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Sticks and Stones: Fight-or-Flight Rhetoric Prevents Reconciliation

I read a post on Medium last week about Millennial Identity Politics. The author, a white male, was complaining that he was being left out of conversations because of this newfangled notion of privilege. His relative privilege meant that he could no longer voice his opinion and expect to be respected for it. That was hard for him.

He went on to say that the real problem with the new activist rhetoric was that it encouraged thinking in terms of a false dichotomy.

Though the world and its problems exist in murky shades of gray, the “social justice warriors” aggressively insisted on making everything about right and wrong.

The writer wouldn’t stand for this – you see, he insisted that he was right and the social justice warriors were wrong. If that last sentence didn’t make sense to you, good. Despite his best efforts (really, they were sort of middling efforts), he couldn’t extricate himself from the very problem he was critiquing.

But he did make one thing abundantly clear: we’re all falling prey to a conversation style that privileges our rightness over reconciliation. 

And if we’re not prepared for an all out fight, we’re prone to saying nothing at all. It’s dysfunctional and it has to stop.


If you forgive, he would say, you may indeed still not understand, but you will be ready to understand, and that is the posture of grace. – Marilynne Robinson, Home

The author of the article felt that he was being silenced, and maybe he was right. On topics of inequality and prejudice, it’s just a fact that some voices matter more than others. Namely, the ones who have directly experienced it. And it’s awfully difficult to tolerate incessant interruptions from people who have very little to contribute to the conversation. After all, how could this young white man’s experiences contribute to a conversation on racism or sexism?

But if we don’t let them in at all, we’ll never change their minds. 

Social justice activism is never fair. It always falls on the activists to reach out to the stragglers and to tolerate the haters. And it’s understandable that the activists lose their cool every once in awhile. All the trauma and responsibility falls on them. But silencing, shaming, and blaming individuals for systemic issues is not only ineffective, but damaging. We halt the conversation before it’s even begun. We reinforce prejudice. We feed the beast.

On the flip side, we’ve got to realize that activists are human, too, and if we feel that we’re being silenced, it’s our responsibility to change the tone of the conversation so that our partner doesn’t feel that they’re being attacked. It’s important that we seek to understand, even if we find we ultimately disagree. We don’t always have to say the thing we wanted to say – sometimes the moment passes; sometimes we change our minds.


A brave man acknowledges the strength of others. – Veronica Roth, Divergent

Brave is the buzzword of nice, middle class women right now. It seems that it most often applies to tasks such as overcoming fear and being kind, and I admire the desire to do both of those things. But we have really low expectations for ourselves – not to mention the word, brave – if we think that merely being kind or achieving minor goals counts as bravery.

I believe that the rise of vanilla bravery is directly correlated to the new rhetorical climate.

I recently spoke with a friend who teachers undergraduates at an Ivy League university about the increasing difficulty of getting students to speak up in the classroom. My friend surmised that it has everything to do with the smug, self-righteous rhetoric that dominates social media culture. Students are afraid to speak up because they know that anyone who disagrees with them can shame them on twitter, potentially even ruining their job prospects.

We’re so bad at hearing people out that it has become an act of bravery to voice an opinion, even in a controlled setting like a classroom!

The worst part of all of this is that it’s difficult to even have a conversation if you refuse to subscribe to fight-or-flight rhetoric. People don’t understand nuance. People don’t want an “I don’t know.” But it’s ok to weigh the options and it’s ok not to know. It’s even ok not to have an opinion.

To be clear, I’m not advocating that we “be nice.” Too often – and particularly for women – being nice means getting bulldozed over, not speaking up when you need to, and missing your opportunity to expose injustice. This is about empathy, humility, and understanding. Hold fast to your beliefs and assert them well, but leave space for others. Listen well and learn from what you hear. Life is about re-calibrating our beliefs in light of new information.

Pay attention to the dynamics of your next conversation. Do you see an unwillingness to understand, or give grace? Try stepping back and asking yourself what’s at stake if you don’t fight it out.

Because my hunch is that there’s far more at stake – for you and for the world – if you allow a conversation worth having stagnate or die over mere disagreement. 

Image source: Creative Commons License by Ray_LAC on flickr

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Alden Wicker

Monday 4th of January 2016

I totally agree! This is a huge problem. I feel like I'm not allowed to even be the conversation, because I'm white in privileged. I've watched fights break out in several forums, and I just want to run and hide. I used to want to be involved, but now I feel like if I say anything, I'll get told I'm a terrible person.

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