“How to Talk to Racists”

Aaron Scherf

“Wars do not start with bullets, they start with words.” This phrase is how Maja Nenadovic began her workshop on communication with our fellows cohort. A survivor and witness of the breakup of the former Republic of Yugoslavia, Maja paid testimony to how critical it is for people of different identities and groups to maintain their capacity for civil discourse. The failure to communicate, she emphasized, is at the heart of all conflicts, and the most effective method of preventing violence is the preservation of meaningful conversations. While her lessons for us centered around the idea of “How to Talk to Racists”, their insights were applicable to any form of discussion between two opposing groups. The objective for the day’s programming was to arm our fellows with some practical techniques for debate and dialogue; what resulted, however, was a far more intensive conversation on the applicability of discourse in the face of systemic injustice.

The second day of the 2017 Humanity in Action Netherlands program began with a brief lesson in logical fallacies to illustrate the traps many people fall into when arguing for a position. Two of the fellows with backgrounds in law studies, Arne Muis and Louis Lainé, assisted Maja and her partner in explaining why fallacies are “logical shortcuts” that are frequently used in place of real explanations. Concepts such as “hasty generalizations” and “scapegoating” were introduced to explore how people project their own assumptions and opinions onto larger groups, while “appeals to authority” and “appeals to tradition” analyzed the ways some arguments assume authenticity simply because they are derived from a respected source. The applications of logical fallacies in social campaigns and advocacy were explored as well, through hands-on roleplay exercises in which fellows attempted to persuade someone with opposing views to support a human rights organization. Our cohort was split into two groups, with one side taking the position of an equal-rights advocate while the other was split into roles such as “homophobe” or “xenophobe”. Many fellows, myself included, had a difficult time acting out their role as someone diametrically opposed to their views, often falling back on stereotypes or fallacies during their dialogue to represent their argument. The activity illustrated how difficult it could be, even for self proclaimed empathetic activists, to really understand the motivations and reasoning behind those with differing opinions. It also showed us why public discussions on social causes such as immigration and LGBTQIA rights so often devolve into emotional shouting matches; when neither side can clearly illustrate their position with logic, it is almost impossible for them to understand each other.

After lunch our fellows took a small break from the study of rhetoric for a boat tour around the lake in Gouda. Our guide explained the history of the region, beginning with its origins as a peat and clay mining community to its current status as a protected environmental reserve and recreation area. The interaction of the local environment and human activities offered an interesting lesson in sustainability, particularly as we learned about the various efforts to preserve the lake ecosystem in the face of increasing human habitation. Our time out on the water also gave us a much needed chance to relax and enjoy the wonderful weather after the intensity of the morning’s dialogue, and allowed us time to reflect before diving back into communication training upon our return.

The afternoon was by far the most divisive discussion of the day, and for that very reason the most rewarding. The focus of the lesson was the culmination of Maja’s program on “How to Talk to Racists”, in which she explained her six step model to approaching conversations with people who hold radically opposing views. Her methodology was summarized in a simple acronym, PLEASE: Pause, Listen, Empathize, Analyze, Speak, and Evaluate Expectations. Her fundamental point was that in dealing with disagreement we all too often allow emotion to cloud our judgment, and by doing so we remove any chance of holding rational discussions on the relative merits of our positions. She explained that, by using her system, we could be better equipped to control our own emotions and instead take the time to listen and understand our counterparts. The point of our conversations are not to reach an agreement or compromise, but at least we could leave with a better understanding of “the other”, and display our own humanity to someone who may have previously vilified us. Maja emphasized that the PLEASE method could not and should not be applied universally; there are times when it is better to make an immediate stand for your beliefs rather than methodologically deconstruct the ideas of your “opponent”. The pacifistic approach of PLEASE was best used in personal interactions, she elaborated, not group settings or public forums, and its objective was to create trust and understanding, not argue for the merits of one position or another. Still, the idea of applying rational and empathetic patience to situations that are often very visceral, such as encounters with racist slurs, did not sit well with many of our fellows. This disagreement over when to use patient understanding and when to take a stand sparked the heated discussion that formed the conclusion of our day.

The conflict that our group grappled with is not a new one in the field of activism. The questions that divided our conversations would be familiar to many movements: When are strong emotions and displays justified in advocating for social change? Is passive resistance sufficient to affect the power structures in society, or are more forceful measures necessary? Why should oppressed groups be held to the double standard of submissiveness, being judged by the “angry black person” or “bitchy woman” stereotypes just for using the same assertiveness that leads people to think of white males as “strong leaders”? It is a difficult dilemma, all the more relevant in our modern struggles to bridge partisan political divides while also advancing inclusive values. Should we compromise on our strongly held beliefs to accomplish more tangible goals? Or do we risk becoming idealists without real progress? Or is the situation really one of the fallacies we explored earlier in the day, a false dichotomy in which we truly have a spectrum of different options? My personal belief falls into the final option; sometimes it is necessary to set aside differences and restrain emotions in the interest of larger goals, while in other circumstances it is vital we stand by our convictions to the last. There are no easy answers to the world’s myriad problems, as I am certain our next few weeks with Humanity in Action will show, but the practice of considering every available option, and its potential consequences, is a good habit to employ for anyone advocating for social changes. The methodology for “Talking to Racists” Maja explained to us may not be the solution to every encounter with people who hold opposing viewpoints, but it offered a valuable perspective into the importance of realizing that everyone believes what they do for a reason and in their mind it is always justified. It may be difficult to respond to offensive language with pausing and listening, and indeed sometimes it may not even be warranted, but it does give us a tool by which to explore the arguments and ideas of opposing viewpoints. If we all practice such empathy, at the very least we will gain a better picture of the issue at hand, and in the process arrive at a deeper appreciation for humanity as the complex fabric of different identities, ideas, and interactions that it is.