Changing the Conversation

Categories: Activism
03/09/2018
Tags: Educate

March is Women’s History Month, and with the start of the month comes the inevitable barrage of people taking to social media with anti-feminist comments in response. There have been the predictable comments about the importance of also having a “Men’s History Month” as well as the requisite generalizations about feminists being “ugly,” “bitchy,” or “bitter.” While the majority of these comments are purposely framed to belittle and irritate women’s rights advocates, there’s also a significant portion of such commentators who make anti-feminist statements in earnest. Some write them with malice, others with genuine ignorance, but regardless of the intent behind each author, it’s important that we reflect upon and respond to such comments with consideration.

As someone who’s affectionately been called “the sassmaster” by friends in the past, I admit that when confronted with seemingly hostile comments towards causes that I’m passionate about, my first impulse is to response with a quip, a diss, a burn.  But words have meaning, and with time, I’ve found that being a responsible activist requires me to more than just advocate and agitate. It also requires me to educate. To educate others about why I disagree with their beliefs, what I believe in, and why they should believe me.

“I’ve found that being a responsible activist requires me to more than just advocate and agitate. It also requires me to educate. To educate others about why I disagree with their beliefs, what I believe in, and why they should believe me.”

The word “movement” is a versatile word that’s beautiful in its multifaceted meanings.  In the context of the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement, the Disability Rights Movement, or the LGBTQ+ Rights Movement, most people traditionally think about it as a group of people with a common  ideology who organize to exercise change. But what must move for such change to occur? The most visible manifestation of movement within a political movement such as those that I listed above  is the movement of bodies. This type of movement occurs when citizens march in protest against unjust laws, knock on doors to canvass, or go to the polls to vote. Yet, in order for these bodies to move, another movement must occur first—a movement of opinion.

In many ways, this type of movement is much more difficult than the physical types of movement that are associated with political movements. To influence a movement of opinion requires a level of vulnerability, intelligence, and patience that can be difficult to exercise. But this kind of movement is also essential to a political movement’s vitality. One must first change hearts and minds before people are motivated to move their bodies to the streets, to the community, to the polls. Otherwise, a movement will quickly become stagnant and die.

And so I’ve taught myself to respond to antifeminist comments in a more purposeful, politically-conscious manner, both online and offline. Here are some tips that others may find useful when seeking to move minds on their own:

  1. Respond to educate, not humiliate: We’ve all seen viral videos and posts throughout the media where one person completely “destroys” someone else who carries an opposing view with a snarky response. And I’ll admit, there’s a certain rush that comes from using the power of your words to assert the dominance of your ideals. Yet, with this act also comes a certain level of arrogance and selfishness. Because through asserting the dominance of your ideals, you’re also subconsciously seek to assert the dominance of your intelligence and to harm the other person you’re engaging with. And at that moment, you’re no longer merely advocating on behalf of your beliefs, but you’re advocating on behalf of your ego. No rational individual reacts well to being publicly insulted or humiliated, and in choosing to disrespect another’s dignity in your response, you’re also choosing to close off the possibility of growth. You can respond with wit, you can respond with humor, but above all, always make sure that you respond with civility and the intention to help the other person see your point of view.
  2. Actively listen/read: It’s natural to immediately formulate a counterargument in your mind whenever someone offers an opinion that you vehemently oppose. But give yourself and the other person who’s speaking the courtesy of actually listening to/reading what they’re saying rather than just hearing/seeing what they’re saying. Failing to effectively listen to/read what’s been given to you from the other person may cause you to significantly misinterpret their opinion, and in turn, cause you to bring up points that are unrelated or tangential to what they’ve actually said. Making this mistake will both demonstrate that you don’t care about the other person’s opinion, immediately closing the opportunity for moving minds, as well as weaken the structure of your argument.
  3. Acknowledge what’s been said: Once you’ve REALLY actively listened to/or read what has been conveyed, make sure to reiterate what’s been said to you before you fully launch into your own opinion. This action will signal to the other person that you’ve correctly understood their thoughts and will also allow you to form your counterpoints around their reasoning. For example, if somebody made a comment along the lines of “It’s stupid for women to have their own special month with ‘Women’s History Month’ because if we were to have a ‘Men’s History Month,’ all of the man-hating feminists would stage a protest.’” An appropriate response may begin phrases such as, “You claim that Women’s History Month is stupid because men can’t also have their own month. However…”
  4. Cite evidence: Strengthen your argument by providing examples that offer further insight into your perspective. Although the oppressed are never obligated to justify their experiences to their oppressors, if you’re comfortable with including statistics or real-life examples to build your claims, go for it. Just make sure to be aware of any potential bias, as well as inaccuracies from outside weakness that can undermine your argument. By citing strong evidence that supports your opinion, you’ll be providing the other person with a deeper understanding about what you believe in and where your beliefs come from.
  5. Rinse and repeat as needed: Change doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to change minds in interaction that you have with another person. But one of the benefits of engaging in debate that’s aimed at educating and not humiliating is that the civility of your conversation will leave you with the opportunity to communicate with the person again. Change comes with one conversation at a time, if we’re brave enough to pursue it. 

Emily Wasek recently graduated from the College of William & Mary with a major in Government and a minor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. While in college, Emily served as president of Women’s Initiative in Leadership, an organization dedicated to cultivating the next generation of female leaders.
Much of Emily’s previous work has focused on the intersection of women and political progress. Her honors thesis, “A Women’s Place in the State House: Exploring Backlash Effects of Women’s Increased Descriptive Representation” examined whether women’s increased elected presence resulted in a legislative backlash that could increase policies counterproductive to women’s interests. As a research fellow for the Project on International Peace and Security, her white paper “Mobilizing Change in Central America: Fostering Women’s Networks to Combat Gang Violence” analyzed how women’s coalitions could be used to enhance anti-gang policies in Central America.