One of my most popular posts is one I wrote a number of years ago, now, on the fallacies of being a ‘devil’s advocate.’ There’s a larger discussion to be had about the issues I addressed in that post; not only is it frustrating to be engaged in discussions with people who regard your very life and existence as a fun intellectual exercise to debate, but, sometimes, it can be just plain frustrating to be in arguments with people about basic social issues at all. My father has always told me that I have to pick and choose my battles, and while he meant that I should choose which hill to die on judiciously, I’ve also taken it, in recent years, to mean that it’s not only okay, but totally reasonable, to walk away from ‘discussions’ that are clearly not productive.
Sometimes this really seems to shock people. They appear genuinely upset when I say ‘this conversation is over’ or ‘I’m actually not interested in debating this with you.’ There’s an expectation that if you care about social justice and political issues, you’re always ‘on.’ You’re always ready to debate, you’re always ready to have theoretical discussions about your own lived experiences and the issues you care about, you’re always ready to defend yourself. That’s manifestly ridiculous and unjust, an expectation that’s simply not reasonable.
In June, Andi Zeisler at Bitch wrote a great Miss Opinionated column on the frustrations of debating people who don’t believe in the wage gap. She made some solid points about how to have discussions about the issue, but this was a particularly important piece of advice:
Understand that arguing may not be the best use of your time. However important this issue is to you, there are plenty of people who, for whatever reason, are never going to believe that such a thing as a gendered wage gap is real and deserves their attention. They want to argue with you not because they’re open to having their minds changed, but because they want to see you get all flustered and feel smug about how “emotional” you get. You are not required to spend your time trying to convince others of something they’re dead set against accepting. The entire culture of American politics is becoming one of people just shouting past each other, and nobody learning anything because it’s all so jerky and frustrating. So while sometimes it may feel fantastic to come to an argument fully prepared and then crush your opponent, it’s not your job to do so.
She nailed something that many people seem reluctant to accept or engage with: Sometimes, people approach a discussion in bad faith. They’re not interested in having a conversation with you about a topic. They’re interested in riling you up, breaking you down, winding you up, and crushing you. They want to see you flail and get flustered and get angry. They feel like they’re proving some kind of ‘point’ by doing so, as though browbeating someone into an unwanted discussion and then refusing to actually engage is some kind of accomplishment.
And you, yes, you, you have the ability to tell when someone is entering a conversation in bad faith. You really do. I promise. You don’t owe anyone anything, as Zeisler pointed out, and it’s okay to just drop the mic and walk away. This isn’t about dodging out of conversations or ducking questions or refusing to engage or whatever BS insult someone’s going to sling at you. It’s about a totally reasonable conservation of energy and resources. It makes way more sense to seek out productive conversations that will lead to actual change than it does to repeatedly beat your head against a brick wall and watch nothing happen, other than a growing headache.
You have the right to choose whom you engage with, and when, and you get to decide how that engagement takes place. People who are not treating you with respect and giving a conversation their full attention are not worth your time, and you know who those people are. Maybe you’ve been socialised to ‘be nice’ and always take people seriously, but this is an attitude that reinforces structural oppression — if you’re too wrapped up in answering every Tom, Dick, and Harry, you can’t get on to the real work, which is way more important. They’re aware of this, too, using your frustration and anger as tools of distraction to draw you away from other things you could be doing.
In US culture, as Zeisler notes, ‘conversations’ about politics and society are often framed more like arguments, and there’s an attitude that talking over each other, yelling, and remaining in a fixed point with no interest in reconsidering or changing your position is how you have a chat with someone about a social issue. This is absurd, and it’s okay to push back against it. Not only okay, but necessary. People who want to engage this way need to learn that the people they’re trying to marginalise are wise to this particular trick, and are so not interested in entertaining it. There are lots of opportunities for dialogue with various communities, and there’s no need to let this kind of conversation be the standard of all political discussion.
This is about more than civility and respect for the people you talk to, but about a deeper need to engage with people who are actually interested in what you have to say. If someone only wants to wind you up and see you stumble, that person clearly isn’t ready to talk to you about the issues you’re addressing — and that individual should know that.
Image credit: Untitled, galaxies and hurricanes, Flickr.