Finding the right argument
A friend of mine was frazzled the other day. Exhausted, really. She was talking with me and another friend specifically about being baffled there are still people who choose not to get vaccinated against COVID-19. But then the conversation drifted. This is a person passionate about racial justice, women’s rights, fighting climate change, the humane treatment of animals, educating young students about the WHOLE history of the United States … you get the idea.
She’s the kind of person who is smart enough and compassionate enough that she sees much that needs to change. She’s right about that, and she’s not alone. But my goodness, how do we tackled all that, all at once?
Feeling as though we are making no progress — in fact, seeing how many people are actively pushing us backward on those issues — is enough to make one want to give up. We can’t do that, of course; but maybe we can keep from reaching the point of exhaustion by changing our approach.
I’ll use myself as the example. One of the topics discussed that day was the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Va. I suggested maybe a good replacement would be a plaque detailing some of what I had been told were Lee’s more noble acts regarding racial justice after the Civil War ended.
She fired back by fact-checking me. She found research that shows the picture of Lee that had been painted for me more than once during my childhood was, in reality, a well-crafted myth to glorify the man in a way that was probably not justified.
Guess how I reacted.
I am trained to receive new information and let it change my conclusions on a subject. I have been taught my whole life to value education and research; to be willing to let facts change my mind.
And what she did hurt my feelings.
It was ridiculous and irrational, I know. But enlightening. Once I returned to the real world from my moment of introspection, I thanked her for proving me wrong, and we talked a little more about what that new information meant to me.
Then, because I’m me, I tried to turn it into a learning opportunity for all of us. As I said, she is passionate about what she believes, and she is very high energy. We all love her for that, but, well, she’s not subtle.
So I told her that, again, I was glad for what she had taught me; but that it had struck a nerve. It made me wonder whether so many people who, to use the topic of Lee and the Confederacy as an example, claim they are protecting their “heritage” really are thinking something more like this: You are telling me something I was taught by a person I loved and trusted is wrong and it feels as though you are attacking them and me.
Further, many of those same people were also taught to react to being corrected with a defense that runs something along the lines of “you think you’re better than me?!”
Knowing that, if you are talking to someone whose opinion you want to change, are you doing it in a way that shows you just want to hear yourself talk about how right you are? Or are you doing it in a way that takes into account what will best move that individual in a positive direction?
Is your effort to show someone else the truth, and what is right going to do more harm than good? Will it make them dig in their heels or open their minds?
Figuring all that out is going to be HARD. But it’s the only way those of us who understand the need can truly make a difference.
And that is what we want, isn’t it?
Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org