Friday, May 9, 2014

Switching to Dialogue

Good writers don't let their characters monologue. Just like good friends don't let friends drink espresso at 10pm. Good writers will halt their character mid-monologue, pick another character up by the scruff of the neck, and say, "Say something already! This guy's gone on for two paragraphs uninterrupted!"

I'd like to switch from monologue to dialogue on a very particular topic. This post is about how to have a conversation with people who are different than us. Let's be clear: nobody's trying to change anyone's opinion. There are plenty of other blogs for that. We're talking about talking. I'm not even going to tell you what I think (though you should know by now).

The issue is homosexuality. There's the LGBT community, advocates, and activists on the one hand, and conservatives, churchgoers, and homophobes on the other (who aren't all the same thing, they just happen to agree on this point). They disagree hotly on whether being gay is okay.

If it were simply that people disagreed, there wouldn't be an issue. The issue is when people try to persuade each other of their opinion.

Both sides feel that has happened.

Both sides have made statements and fought for certain standards. That inevitably leads to stepping on toes. Some people say conservativism and homophobia are ruining this country; others say homosexuality and gay marriage are ruining this country. So people take a stand. Because it matters to us.

Again, having an opinion isn't the problem. Taking a stand isn't a problem. It's the lack of dialogue.

Changing laws, instituting policies, or trying to change cultural norms make zero difference on people's beliefs. Mandating certain standards do nothing to persuade; they only anger. I've never been persuaded by perceived ultimatums or by being told, "If you're XYZ, you can't be one of us," or, "Thank goodness you're ABC and aren't like those XYZ-ers." It turns me off and makes me want to rebel just for the sake of rebelling. Even if they're a nice person who doesn't want to force people to change, they're forcing people to change. That's what mandates and school standards and state laws do.

It turns people off.

It turns off proponents of gay marriage when the conservative Right tells them they're not allowed to serve in churches or work for charities or after-school programs. It doesn't persuade them; if anything, it makes them less likely to want anything to do with Republicans and Christians.

It also turns off the dissenters of gay marriage when they're told their views are outdated, narrow-minded, or discriminating.* When they're told to get over themselves, they feel offended and are likely to find more reasons to disagree with gay marriage and proclaim it vehemently.

I'm not saying any of this is right or wrong. It's simple true. When we go about trying to persuade people the wrong way, our attempts backfire.

Both sides have so far failed to change culture. Take a look around. More people than ever are coming out of the closet and choosing the open LGBT lifestyle, despite conservative efforts. But more LGBT people than ever are being persecuted for their lifestyle, despite advocacy efforts. Everyone's losing.

Maybe it's time to start over. Maybe it's time to start talking and listening without shutting each other down.

Please don't say, "But they...!" Both sides have their lists of grievances. It doesn't matter whose complaints are bigger or more legitimate. It doesn't matter whether you feel like apologizing, or whether you think it's right. Both sides need to apologize in order for everyone to move on. It sucks but it's just how this works.

Someone is going to have to be the bigger man. If you want to build bridges, you need to start the process. If you wait for your opponent, you might wait forever.

This isn't the same as saying, "I was wrong and you're right." You're not apologizing for your opinion: you're apologizing for the fact that they feel hurt, whether or not you were the one who hurt them, whether or not it was justified. You're also not eradicating their need to apologize to you. But apologizing is their prerogative, not yours, unfortunately. You can only say, "I'm sorry you feel that way," and wait. That's how dialogue starts.

Incidentally, that's how marriage counseling works, too. But that's a topic for another time.

Dialogue changes people. When you listen to someone who disagrees with you, they're more likely to agree with you further down the line. Our logic is tied to our emotions: when we like someone, we trust them. When we dislike them, we don't.

You can make a difference in helping clean up this screwed-up mess we've made of the issue. But you have to be the bigger man first. You need to build bridges. People will be willing to listen to you, but you have to be willing to listen too. You don't have to be persuadable; you just have to sit down and listen. You have to take turns. A posture of humility goes a long way.

Am I putting a band-aid on a gaping wound? Maybe. But this wound keeps getting bigger. People are tired; there are so many casualties and this war needs to end. You need to make a difference in the only way differences are ever made: by listening and loving.

Word count: 894.

* It's interesting to note that the people who call gay opponents narrow-minded are usually the advocates, not the LGBT community itself. The roommate I had during the time California was voting on gay marriage was a lesbian and she surprised me by saying she didn't care whether the law passed. She didn't want people to be offended by the law; she just wanted to be left alone. Meanwhile, straight advocates were tossing around phrases like "small-minded" in the hearing of their opponents, inciting them to anger. Advocates, be careful about the way you represent a community. I know you mean well, but you don't want to hurt the people you're advocating by giving them a bad name and angering opponents.