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 sexuality. 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 courting someone of your own gender is okay or not.

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 conservatism and homophobia are ruining this country; others say gay marriage is ruining this country. So people take a stand. Because it matters to us.

Again, having an opinion isn't the problem--I have quite strong opinions. 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. This is why the LGBT community doesn't want anything to do with Republicans and Christians.

It also turns off the dissenters of gay marriage when they're told they're hateful, stupid, and harming others. When they're told to get over themselves, they find more reasons to fight against gay rights.

I'm not saying any of this is right or wrong: it's 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 living and loving with joy, despite conservative efforts. But more LGBT people than ever are being persecuted for their identity, 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 listening. Both sides need to listen 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.

Giving someone room to speak isn't the same as saying, "I was wrong and you're right." You're not apologizing for your opinion: you're telling them you care about their hurt--whether or not you were the one who hurt them, whether or not it was justified, whether or not you have your own pain. You're also not erasing the need for them to listen to you. But that's their prerogative, not yours. 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.

* The latter has been true many times: the Right has psychologically and sometimes bodily harmed LGBT members in countless ways. But true as it is, persuading someone to your point of view doesn't start when you accuse them right off the bat of cruelty. The time for dealing with grievances comes later, after rapport has been established, because that's the only way you will be heard.