In response to the story I shared last week, many of you disparaged yourselves for not having the courage to say what I said. I realized I didn’t add an important distinction: That wasn’t courage.
I rarely speak up when adults say inane and cruel things anymore. Not because I don’t want to, but because I have tried SO MANY TIMES and my efforts were fruitless. All I did was establish myself as irritating and judgmental. No one had listened to what I said, they listened to how I chose to say it.
The Cult of Virtue Signaling leads us to believe that “speaking up” is the gold standard. Call them out! Don’t self-censure! Don’t be silent! I have argued the same – that silence permits wrongdoing. I advocated for speaking up and speaking out. But speaking up and speaking out without discernment is not courage, it’s vanity. We have to ask ourselves before we speak: What change do I seek to make? Why am I speaking up? And did it work?
In my experience, who you are speaking to matters. I have argued that silence permits wrongdoing, and it does. But it is also true that bullying the bullies has never caused a person to self-reflect and change course. And speaking to people who aren’t listening is a waste of your breath.
Snark, shaming, blaming, and self-righteousness don’t motivate anyone to change. That person will invariably return to calling their daughter ugly, telling their son he can’t cry, and saying that a black Barbie isn’t the real Barbie, you know, the normal one. You know what I mean. Stop being so sensitive, I didn’t mean it like that.
It took me a long time to understand that these people can’t hear you. Whether they can’t or don’t want to is up for debate, but the outcome is the same: No change is possible when someone’s ears are made of tin and they lack the capacity to deploy empathy, perspective take, or use critical thinking skills.
In the hypothetical Barbie example (above), shaming this person might make me feel better, but that isn’t courage. That is petty and nothing will change. If anything, I will feed her worldview that progressives are just angry victims who are so sensitive! She’s just being honest, Barbie and The Little Mermaid were white. Why can’t I accept reality??
I started to take a new approach thanks to something my friend and name twin Marc Aarons shared with me when I was commiserating about my powerlessness. He suggested that I focus less on winning battles, and more on winning the war.
One way I learned to do that was to develop discernment – when to speak up versus when to listen. What battles are worth my time and when is it more powerful to be quiet? When do I deploy quiet power and how is that different from “silently condoning bad behavior?” I learned to become strategic about where I invest my time and energy: When repeatedly arguing with your cousin about his ignorant worldview will not open his eyes, we have to take a different approach.
Conservative journalist and person with an actual brain Bret Stephens (even if we disagree) told a family friend of mine that if you encounter someone with a point of view that is ignorant or dishonest, a better approach is to lead with questions. Don’t try to convince. Have that person tie themselves into a knot with their own contradictions or intellectual dishonesty. He suggests starting with big moral questions to establish commitment and consistency. I’ve found this approach to be far more effective in inspiring self-reflection and insight.
Them: “Ugh enough of this representation stuff. Can’t we go back to the normal Barbie?”
Me: “What is a ‘normal’ Barbie?”
Them: “You know, the blonde one. Tall and skinny”
“Her sister is brunette and short, she’s a Barbie.”
“Yeah, but she’s the sister, not Barbie.“
“The box with the dolls that have brown hair, brown skin, and different body shapes say, Barbie.”
“Yeah, but they do that to appease people.”
You continue the line of questioning from a place of curiosity not attack, until you uncover the bias, “A white Barbie is more legitimate because white people are more legitimate.” And then that person has to defend their stance to themselves.
Then you walk away. Because now the person has gotten to the truth on their own, and it’s up to them to decide what to do.
In last week’s example, I spoke up because there were children around us and children are worth saving. It wasn’t courage, it was conviction. Adults, I’m not as optimistic about. We cannot save people who don’t want to be saved. We can’t convince people of a problem they do not believe exists. We cannot change people who don’t believe there is anything to change. They are on their own journey.
The siren call to shame people is strong. But shame rarely influences social action or any action, not authentically anyway; You can shame high schoolers into virginity for five minutes before they’re just having sex behind your back and lying about it. Celibacy education is a direct line to unplanned pregnancy – this is a fact.
One way to know when it’s not worth your time to engage is if the person you’re engaging with is coming from an antagonistic morally superior stance based on rhetoric and belief instead of curiosity (think: fixed vs. growth mindset). Having gun debates in Texas, for example, is futile because you’re not actually debating guns. You’re debating with someone’s fear, conception of manhood, ideas of protection, and general misogyny (“Imma show up at the door with a gun if anyone tries to date my daughter”). Explaining that guns do in fact kill people and this is not debatable – will get you exactly nowhere because it’s not about that. It’s about feelings. And if the person you’re speaking to isn’t being intellectually or psychologically honest about their position – it’s a waste of your time.
It’s better to spend time on those already listening. People with growth and not fixed mindsets. People who ask questions and sincerely listen to answers. People who don’t say things like, “I did my own research,” but in fact read books and seek out counterarguments and sit in the tension of wondering whether they are wrong.
Spend your time on the next generation. The ones whose minds and hearts haven’t turned to stone. Teach them critical thinking skills, how to evaluate a claim, how to endure the discomfort of being wrong, how to be data literate, and how to respectfully disagree. Teach them the difference between “differences of opinion” and hate, dehumanization, and discrimination.
And for the love of all things holy, if you’re debating with someone who gets their “news” from television, run. If someone sounds like a parrot of CNN or Fox, don’t waste your time. They’re not listening to you, they’re offloading. They’re doing the same thing I used to do – scream into the void for the sake of saying I did something. It’s self-serving virtue-signaling, it’s not trying to listen.
If and when you choose to speak up, don’t do it for vanity. Be willing to lose battles to win the war. Spend that extra time deciding which war you’re fighting: The one against yourself and your self-concept (“Am I a good person?”), or the real war of injustice, dehumanization, and hate?
There are battles worth fighting and hills worth dying on. Wasting your breath on those who are committed to misunderstanding you is a disservice to the causes you care about.
I spoke up here so the kid could hear me, not in order to shame the ignorant man. Any person who believes being gay is something you’re “not allowed” to do is showing you their internalized self-hatred. All the ways in which they were not allowed to be a whole human and therefore no one else can. They’re showing you their value system: comfort over humanity, their ego over the Truth, power over instead of power with. Those people are dangerous.
Human rights are not a debatable matter of belief. There are certain issues where we cannot agree to disagree – and those issues are ones involving humanity. If someone is committed to dehumanizing others to bolster the self, save your energy – we can lose those people. Yes, they will cause harm. Yes, it feels like quitting. But there is a war to be won. There are kids who believe they were born a problem. Let’s spend our time on them. Let the ignorant self implode.
PS: I’m also talking to myself here. So if you have a counterargument, I’d love to hear it. I can argue both sides of this depending on the day and am doing my best to answer the question a friend of mine confronted me with years ago that weighs heavy on my heart:
Do you want to be right, or do you want to be effective?
Obviously, I want to be both. But if I have to choose, it’s effective every day all day.