you need to change yourself (or whether you're part of the problem because of what you say).
I'd tell you what I notice.
And if I wanted your help, I'd ask very specifically what kind of help and explain why it is needed.
As a person appealing to another person's humanity, I would muster every effort to be patient and calm. This would be hard. The situation is grossly unjust, which is a trigger issue for me. It makes me furious. My blood boils every time I think about it.
But my triggers are my responsibility even if they are not my fault. They are mine to notice and to figure out how to deal with because I am a grown-assed man and I take that seriously.
You Can't Influence Someone While Judging Them
The reason I shared my perspective with the author at all is that I think there are many people who would rise to a respectful and specific invitation. They won't do it because what you said made them feel guilty. They won't do it if they have concerns that a demonstration might turn into an uncontrolled mob.
They don't like feeling attacked and don't help those who seem to attack. They're not stupid and they're not unjust, so don't even suggest it.
I think a great many people who are not black do care and would help but they aren't exactly sure how, when, or where. These people need to be organized and lead by some calm, collected people who respect them and do the hard work to enroll them into the cause.
Their daily lives are important to them. Your cause is important to you. Yes your cause is also important to them because it's a universal principle, but that point is subtle and hard to get across. Respect that.
Everyone has their priorities and you're asking people to change it. RESPECT THAT.
And if you can't? Then expect people who care to stay on the sidelines. And console yourself with your name-calling and casting of aspersions. Those grapes were probably sour anyway.