I write a lot about the importance of civility when discussing and debating beliefs and experiences (even though I personally want to throttle some people with certain disgusting, ignorant views). It’s a matter of pragmatism, if not principle: People can’t think when you’re yelling at them. People are less inclined to hear you when you hurl insults at them. Plus, it’s unkind and unloving and all that.
That is true. I believe that. I believe we all need to take that to heart — victims, minorities, the oppressed, everyone. Everyone needs to extend grace and understanding. Love begets love, hate begets hate, ignorance begets ignorance, understanding begets understanding, and so on.
But, on another pragmatic note, I’m realizing that not everyone can, will, or wants to extend grace, understanding, or even the pretense of civility. Trauma, oppression, stress — it impairs people’s ability to self-regulate, just as being cussed out for your opposing viewpoint impairs your ability to listen and extend sympathy. As a person of privilege, it’s my job to hang in with what I perceive as tough conversations or unfair treatment or misunderstandings that make me, for that moment in time, feel dismissed or unheard.
It’s not because I think that my hurt is less valuable. It’s that I usually have less to lose if I’m unheard and misunderstood than disadvantaged people are. Hurt feelings and harsh encounters are no fun, but at least my way of life doesn’t ride on me persuading others to hear, understand, or accept me.
I think it’s important to sit with the hard conversations where I feel attacked and misunderstood, if only for this pragmatic reason: oftentimes I don’t truly understand a minority person’s lived experience unless they are speaking without any limitations or fear of repercussions at all — especially the limitation of civility or the fear of being “not nice.”
In my ongoing journey of becoming a foster parent, I joined a Facebook group that sought to give adoptive parents and hopeful adoptive parents the honest-to-God truth about adoption from adoptees’ perspectives. One of their rules was absolutely zero tone policing of adoptees. None. There were no protections for adoptive parents or hopeful adoptive parents. Adoptees could say exactly how they felt in whatever way they felt like it.
It was a brutal experience. Unsuspecting new members left in droves, unable to withstand the cursing out, the taking to task, and the rude, unsympathetic treatment of their questions or experiences. I almost left myself. Like I said, I value civility and nuance, and I didn’t feel like that this group provided that. I felt unsafe. I struggled to learn. I didn’t experience any grace. I was afraid to ask questions or say anything for fear of evisceration.
But I hung in there, and finally, slowly began to understand this group’s perspective — and even value the space’s no tone policing rule as critical to my learning process. Adoptees cannot share their honest opinions about adoption or their adoptive families because they’re out on the street (emotionally or literally) if they can’t figure out how to appease their adoptive families and fit in. Plus, there is such an entrenched narrative about how amazing adoption is and how lucky adoptees are, such a strong parent-centric focus, that any dissenting voices in the conversation get brushed away. There are so few places for adoptees to speak candidly about their experience that nobody is listening. Nobody is sitting with their full experience — especially not their pain, anger, and powerlessness.
As a person privileged enough to be unattached to adoption issues, I am not going to have a chance at understanding their life experience if I want to deal with only the civilized, sanitized version — a version they didn’t experience.
It’s a frustrating reality for everyone on all sides of conversations where disadvantage and privilege exist: it’s difficult to learn about another person’s pain when it’s coming at you no holds barred — and it’s difficult to learn about another person’s pain when it’s presented tactfully, civilly, and graciously. It’s difficult to be humble and compassionate towards someone when she’s lambasting you for a microaggression — but it’s difficult to be humble and compassionate enough to recognize just how much of a negative impact your well-meaning action had when someone calmly explains your mistake.
If I’m remembering this anecdote correctly, Ta-Nehisi Coates heard a white student share about experiencing prejudice on an historically black campus — something along the lines of others openly looking at him as if he didn’t belong and wasn’t welcome. Coates commented (paraphrased), “It wasn’t right, but it was good.” It wasn’t right that the student experienced such a shunning and an unwelcoming, but it was good for him to understand that this is the black experience in predominantly white America. Perhaps that was the only way he could understand.
It’s never right to treat another human unkindly, and it’s not right to codify unkindness as a communication method. We all carry our pain that deserves sensitivity; we all deserve dignity and respect, regardless of what privileges or disadvantages we posses. (And we all are a mosaic of privileges and disadvantages.)
But there are many not right things in this world, so many that it would require an impossible measure of strength from people who are already laid flat to accurately but civilly convey their experience to people who mean well but don’t get it. Since there are so many flaws both in delivery and reception of hard-to-fathom experiences between the privileged and the under-privileged, it is always good to listen and learn from all people — even the ones uncivilly screaming in your face. Everyone matters, but when we triage for justice, we must prioritize those facing oppression, discrimination, and prejudice over our own hurt feelings.
(P.S. I’m extremely bad at this.)