Learning to engage, not enrage

In previous columns, I’ve talked about whether feminists should make it a priority to cater to the interests of men to promote their feminist worldviews, ultimately concluding that it isn’t feminists’ jobs to make men feel comfortable.

I still feel this way, and I still believe that no one should compromise their opinions, regarding feminism or other social issues, in order to appeal to others. But in practice, I find that I can rarely manage to engage respectfully with someone whose opinions differ from mine without somehow compromising my beliefs.

I rarely call people out about harmful statements — at least, not the people I should be calling out. Maybe I’m shy, or I’m afraid that I’ll be stereotyped or shut down. Whatever the reason, in so many situations where I could actually educate someone about something important, I freeze up and shut up.

Take this weekend, when my family visited. After seeing pictures of one of my close friends at Tufts, my older sister remarked that she was “exotically beautiful.” I told her that she should not use the word “exotic” when describing someone; I wanted to elaborate, to explain that the term carries racist connotations, implies that someone is attractive despite their nonwhite or non-European features. But she told me that she meant it “in a good way” and that she “wasn’t saying it because your friend isn’t white.” For some reason, I decided to drop it.

Or take last Christmas, when my stepbrother decided to talk about the idiocy of gender-neutral bathrooms, explaining how easy it might be for a “regular guy” to go into a women’s bathroom “claiming to be” transgender and then spy on or film naked women. I told him, “That would never happen,” and I should have told him why, but for some reason, again, I didn’t. I dropped it.

Why is it so difficult to explain why I disagree with or am offended by someone, especially someone in my family or someone I’m close to? Part of it has to do with not wanting to start an argument, but I know there are ways I could explain my opinions without doing that. Nonetheless, when the time comes for me to actually inform someone about another side of an issue or to provide an alternative viewpoint, too often, I don’t.

Instead, I write a weekly column about these issues — a column that is probably read mostly by people who already agree with some or most of what I have to say. Instead, I attend events like the People’s Climate March and talk to people there who already agree with me.

Activists often have a way of not engaging with people who don’t agree with them. We might post something on Facebook in response to noteworthy news or a recent tragedy or injustice, but we don’t necessarily directly engage with people who are not on our side. And when we do decide to engage with them — or at least, when I finally decide to — it isn’t always in a respectful manner because I’m usually bottled up with frustration by the time I finally speak up.

So, I end up not saying anything — or not saying enough — when I am given the opportunity to challenge someone’s opinion, thus implying that what they’re saying is accurate or acceptable, and then eventually engaging hastily and hostilely.

No, I don’t have to cater to anyone’s opinions, nor does anyone, nor do I want to. But I do need to figure out how to communicate my opinions peacefully and respectfully. I need to learn to address microaggressions and (sometimes) unintentionally offensive remarks without sounding patronizing, even though it’s easier to assume that people are a “lost cause”… or to just curse them out.