September 15, 2014

Commentary | November 19, 2012
Engaging the other side
Or, how to talk to people who have no idea what you’re talking about
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I once heard that the secret to writing on the internet is never to read the comment section. I can’t remember who gave me that advice, but I believe it.

The Daily’s online comment section is no exception – it’s a land where discourse goes to die. But, within this junkyard of half-formed opinions and rage-fuelled rants, there is one finding of significance – the readers and writers are no longer communicating meaningfully.

You might think that is because the commenters are racist, sexist, homophobic rabble unworthy of your time, and you wouldn’t be totally wrong. Some people are lost causes. But, they’re the extreme cases. A lot of folks out there are well-meaning and reasonable, but were never really exposed to socially-progressive thought.

I grew up in Texas, where – as stereotypes have taught you, my dear Canadians – homophobia and racism are relatively common. Of course, most of those that hold these views aren’t monsters; they just grew up in the wrong situation and never learned better.

Well, at McGill we get a milder version of that. And, as I see it, publications like The Daily exist to be the progressive exposure some people have missed. That brings us to today’s problem: how can it fulfill that role when so many students have written it off as delusional and combative?

And, I get it. The Daily exists to call out oppression, and that will make some people uncomfortable – no matter how it is presented. But somewhere, the connection is severed. The message is not getting across. Sure, there is a core readership that is eternally receptive to all anti-oppressive ideas, but they’re mostly the same people who have already internalized the message –we’re preaching to a dead horse.

So how do you engage people not predisposed to agreeing with you? It’s one thing to tell someone that they’re being racist, but another to make them understand the perspective of the oppressed.

Take the controversial piece entitled “You are racist” (Guillermo Martínez de Velasco, October 18, Commentary, page 7), from a few weeks back. The piece made some good points, but, rather than trying to communicate, it attacked. Rather than making people aware of the casual racisms of everyday life, it puts them on the defensive from the start. The reader rationalizes casual racism, rather than reconsidering it.

At the other end of the spectrum are pieces that make the reader see their privilege from the vantage point of the oppressed. Christiana Collison (sometimes) and Ryan Thom (so far) do a good job of this – not only are they unyielding on the issues, but they’re also charismatic writers. They show you what society is doing wrong, and then they make you understand why you should care. When Thom describes the way that “[they] knew that [their] body was less lovable by far than those of the beautiful white men I fantasized about,” the reader feels their pain and begins to understand their perspective. Conversely, when Martínez de Velasco declares that “asking someone to explain to you why you are racist” is racist, the reader has no emotional context for the statement – the reader is not presented with any reason why this instance of racism matters; it is instead presented as a blanket accusation grounded largely in the theoretical with few real world implications.

I don’t mean to belittle and dismiss the theoretical and philosophical aspects of racism, but when the author focuses exclusively on them – and especially when the author uses them as a basis to level accusations at the reader – many of the readers are unable to connect and don’t retain the most important ideas of the piece. If, instead, the author can discuss casual racism (or any form of oppression) in a pragmatic way, generating an emotional response from the reader, the piece becomes accessible and stands a stronger chance of imparting the ideas that it seeks to get across.

So I guess this question goes out to the extended community of Commentary writers: what do you want to accomplish? Do you want to write self-congratulatory and condescending jargon-laden rants that alienate the readership, or can we reach out and begin to spread the message, not to those that already know it, but to those that need to hear it?

The Readers’ Advocate is a twice-monthly column written by Austin Lloyd addressing the performance, relevance, and quality of The Daily. You can reach him at readersadvocate@mcgilldaily.com.

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