The Budget Activist: How to Have Meaningful Conversation with Dissenters

There is no question that political debate has gotten more heated – and hateful. Even debating something that might seem innocuous has taken on a new level of vitriol. But sometimes just speaking up can be the greatest form of advocacy. So, how do you know whether it’s worth it to engage in debate with your racist uncle? What words can you use to communicate most effectively with people you disagree with – and when should you walk away?

At the 2016 Pennsylvania Conference for Women, I listened to a conference keynote speech by Olympic gold medalist and LGBT activist Abby Wambach in which she implored the audience to stop “unfriending” people with contrasting views. I clapped along with the rest of the crowd, all the while unsure how I truly felt about her message. Sure, I’d like to have an intelligent political debate with folks who have opposing views, but how is making nice with a fracking lobbyist or a sharer of pro-life memes with pictures of aborted fetuses going to enrich my life?

I mean, it’s all well and good to “agree to disagree” and accept that not everyone is going to 100% agree with our views, and we should certainly show a reasonable degree of tolerance for dissension in our social circles. But when it comes to someone who dedicates her life to causes which are the complete antithesis of your own, is it crazy to think you could enjoy sharing a cup of coffee?

Making Frenemies

In October 2016, one month before the election, I wrote about my unexpected encounter with an activist on the opposing side of almost every issue I try to champion. 

As Senior Fellow and Culture of Alarmism Director for the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), a conservative nonprofit organization whose key efforts include advocating against manufacturing safeguards and government regulations pertaining to the use of potentially toxic chemicals, Julie Gunlock’s modus operandi is to get government – and activists – hands’ off her Thin Mints. IWF believes “radical environmentalism backfires on American families, raises the prices of everyday goods and services, and discourages economic growth.”

As we begin an animated hour-long chat, we found that we had quite a bit more common ground than we imagined. We are both pro-vaccine; we share a rigorous belief in science – though we disagree on the validity of or lack of scientific studies in various areas; we believe climate change is real – though we disagree on the ability of man to slow it; we believe fear-based tactics often do more harm than good; and we have an unabashed love for all children (especially our own) and respect and compassion for other parents struggling with information overload.

I still disagree with her politics almost 100%, but we hoped to open the door of communication between two vastly different movements. Instead of dismissing each other as “lunatics,” we tried to make inroads to understanding each other. She was even gracious enough to have me as a guest on her very conservative radio show and praise me on NRATV.

Admittedly, though, a lot has happened since 2016 to tamper my acceptance of opposing – and what I consider dangerous – views. Every time Julie and I try to engage with each other on Twitter it becomes a shouting match between our “tribes.” It gets nasty, and, honestly, we have not spoken in a while. The wounds of this administration feel so raw. We’ve steered mostly clear of each other, but I know that if either of us extended an invitation to discussion, the other would accept.

Changing Perspectives

Sarah Silverman has made meaningful conversation with conflicting world views the focus of her show “I Love You America,” traveling to deep red rural areas to shake up conceptions between Trump voters and “liberal elite Jews.”

Look at the stories of Daryl Davis, the black man who has personally gotten more than 40 Klan members to quit the organization – just through conversation. 

Or Megan Phelps-Roper, who famously left the Westboro Baptist church after being talked out of the hate group by people she argued with on Twitter. (She later married one of them.)

As Phelps-Roper often says in her public comments, you have to give people like her a chance to change. Writing them off as bigots or treating them like monsters, even when they’re acting like it, isn’t going to do the trick. But trying to talk sense into them, even if it seems futile, might be successful.

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