CN: general discussion of oppression and silencing of marginalized people
I argue with people on the internet a lot. It’s a hobby that’s not for the faint of heart and the majority of people I talk to don’t have a clear understanding of why I do it. A lot of them think it’s for shallow reasons, like needing to be right or looking for something to be angry about. “YELLING AT PEOPLE ON THE INTERNET ACCOMPLISHES NOTHING,” a person on the internet yelled at me.
The discussion of whether or not to argue with someone frequently turns to the issue of changing minds. “Have you ever had your mind changed by someone telling you all the reasons that you’re wrong?” “You’re wasting your time. They are never going to change their minds. ” “If you keep alienating allies, you’ll never get them to support your cause.”
The interesting thing about this line of thinking is that it assumes that the most important function of social activism is to change the minds of privileged people and to get them on board with a cause. Conveniently, focusing on the importance of changing minds continues to center the needs of privileged people and it overlooks the many other potential benefits of a public argument, such as exposure, validation for marginalized groups, and reinforcing new socialization patterns.
Changing Minds is a Process
How to go about changing someone’s mind is something that will likely never have a clear answer, because the process is different for everyone. However, what that process is for any individual person is somewhat irrelevant to whether I argue with them. Every time I enter a debate online, I comment with the solid understanding that I will not change this person’s mind.
I came to the conclusion that changing people’s minds was a bad goal to set for myself as part of my own process of learning boundaries and personal responsibility. We cannot force the actions or opinions of other people.
For both people we love or people we hate, we cannot make them think or understand something, no matter what we do. Many of us spend decades of our lives trying to attain this goal, trying to be understood, and hurling ourselves against the brick wall of wanting people to get it. It’s so easy to believe that if we just say the right combination of words, if we’re nice enough, if we’re confident enough, if we make our argument rationally enough, that this person will finally understand. They have to. Right?
But we are not responsible for another person’s process. Everyone’s process is unique and only they can go through it. Can you track the way that your mind was changed about an important topic? Can you remember the precise moment you switched your opinion from one side to the other? Sometimes it does happen instantaneously. I’ve read several very powerful articles that completely changed my approach to activism. But there are many other instances where the transition is slow.
Maybe you hear about a new social justice concept from your very progressive friend but you think, that sounds a little extreme to me, I’ll stick to fighting against just sexism and racism thanks. But maybe you keep seeing them post about it, and sometimes you think they have a point. Then you see some other people posting about it. Then there are some articles and you read one or two. And soon you find yourself nodding along to statements of support or maybe even jumping in to add your own angry comment to defend this issue that you weren’t crazy about just six months ago.
Minds change in strange and unpredictable ways. When you enter into an argument with the intent of changing someone’s mind, you will always leave frustrated, because it’s very unlikely you will achieve your goal. When I argue with someone on the internet, I understand that I’m just one step in their process.
Millions of Listeners
Even understanding that mind changing is a process, I also know that many of the people I argue with will in fact never change their mind. Which is why it’s important to remember that social media is not just a personal conversation with an individual. It’s a public platform.
Most people don’t have a concept of how many millions of people are using social media at a given time. Even if your friends list on Facebook is relatively short (which these days still means several hundred people), if your posts are public and filled with interaction, it’s likely that hundreds of your friends’ friends will also see your posts. Posts on Twitter can spread even faster.
The number of people impacted by one post can easily balloon to a thousand, or a million if something goes viral. I’m not very active on twitter but recently I responded to a tweet made by someone who has a large following. My comment got a lot of likes and retweets, and as of this writing, 5,503 people have looked at my tweet. (It went up by over 1,000 just during the time I spent editing this article despite my very small twitter following.)
When you have a conversation on a public post on social media, you are never speaking to only one person. Everything you say is on a loudspeaker. Hundreds of people who agree, disagree, or are on the fence, are reading your words.
The person I’m arguing with won’t change their mind. But several hundred people who were in the middle of their own personal process regarding this issue also read my well-reasoned arguments. How many of them were pushed a little further towards agreement, or even all the way to supporting my side, by reading the comments I wrote addressed to a stubborn bigot?
The folks who are just reading are also spared the worst of my attacks because the comments aren’t addressed to them specifically, which allows them to put more distance between themselves and the words of bigot who is looking more unreasonable by the minute.
Occasionally, these people will let me know that I’ve affected them, but most of the time, I have no way of knowing how many if anyone I reached. I try to remember that, statistically, there’s always going to be a few.
Validation of Marginalized groups
In my opinion, The most important group that is impacted by my words is the marginalized people that I’m defending. Sometimes I defend groups that I am a part of and sometimes I use the knowledge I’ve retained from listening to the people who are affected in order to defend groups I’m not part of. Either way, there are groups of people who when attacked in everyday situations are used to having to take it and move on. They are used to not feeling safe to speak up themselves. They are used to seeing discussions about people like them filled with cis white men and no representation from their own group or community. I have been in all of these situations and it feels awful.
When I argue on behalf of a group, I am defending them, but I am also validating them. I’m letting them know that there’s at least one other person out there that see’s their struggle and thinks it’s worthwhile to fight for them. I can frame bigotry and attacks as legitimately enraging and dehumanizing, rather than as a normal part of life. Seeing someone actually take issue with a harmful attitude that you have to put up with every day is refreshing and relieving.
I also repeat the stories of marginalized groups so that they are represented. It’s a scary feeling to see a debate concerning a group you’re a member of and see only people intent on undermining your existence.
If you walk away, their conversation will continue to be dominated by oppressive people and no voices of the people actually affected. But if you wade in, you’re likely to be attacked from all angles, on a subject which affects you and sometimes your survival, and which is only a theoretical discussion to them.
Unlike the silent on the fence folks, marginalized people do tend to tell me when they feel validated by my words. I don’t say that to pat myself on the back. I listen to the feedback to make sure I’m doing right by them and that I’m not out of touch with the needs of the group I’m speaking for.
New Socialization Patterns
Socialization is a powerful tool we all use to teach each other what is and isn’t socially acceptable. By the time we’re adults, most of our socialization is already complete, but it can certainly be changed if you change environments like moving to a new city or getting a new job with a very different company culture. And for that reason, I believe I have some effect on the person I’m arguing with directly other than changing their mind.
When I argue with someone who I think is doing harm, and they are showing no signs of being willing to change their minds, I want the experience to be unpleasant for them. I want them to get frustrated and angry. I don’t want to give them the satisfaction of saying whatever they want wherever they want with no question or even with validation, as they are used to being able to do. I want to let them know that this is one place where that freedom is closed to them. This is one topic they aren’t free to speak about in a hateful way. This is one person that won’t let them off the hook.
This might sound harsh but remember, many of the behaviors that I push back on are considered abusive or cruel when directed at a privileged group. When they are practiced by a privileged group, we’re socialized to see the behaviors as somehow less severe or dangerous. Showing anger or setting boundaries in the face of aggression and harm is a form of self-defense and an appropriate response.
The hope is that while their mind may not be changed, they may find the experience unpleasant enough that they think twice about expressing that kind of opinion in public again. The less they express their opinion, the less they are able to influence the thousands of people reading the thread, the fewer minds they change, the fewer marginalized people they hurt. It may be death by a thousand paper cuts and as with most of the process, I have no way of knowing how much I discouraged a given person from speaking on behalf of bigotry in the future.
But I know that I am discouraged from continuing to want to speak my mind when I’m surrounded by people doubting me, undermining me, skipping over me, finding flaws in my ideas. I know that many of the functions of oppression are meant to cause exactly that experience. I know that marginalized people have been taught for decades that there will be consequences for speaking up. I hope to harness that power so that the bigot in question can feel the same way and their hurtful views can be silenced instead of the voices of people who are mistreated simply for existing.
About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. In addition to creating a collection of educational resources for social justice, she works as a freelance writer specializing in content about her experience with disability, chronic illness, mental health, and trauma. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, Betty’s Battleground, and Splain You a Thing. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Instagram.