Here are a few things that help me keep things healthy in hard conversations among diverse groups of people.
We all want the freedom of speech and the freedom to discuss anything openly, without fears of being ostracised, ridiculed or attacked. It seems that the only way to do so is by upkeeping the high standard of moderation (and self-moderation): views that discriminate against people, including those asserting someone’s inherent superiority, must not be tolerated.
Q: “But Nina, what about facts? It is clear to me as day that people with good eyesight have superior vision compared to people with poor eyesight!”
A: While actual scientific facts are acceptable in a serious discussion, jumping to conclusions is not. Assuming that people with poor sight are unsuitable for specific tasks or jobs, or even less likely to be successful because of their condition (without data proving this) would be an example of jumping to conclusions.
Keep in mind that tolerance to intolerance is different among different people. For some, a masked attack on a group of people doesn’t seem to raise any red flags. For others, especially those on the receiving end of perpetual attacks, an insensitive question might cause an immediate fight or flight response.
One of the things that makes people intolerant is cognitive biases. The human mind is as brilliant as it is flawed; some say that the consciousness isn’t tainted with biases but built out of them. Among hundreds of known biases, there is a group of unconscious biases reflecting our inner prejudice towards groups of people. If we aren’t aware of our biases, we should do our best to learn about them. When we become aware of our biases, we should do our best to counter them (and even so, expect that we aren’t fighting them well enough).
One example of an unconscious bias is presuming that the intelligence of people is related to the fluency of their spoken language. Sadly, there are many, many more types of biases. Implicit biases can be incredibly harmful to everyone. Learn more about types of biases; question your quick judgements about people and situations.
Let’s say we did our best to keep all the angry nazi mob outside of our community, we only talk to people who are well-meaning citizens, and we do our best at identifying our biases and countering them. Even so, situations, where conflicting opinions will arise, are inevitable. In those times, we all need to remember that we are human beings, not only rational but also emotional. Training at my previous job explained that conflicts arise where strong emotions and high stakes are involved. There is no moving forward until the discussion space is safe and mutual respect is established. The discussion space is not safe when there are real or perceived threats to our existence or our core values.
Q: “And what do I do if there are strong emotions ablaze?”
A: I don’t know; whatever works for you to calm down? Sit down, do a breathing exercise, reflect, take a break. Help the others to calm down, too; don’t tell them “Hey, calm down”, it’s not very helpful.
When emotions are hot in a conversation, it usually happens because of conflicting opinions. Conflicting opinions mean that at least one of them is wrong.
If other people tell you that you are wrong, consider that they might be right. It is extremely important when the conversation topic is related to lived experiences of people (i.e. different cultures, genders, races, etc.). Prioritise the voices of those people; they are often getting drowned and silenced. So, help these voices to be heard; ask and listen.
You want to be right; so does everyone. But winning in argument isn’t the same as being correct. To avoid echo chambers reinforcing the same inscrutable “truths”, learn about different perspectives. You don’t have to agree with them, but being intellectually honest in evaluating new ideas will do you good.
Sometimes we can’t accept that we are wrong because we don’t recognise that we don’t know enough about the topic. The Dunning-Kruger effect applies to all of us. Thus, sometimes it helps to think whether you really understand the topic you’re about to discuss.
There’s nothing wrong about discussing things we don’t know much about; it is an opportunity to learn and educate. Doing so without sufficient preparation, however, might result in a lot of emotional pain for all participants of the conversation. Researching the topic online, asking friends for advice, and collecting links to reference materials are good ways of doing homework.