My first experience of homophobia was in Denmark. I’d visited a bar and met someone. He and I were walking the mostly deserted streets of Copenhagen’s gay neighborhood late at night. The dimly lit streets were jitter-inducing: I was accustomed to American cities where you wouldn’t want to be caught at dark alone. But in a Danish city, I figured we were safe.
We sauntered side by side, a normal distance separating us. As we approached a plaza, a brawny man lumbered up to us. He was over six feet tall and must have weighed 250 pounds. “Are you gay?” he asked in Eastern European-inflected English, inferring our identity based on our proximity to the gay district.
I suspected nothing good would come of a conversation with such an unpromising beginning and wanted to keep walking, but my companion answered “Yes, and what of it?” The man began to explain: “I have nothing against you—homosexuality is a mental health problem. You should seek treatment.” My companion interjected: no, it isn’t. The man shook his head and said, “What am I supposed to say to my child if he sees two men walking down the street holding hands?” My companion angrily engaged. Noting how deserted the plaza was, I nudged my friend and suggested we continue walking. Eventually, he acquiesced, and we left.
Did I do the right thing? Was my companion right? Are those the wrong questions? We might have both been correct: I was being prudent; my companion was doing the courageous yet foolhardy thing, standing up to a large, semi-agitated stranger at 1:00 am. Maybe the better question is what one gains from a combative approach to hate and which advantages a more subtle approach confers. Our encounter with homophobia—and differing reactions to the situation we faced—is a microcosm of possible psychological and political responses to oppression.
When an oppressed group faces discrimination, some members choose the path of confrontation, defiantly opposing injustice out of love of justice or simply to preserve their dignity and self-respect in a hostile world. Others go along to get along, reasoning that confrontation lends credibility to fearmongers’ slurs about the marginalized group’s supposed “incivility.” In some cases, their justification for avoiding conflict may originate in a religious or cultural intuition that it’s better to suffer injustice than perpetrate it, or that ultimate victory lies in uncomplainingly outlasting one’s oppressors.
Assimilationists may even believe that being long-suffering possesses a quietly persuasive power, the “soul force” that Gandhi spoke of. In other cases, conflict avoidance may come from a calculated recognition that direct attacks rarely persuade and generally backfire, allowing people to double down on prejudices and indulge their confirmation bias. In yet other cases, it may simply be based in fear of retribution: as a Japanese proverb has it, “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”
Another choice lies between these extremes: a quiet defiance whereby a person works within a system’s strictures to push it to reform itself. And perhaps each pole of the binary—the activist pariah and the complete assimilationist—requires the other. The most successful political movements have an “outside” and an “inside” game: sympathetic elites and a grassroots presence capable of holding elites accountable and forcing change through an inertia-ridden system. Rabblerousing is indispensable if these efforts are to succeed—squeaky wheels usually get the grease.
In Copenhagen, my urge to flee the confrontation had a twofold motivation: a primal drive for self-preservation, and a recognition that arguing with the homophobe was futile. A fleeting encounter generally isn’t sufficient to counteract decades of conditioning and miseducation. If the man from Copenhagen ever realizes the error of his ways, it will be after a long period of reflection. Perhaps he’ll inadvertently befriend some gay people and eventually, only after forming friendships too deep to break, will he ascertain their sexual orientation.
Wisdom demands that, when confronted with the world’s imperfections—fear, ignorance, stupidity, and evil in their diverse manifestations—we know when to resist and when to conserve our strength. Succumbing too easily to the ever-present temptation to surrender leads to lazy fatalism. We shouldn’t write people off because of their current politics: often, people hold retrograde views out of fear or ignorance, not malice. It would be a costly mistake to dismiss them as irredeemable. On the other hand, devoting everything to the struggle against injustice leaves you without resources to fall back on.
I understand why my companion felt impelled to persuade the homophobe. I frequently feel a nearly irresistible compulsion to convince people of my viewpoint, despite knowing persuasion is rarely, if ever, instantaneous. It remains the case even when my interlocutors’ ingrained political stances or socioeconomic status seem to render my arguments moot the moment I utter them. Knowing my arguments will likely fall on deaf ears is frustrating. Yet recognizing the endeavor’s probable futility doesn’t discourage me. Why are we so motivated to change people’s opinions, particularly when it comes to politics? For one thing, we live in electoral democracies where, at least theoretically, people’s votes determine public policy. The opinions of bigoted septuagenarians who think that being LGBTQ is a mental disorder, the views of privileged white women who refuse to acknowledge people of color’s full humanity, indirectly affect the lives and happiness of members of minority groups.
The better, more plausible explanation is that politics is primal: it engages our emotions and fundamental values. When someone holds a wrongheaded political view, consciously or subconsciously, we experience it as an existential insult, a threat that unsettles our mental world’s coherence. Especially when our debater is someone we know and love, the discord we feel when we learn that they hold a view we find repugnant is jarring.
Centrists might object that the term “wrongheaded” suggests that I have access to an objective standard for evaluating political opinions. Who am I to say what’s right and wrong? Doesn’t truth reside at the golden mean? The centrist’s pious injunction to hear all sides is partly true but also deeply misleading. Maintaining a mind open to the possibility of arriving at a conclusion distinct from the customary one has great value.
Politics involves thinking. It also involves morality and ethical questions which reject attempts to average your way to the truth. Facts don’t provide their own interpretations, but they often point in a leftward direction. That the fifty richest Americans have almost as much wealth as the poorest half of America—165 million people—is an objective fact. So too is the fact that we are emitting CO2 at civilization-endangering levels, and 100 multinational corporations are largely at fault. Claiming that these facts have no moral or political force is to insist on an unreasonable commitment to facts’ value neutrality.
We can have reasoned disagreements about morality, but it’s impossible to compromise on basic human rights without compromising the existence of nonviolent, rational discourse. The liberal sentiment that every view has something to contribute—echoed inadvertently by Trump after Charlottesville when he infamously asserted that “there are good people on both sides”—sounds nice. But it’s untrue, especially when neofascists run amok on the Internet. Not every point of view deserves equal consideration. If someone disrespects other people’s right to exist, they forfeit any claim to be taken seriously. And the liberal view suffers from a false equivalency bias: the status quo is already profoundly biased towards power and wealth. A “centrism” which listens to activists advocating for a minimally just and decent world, listens to large corporations and the rich and famous, and regards both sides’ arguments as equally valid, positions itself squarely against the oppressed.
How can people be coaxed to renounce old attitudes? Successful persuasion stems from trust, mutual respect, and, often, love. Combativeness and condescension rarely win the day. Writing off large swathes of people as “baskets of deplorables” won’t endear you to them. A comments section on any webpage is unlikely to sway anyone. Most social media “conversations” are unworthy of the word, rancorous and incapable of inspiring novel thoughts.
To persuade someone, they need to be convinced that you have authority to speak on the subject, and they must be comfortable enough with you to show vulnerability. Changing a long-held conviction is a risky proposition: it involves challenging one’s entire worldview. Building friendships that allow people to feel safe disclosing doubts and changing their hearts is painstaking labor. It requires calm conversations and great patience from both the persuader and persuadee. Confronted with existential crises—climate change, economic inequality, and impending food and public health system collapses—do we have that kind of time any longer?
Politics isn’t another “lifestyle choice” like your haircut or preferred musical genre, although they are all modes of self-expression. But politics differs from these superficial facets of the self because it enlists our deepest priorities and makes and breaks people’s lives. COVID-19 has demonstrated that structural racism and economic inequality literally determine who lives and who dies. If a centrist is close friends with a conservative who denies equality and economic security to oppressed groups because of “free markets” and “fiscal conservatism,” they betray their view that politics is a parlor game, disposable when convenient.
Such a conclusion leaves us in a disturbing place: it suggests that productive discourse rapidly reaches a dead end. If the precondition for political persuasion is being friends and having similar values from the start, then this leaves little room for moving people who currently hold political viewpoints diametrically opposed to your own. Being friends with someone isn’t necessary to convince them of something. It is possible to have productive conversations with someone who isn’t your friend. Such conversations are simply more likely when the person in question is a friend or family member with whom you share a degree of intimacy.
People who are apolitical or hold their political views lightly can be convinced. And people with strong political views—even repugnant ones—can and do change. Epiphanies are rare but not impossible. Natalie Wynn of ContraPoints, a YouTube channel dedicated to combating the far right through humorous takedowns and philosophically informed critique, has been surprisingly successful in deradicalizing denizens of the right-wing Web. Her brand of humor-infused, breezy yet rigorous discussion offers one promising avenue for digital persuasion. And shifting economic and social circumstances have a persuasive power that often exceeds individual efforts. Grassroots organization and mass movements also have a potent emotional appeal and can draw on the strength of numbers and the promise of solidarity to win people’s hearts.
These days, tribalism is centrist circles’ scourge, a convenient mechanism for displacing fundamental problems with capitalism. It creates a false equivalency between a genocidal far right which dreams of a white ethno-state and an American left headed by figures like Bernie Sanders, whose wildest fantasies entail giving everyone healthcare, building a generous social welfare state, and returning taxes to the days of Eisenhower. Our woes aren’t caused primarily by tribalism—if anything, tribalism is a consequence of economic inequality, which has fueled xenophobia, distrust, Trumpism, and political discord. The inability to befriend people of fundamentally different political persuasions doesn’t preclude us from tolerating them. Although greatly overrated by pundits and protest-averse elites, civility plays an important social role, enabling us to coexist with people whose views we despise. Even if we’re not willing to personally take on the task of trying to change them, we can recognize that a person is more than their politics, and that a person’s politics may change.
Neither dialogue nor direct confrontation have ever been easy. Each offers different challenges and rewards, but each is essential to keeping political hope alive. We have little choice but to persevere in the work of persuasion, animated by faith in people’s ultimate goodwill, which survives beneath the sediment of disinformation, fear, and anxiety. In the choice between force and discourse, discourse easily prevails. One only hopes that this will continue to be true far into the future.