I’ve been hearing it a lot lately, these cautions from the “reasonable people.” “Well, if you want the conservatives to actually hear you, you should tone down the language there.” “Well, that comparison doesn’t apply to ALL the conservatives. Shouldn’t you be more inclusive?” In this article, I plan to follow up on my previous article about “Jesus and the Limits of Listening” as well as other blog posts I’ll link throughout by discussing why I don’t think It’s always necessary to tone down our language in the interests of “reaching” conservatives in the current religio-political landscape in the US (or other groups—such as abusers). In short, my plan here is to lay out one reasoning for a healthy spirituality of competition that embraces and channels the kind of empathetic anger I discussed last week.
Notes before I dive in:
If you’ve been hanging around this site at all, you know I take inclusion seriously. I also basically teach a whole university course in how to set rapport with other people toward healthier relationships. My objection to these comments comes not from a lack of ability to do these techniques to build connection with others, but from a disagreement in principle and strategy as to when it’s valuable to use said techniques.
Because yeah, I grew up in Christian Nice. Even if I didn’t actually have a PhD and teach people how to create connections with other people (which I happen to!), that whole smoothing things over thing is totally what I was strongly socialized into. In fact, I was so well-trained in it that choosing something different, even under duress, is still, after all these years, often difficult and requires intentionality. You can be assured that if I’m choosing to do something different than be “nice,” I worked hard to get to this place and am thinking carefully about my choices.
In addition, as a communication scholar I know how crucial a situational approach to both connection-building and persuasion is, as well as to conflict management. I tend to be wary of one-size-fits-all approaches to anything, including and *especially* with loving our neighbors who are propping up unhealthy rhetoric and policies.
A Situational Approach to Assertiveness
I’ve used this analogy before, but it’s important enough to repeat: assertiveness looks different when you’re in a risk-free situation versus when the building is burning down. If you’re trying to get out of a burning building, it’s situationally appropriate to pick someone up and throw them over your shoulder in a way it would never be appropriate to do in a calmer situation (unless there were mutual consent ;)).
And so when it comes to speaking up about injustices and oppression or unhealthy rhetoric, I don’t think that a calm quiet tone and making sure I “make sure conservatives will be able to hear the critique well” is really the best way to go if we’re trying to rescue those at risk.
Not Ordinary Partisanship
See, as I’ve explained before, I don’t see these as ordinary partisan times here in the US. Not at all. As someone who’s studied the rhetoric of conspiracy and of authoritarianism and fascism, I see ALL of that rhetoric strongly at work in these times—coming from the folks in the White House as well as just about everywhere else on the right. I talked about how it’s filtered into the world of white Evangelicals here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Because of this situation, which I’ve explained before, those who still consider themselves on the conservative side of the fence have been conditioned to reject anything coming from anyone they see to be on the left. That unfortunately includes anyone who disagrees with right-wing talking points, no matter how reasonable or evidence-based their ideas are or how calmly they’re addressed.
It’s All Quite Disturbing
Even as someone who knows how this stuff works with fascistic rhetoric, it’s really rather disturbing to see in seemingly everyday political conversations how uniform the rhetoric is, and how thoroughly people have bought into it.
It’s also quite disturbing how offended many conservative people get these days when you draw attention to the fact that what they’re saying isn’t a unique perspective, but a really standard argument.
Individuality as a “God Term” Playing into the Divisions
A big part of the problem, of course, is that for years and years conservative ideology has also been valorizing individuality to the point where anyone who discusses any form of systemic issues (outside of some sort of vague “they’re all corrupt”—or at least all those other than our guys are corrupt—idea) is automatically demonized as well.
As a result, drawing attention to the systemic groupthink aspects of the current situation on the right is something that automatically is seen to be suspect by most conservatives that I’ve run into.
They so want to believe in this idea that they are free individuals who think for themselves that trying to tell them in any way that they might be contributing to a whole raft of systemic problems by believing things they’re being told brings out all sorts of defensive reactions.
But that’s unfortunately the situation. And for many hard-core conservatives, this fight–in my view–is simply not winnable these days–at least not through persuasive means.
So Yes, I’m Not Trying to Persuade Conservatives These Days
It’s really impossible for me to persuade people who have been told that I am the enemy—that my expertise is “leftist” and to be fought at all costs, that the evidence of my eyes and ears as well as the sources I rely on.
I don’t even bother.
But That Doesn’t Mean I Don’t Speak Up—I Just Do It for Different Reasons
So yes, I honestly am not interested in taking the time to persuade people who are committed to swallowing poison and spitting it back out at others to do something different.
I am, however, committed to speaking up loudly, especially when such conservatives are in the audience. I do so, as I described before, to break through the loudest voices and show those who MIGHT be persuaded that there are important counternarratives.
I do so to encourage those who may be feeling weary who are on the side of reason and compassion.
I do so to make sure that I don’t get changed myself. I do so to remind myself that the issues are important and people are getting hurt and it’s okay for me to rest but not to quit. I must still keep doing what I can.
But Since I’m Speaking Up for Different Reasons, I’m Using a Different Style
So this is the thing: I’m not speaking to persuade those who have already been inoculated against me—that means that even when I am speaking to conservatives, I am really speaking for the audience more than for them.
That means I speak differently. More strongly. When my purpose is to provide a counternarrative rather than to persuade, I’m not as concerned about building rapport. I’m just not.
It doesn’t mean that I use insults. But I also don’t avoid using words that have been demonized through the current unhealthy conservative groupthink process. Even when I’m talking to conservative friends, I’m not going to adapt in this way just to make them feel more comfortable, as though there’s some sort of bond between their position and mine.
Why I Am Less Worried about “Making Nice” than I Used to Be
Because honestly, the current version of conservative religio-political views are really unhealthy. And these views are hurting a lot of people. And all of that fills me with empathetic anger of the sort I discussed last week. And that empathetic anger directs me to try to fix the problems through speaking up for more reason.
But that doesn’t mean that the most reasonable approach is to try to make nice with authoritarian rhetoric and policies. It’s just not.
Feeling Okay with the Consequences
I know I may alienate conservatives I know through this approach I’m using at present. I honestly am less concerned with that than I used to be.
I trust that those conservative family and friends who want to maintain relationship with me will do that through negotiating boundaries on this stuff. They can do so by respecting my views and values and the ways they differ from theirs. I’ve done that with a few.
But yes, I’ve needed strong boundaries to stay sane through this era. I need strong boundaries to keep doing the important work. And to me, when it comes to dealing with those who are hewing to the current conservative party line, especially in a way that demonizes progressives and/or marginalized peoples, that means not softening my views to try to make the unpersuadable hear me.
It means speaking up firmly and honestly about what is and is not okay. It means setting boundaries around what ought to be okay and not around human rights violations. It means, yes, inviting people to join the rest of us in speaking up about such things. But doing so in a way that recognizes that compromise and accommodation alike—giving up some of my principles—is simply not a healthy option in this situation.
The Benefits of Standing Firm
The more I practice this philosophy, the more I speak up without insults, but with less goal to try to reach *everyone,* the healthier I feel, honestly. The more I feel I’m living according to my values.
This, by the way, is why I believe Jesus always said, “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.”
So may those who have ears to hear, let them hear. And if that’s not everyone, I shall grieve that outcome, but that’s how it goes sometimes. Sigh. Doing what we can means giving up the false beliefs that we can “reach” everyone, however much I hate that.
It means we can reach some, of course. And so those who choose different strategies are okay by me.
I just know *I* am consciously choosing the more vocal, outspoken path these days due to what I know about fascistic rhetoric and the rhetoric of conspiracy. And I’m glad a lot of you are joining me. I hope more will continue to do so.
Some Further Resources
Looking to be more assertive in speaking up against the toxic crap and dealing with the conflict that results? Well, our free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” is designed to help with just that. To get it, sign up for the email newsletter, either in the top bar of the site or through commenting on this post. Once you confirm your email address we’ll send you the link through the final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around both here through the email newsletter and at our Facebook page. I’ve been creating some exciting plans to support you more!
A Final Word
So, to sum up: the current form of conservatism has, as I’ve discussed, taken on an unholy alliance with unhealthy nationalisms and authoritarianism. I really don’t think that’s a position that ought to be compromised with. In fact, I think it’s definitely worth competing with. To do that, I think we need to learn to be okay with a spirituality of competition that embraces empathetic anger in order to combat the kind of unhealthy rhetoric and policies that hurt people. I don’t think there’s any other healthy way to solve the problems we’re facing.
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to stand up against the toxic crap and make a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.