How to Have a Productive Dialogue About Feminism (Or Anything) at the Thanksgiving Table
We’ve all been there. Your loudmouth, slightly drunk uncle goes off on a rant at the Thanksgiving table about how feminazis are ruining America and recruiting college students on this mission of destruction through Women’s Studies programs.
How do you respond? Chances are, if you’re like most people, you’ll either ignore him and tell all your friends later about what a misogynist pig your uncle is, or you’ll respond by telling him to turn off Fox News and check his male privilege. The problem is, neither of these responses are very effective at actually changing his mind. You may think that it is impossible to have a civil, productive dialogue with your uncle and people like him, but in many cases, it is actually possible not only to discuss controversial issues in a respectful manner, even with belligerent people, but also to actually change the mind of the person who now vehemently disagrees with you.
Here are six tips for respectful dialogue on feminism. (While these tips should help you to have dialogue with most people, if the other person continues to be unreasonable and abusive throughout the conversation, it is probably best to discontinue.)
- Have an attitude of humility. Remember all the times that you were wrong in the past and be open to the possibility that you could be wrong now. Realize that even your drunk uncle could have the occasional valid point to make. This does not mean that you have to agree with your uncle’s statements, it merely means that you won’t dismiss everything that he says out of hand because of who he is or what you would like to believe, but that you’ll consider what he says on its merits alone.
- Don’t name call. Calling your uncle a misogynist bigot probably will make you feel better, but it won’t do anything to change his mind. If anything, it will simply confirm his prejudices. This also means that you have a right to insist that he not engage in name-calling either. If he continues to use the term feminazi after you have told him of your desire for respectful dialogue, it might be best to respectfully terminate the conversation.
- Ask clarifying questions and assume nothing. For instance, you could ask your uncle what he thinks feminism is, or whether or not he believes that men and women should have equal rights. Don’t simply assume that he is opposed to gender equality based on his statements: many people have a strawman caricature of feminism based on media stereotypes and their own unfortunate encounters with feminists who use feminism to push other unrelated causes like socialism.
- Find common ground. If your uncle goes off on a rant about how his friend’s daughter was given a bad grade in her Intro to Women’s Studies class simply because she disagreed with her professor’s opinions, you should express your agreement with your uncle about the wrongness of that professor’s actions. If your uncle sees that you are a reasonable human being who won’t tolerate the nonsense sometimes done in the name of feminism, he’ll be much more inclined to listen to what you have to say about equal pay or rape culture. Keep in mind that it is not necessary to compromise your core beliefs at all in order to find areas of agreement: you can still be an ardent feminist while agreeing with your uncle that some of the things done in the name of feminism are wrong. You can also ask your uncle questions in an attempt to find further common ground. For instance, you could ask him if he believes that violence against women is a serious social problem that needs to be addressed. If he answers yes, express your agreement and use it to further the dialogue by pointing out that this is one of the reasons why we need feminism.
- Challenge respectfully. Use the common ground that you’ve found with your uncle to challenge him on the views that you don’t share. Whatever you do, don’t strawman your uncle’s position, because doing so is one of the quickest ways to shut down a dialogue. If you are not absolutely certain about what he believes, in order to avoid strawmanning, ask more clarifying questions. For instance, you should ask your uncle if he believes that Women’s Studies is absolutely useless, rather than assuming based on his rant and then attacking him based on that assumption. If he answers in the affirmative, you could acknowledge that Women’s Studies does suffer from the problem of over-politicalization and ideological intolerance, but then you could point out that given the historical and current fact that women have been oppressed and excluded from positions of power, Women’s Studies is necessary to explore gender relations and female empowerment.
- Be patient. People rarely change their minds overnight, especially if their viewpoint is deeply held and very important to them. People are also often very reluctant to admit when they’re wrong. Realize that a productive dialogue often consists of leaving metaphorical pebbles in the shoes of the person that you’ve talked to. They probably won’t change their mind on the spot, but your goal is to make your words stick with them and to eventually cause them to reconsider their point of view.