I love a good argument as much as the next person. There’s something glorious about a perfectly placed point and the delicious combination of wit and incontrovertible evidence that feels so damn satisfying. Watch your opponents crumble before your logic. High five with your friends. Or, if it’s a friend you’re arguing with, high five anyway and make them buy you a beer for the privilege. Good times.
That said, I can’t remember the last time I argued someone- particularly a someone who I didn’t have a preexisting connection with- into agreeing with me. Most of the time being argued with just gets your back up, makes you feel attacked and digs you even more firmly into the position you already held- particularly if the position is one that you had an emotional attachment to. And, in fairness, if you didn’t feel attached to your position it’s not likely that you’d have bothered arguing it in the first place, is it?
This isn’t an intellectual exercise. This is something that is becoming incredibly important in Ireland right now. It’s a little over two months until the marriage equality referendum here in Ireland, and the No campaign have already started resorting to every dirty trick they can muster in order to scare people into voting with them. Supporters of equality already have facts, arguments and research on our side. Those aren’t going to be enough.
I recently overheard a conversation between two people- a young woman and a middle-aged man. She was trying to convince him to vote Yes in May. She was failing miserably. As far as I can work out, she had began the conversation with the assumption that he would, of course, want to vote Yes. When it became clear that he intended no such thing, I don’t think she knew how to react. She restated the facts of the situation. They had no effect, of course.
After she left, I approached that man. I told him that I’d overheard his earlier conversation and that I’d love to have a talk with him about it, if that was okay. I explained the proposed amendment, what it means and what it doesn’t mean. I talked about how I felt- how it feels to be excluded and how much it would mean to me to have the same rights as everyone else in this country. I told him about couples and families who I know, about kids who I grew up with. About growing up as a queer kid and how much things have changed. But I also told him about the people who were there when I was growing up. How we talk about Ireland like it’s closed-minded, but how we’re so much more welcoming than that when it comes to our families and communities.
At one point he said something pretty blisteringly offensive- the phrase “a pair of rug-munchers raising a kid” was involved. I didn’t rise to that, but other people did. Other people at nearby tables told him that he was out of line. I just laughed, reminded him that that wasn’t part of the amendment, and then told him about the kids- and adults- I know with two mums. The ones my age and those who are still kids. We talked about all the kinds of parents who aren’t recognised in Ireland- from non-biological same-sex parents to unmarried dads- and how that lack of recognition can hurt those children.
Anecdote is not data. But anecdotes may be what open you up to data.
Whether that man votes Yes in May or not, I think that today he’s more open to the humanity of queer people than he was this time last week. That’s a big deal.
Over the next few months, we’re going to have to have a lot of conversations like that. Those conversations are not fun. It’s horrible to hear people tell you that you, or the people you care about, don’t deserve to be treated with equal dignity and rights. However, I think that if we’re going to persuade people, we need to be incredibly careful about how we speak to them.
We need to avoid debate. A debate is not a conversation- it’s a sport. Two teams. Two predetermined sides. No possibility of change. Those are the rules. A debate is useful for one thing: persuading bystanders. Winning debates, however is more a matter of rhetorical skill than the position you hold. While a certain amount of debate is unavoidable, I’d rather focus on conversation.
We need to engage on a human level. We need to know why we care about equality, and we need to be able to relate that to real circumstances. If we’re queer ourselves? Focus on the stories from our lives that highlight the damage that heteronormativity and homo/biphobia does. Talk about the people who we love. Embed our stories of our relationships in the families and communities that we’re part of. And if you’re not queer? Talk about the people who you love who are. How important they are to you, and how much it means to you that all of us are equally treated by this country that we are all part of. Either way, make queer people into an us, not a them.
And we need to assuage people’s fears. That man I spoke to was a divorced father worried about fathers like himself being cast aside. That fear, however unrealistic, is real. This is the part where we need to understand not just the amendment, but also more generally how Ireland treats families and relationships. We need to reassure people about fears that we find ridiculous because those fears feel real to the people holding them. But we need to do it without simply shoving data in people’s faces. We have to be patient without being patronising, take people seriously, listen to what they have to say, and to reply in a way that feels genuine and human.
It’s difficult. It’s hard to have a conversation without people feeling condescended to, argued with or battered into agreement.
We do have a huge advantage, though, over our opponents in this one. You see, we don’t need to resort to argument and debate in order to show our point. Our point isn’t rhetorical. Our point is our humanity and our lives. I believe in that point. And I believe enough in the humanity of strangers that enough- not all, but enough- will be open to mine.
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