How do we talk about difficult subjects without shaming people for being uninformed, and where do we draw the line? Views Columnist Rachel Campbell discusses.
It’s easy to get caught up in the bubble of your university friends, most of whom will have similar political and social views to yourself. With all the tote bags and Chilly’s bottles, it would be hard to believe anyone in your close circle on campus would be a climate crisis denier. Debates about politics tend to include the underlying assumption that you’re all on the same side. When your Twitter and Instagram feeds are carefully cultivated to include people whose views align with yours, it’s easy to forget that not everyone is quite as “woke”. What happens when you do run into people who don’t agree with the views that you’ve come to see as indisputable?
Back when we could all still see each other in person, my friends and I were leaving an English Literature lecture on gender discourse, when a cisgender male member of our group said: “But does misogyny still really exist though? I feel like we’re past it now, I never see people being misogynistic anymore.” It was a questionable statement to make in any setting, but particularly amongst a group of young women who were studying gender in history and literature. We were all confused why he thought it was his place to determine whether women still face sexism or not, and I could feel that the confusion was soon to turn to anger. We’re all socially, culturally, politically aware students, so how could he say such a thing?
Whilst I still don’t think he should have posed the question that way or made such a bold statement without the evidence – or the lived experience – to back it up, I do think that shaming him for not seeing it from our perspective wouldn’t help anyone. By explaining that not every instance of misogyny will be picked up on by those who are not on the receiving end of it, and highlighting instances of sexism that he would not usually notice, he realised he had spoken out of ignorance and, from that point on, he became more aware of the everyday instances of oppression that women face. In this case, he wasn’t purposely trying to say something to rile us up or cause us harm; he was genuinely not as clued up as we might have expected him to be and was willing to learn and acknowledge his ignorance. If we had shut him down by assuming he was trying to wind us up, we would have prevented changes we all want to see. Of course, it shouldn’t always be the responsibility of marginalised groups to educate everyone on their struggle, but when you do feel able to explain to someone who is genuinely unaware of what you go through, this can only help. After all, we’re all learning. I can’t say I’ve never spoken out of turn; I don’t think anyone can. We have to allow everyone the chance to learn and grow when we can see they are willing.
In contrast, I have also been in situations where prolonging a conversation with someone who is ignorant about social and political issues will only cause me distress. Have you ever been at a family party where a relative, who tends to assume age equates to intelligence, says something along the lines of: “Trump did great things for America, though” or “masks are just another way of the government trying to control us”? Sometimes genuine voicing of concerns about the climate crisis is reduced to “Glasgow Uni bullshit” by someone who hasn’t listened to a word I’ve said. What’s more, often when these people say something purposely antagonising, such as, “at least Katie Hopkins says it how it is”, they follow it up with, “now’s not the time to get into politics”, leaving you no room for rebuttal. I’m happy to encourage political conversation when I believe the other side is willing to hear me, but when they’ve made their assumptions on me before I say a word, and only produce brash statements like, “Leftists are ruining the country”, I also have to know when to save my breath.
I think we should all be willing and able to challenge those with opposing views and to educate those who are clearly speaking out of ignorance, rather than shaming them for saying something controversial. However, we should only do so when we feel they are willing to hear from us with an open mind, rather than with assumptions about us personally. I might be a young woman whose friends are left-wing students too, but that does not mean you know every argument I will make, or that my point of view is less valid. We should try our best to encourage political conversation where possible, but we shouldn’t feel forced to engage with the in-person equivalent of Twitter trolls.