Advocating to Callous Listeners: Five (Not-So-Easy) Steps

This is a very strange Martin Luther King Day. In my lifetime, we’ve always had a long way to go on race relations–I think most people agree we were not enjoying a post-racial society before the November election–but this is the first time that a President-Elect picked a fight with a civil rights legend the weekend before his inauguration. And, more importantly, this behavior does not exist in a vacuum–our President-Elect ran on a blatantly racist, homophobic, ableist, and Islamophobic platform, and though he did not win with a majority, he did win. And his victory (such as it was) emboldened racist people throughout the country to say what they really think–or, as was the case in many school bathrooms and Congressional floors throughout the country, do what they really think. And most of us who are decent human beings are horrified by this, and want it to change.

However, when many of us with these reactions tried to talk to our family/colleagues/friends/neighbors’ cats who supported Trumpian politics, we had a second horrifying realization: This person we were speaking to did not care about fellow human beings. “The Black Lives Matter movement started because people are dying,“ we told them, and to our abject horror, they just didn’t care. Appealing to a sense of humanity did not work, because the listener did not view the subject population as people.

And this is the point where many of us well-meaning advocates, and especially allies, start to draw a blank about what to even do next. Recognizing the humanity of fellow human beings is so basic to us that we don’t know what to do when someone rejects it–the carburetor in our brain stops turning over, and we stand there sputtering, “But they should!” And we’re right–they should–but they still don’t.

I know something of this challenge, because I spent four and a half years writing about mitigating factors of very marginalized and vulnerable people for a living. Talking to people about their experience above has made me realize it might be helpful to talk about my trial and error process. To that end, I’ve drafted a quick primer on an unofficial five-step process I’ve identified over years as a professional advocate for speaking to listeners who have already reject moral and empathy-based arguments. Though this is by no means exhaustive and makes certain assumptions about the relationship between the speaker and the listener, I’m hoping it’s a helpful start for the average ally and advocate.

1. Let Go of ‘Should,’ And Recognize ‘Is’

This is the first step, but it’s also by far the hardest–if you can manage it, the rest becomes much easier. Most people reading this probably agree that anyone with the empathy God gave a grapefruit thinks that other human beings dying through preventable means is bad. The natural corollary that extends from this understanding is that this person we are speaking to does not, in fact, have the empathy God gave a grapefruit. There’s a real impulse to reject not just that person, but the whole rest of the process–“Well this person is terrible, so until they aren’t, I’m done.” And I hate to break this to you, Dear Reader, but if you have set out to advocate you are not, in fact, done–or at least, not just because this person should have empathy and doesn’t. Nobody is going to make those people play by the rules of basic humanity. People who show they lack empathy to a degree that appalls you still sometimes need to be dealt with, and walking away in those situations is a luxury we’re losing the ability to exercise. You gotta even. I’m sorry.

This doesn’t mean that you have to think this person is wonderful, of course–as soon as you are done interacting with that person in that context, it is appropriate (and even healthy) to blow off steam about how awful it was to engage with them. It’s part of the human condition. But you definitely can’t have a win condition without even playing the game, and that means recognizing the reality in front of you.

2. Identify Goals (Ahead of Time, if Possible)

You’ll note that I said above, “People…sometimes still need to be dealt with.” The obvious corollary is that sometimes, they don’t. The best way to avoid banging your head against a human brick wall for an hour is to have a good idea of whether you need to deal with this person–and the easiest way to do that is to identify your goals. And even when you do need to talk to a person, having a firm understanding of what you’re trying to achieve helps you get in, say what you have to say, and get out–so it’s very helpful to know going in. What are you trying to achieve by talking to this person? Do they control access to a resource you need? Are they engaging in a damaging behavior you want to stop? Are they voting all of our human rights away in the first week of their first session before your eyes? (Spoiler: If your answer is “I want to let them know that their ideas are bad and they should feel bad,” I recommend walking away.)

To help you see what I’m talking about, let’s go through an example scenario–for the purposes of this essay, let’s pretend we are members of Congress, which is both a helpful universal and a pleasant daydream. Mitch McConnell is holding another Senate vote about the Affordable Care Act. The Senate committees have come up with alternate legislation, and it’s just forty blank pages followed by the words “Buy an HRSA.” People may die if we can’t convince some of the Republican Senators who voiced early opposition to the lack of “replace” in the phrase “repeal and replace” to vote differently this time around.

3. Look for Carrots and/or Sticks

Okay, so: You’ve accepted that the obvious appeal to humanity won’t work, because the listener is a jerkfaced jerk. But they’re a jerkfaced jerk who has a thing you need. Now what?

Here’s where the first thing I mentioned becomes really important–because figuring out what is going to be effective requires an understanding of what motivates that person. Please note that I am not adding my voice to the chorus of white people saying that everything will be fine if we just give white supremacists more empathy, which I believe is a dangerous model of thought at best. But in order to advocate, you need to know what a carrot and/or a stick would look like for this person, because everybody has their own carrot and stick–and you can bet that a racist callow person’s stick and carrot probably don’t look like yours.

To continue the example above, let’s talk about what would constitute a relevant carrot and stick for your average Republican Senator. Though this is an incredibly complex topic, for the purposes of this exercise let’s assume the carrot probably looks like money, or political capital. The stick probably looks like being voted out of office.

So as we’re navigating negotiation with these Senators, we need to either figure out why the ACA will save/earn them money or figure out why they should fear what their constituents will do if they accept this legislation.

4. Offer a Carrot or Raise a Stick, and Preferably One that You Believe

This is another hard but crucial step, because it requires you to take on the listener’s paradigm long enough to persuade them. It honestly does help to believe what you are saying, for several reasons. First of all, a credible argument tends to carry more weight; a thing even you don’t believe is generally not that persuasive to other people. But more importantly, an argument you can accept as true helps you remember is that speaking this person’s language doesn’t mean you hold their values, or that you agree with them–it just means you need something from them and you have to figure out how to coalition-build in order to make that happen. It’s helping them figure out why they want to do this thing you want them to do anyway. (And lastly, though perhaps this should go without saying, it is never a good idea long-term to lie your way to a built coalition, as this creates many problems for both you and others throughout the process.)

Let’s go back to our replacement plan vote. Though I’m generally a carrot person by personality and trade, in this instance I think the stick is easier to argue. As I noted above, this is incredibly complicated, but for now let’s pick one stick: That preserving the ACA probably will not save these Senators money, but constituents relying on the ACA will not be happy to see their health insurance evaporate–even if they currently don’t know it. Elaborating on that is where the advocacy starts, and ideally is the vehicle by which change happens. Awesome and canny Senators that we are, we talk with the folks who are already wavering about why their instincts are good and this move is risky. We note their specific reelection dates. We note how long it would take the ACA to be effectively repealed. We observe how close the end date will be to their campaign season. We heroically refrain from yelling at them. We generally try to persuade them that their scary inhuman boss won’t even be their boss in two years if they do this now. In an ideal world (or at least, in this tiny scenario we have built), we are successful.

5. Take Care of Yourself After the Rinse/Repeat Cycle Ends

Most people’s minds aren’t changed in a single five-minute session; it takes a lot of work and internal screaming and fantasizing about shaking them by the shoulders. This process is hard on a person, and appropriate self-care should be treated as a necessary step. Do what you need to do in order to stay healthy, and that tends to be different things for different people. I encourage you to think of self-care as the final step of the advocacy process, because it’s that crucial.

To wrap up, let’s talk about final steps in the Congress scenario. After several grueling hours of arguing convinces my Republican colleagues to vote against the bill, I am tired and hungry. So I reward myself. By eating their share of the vote-o-rama pizza.