Imagine this: you’re hanging out with your flatmates or friends at a pub, and one of them makes a comment about the outfit a woman at the other end of the bar is wearing. “Not to be a sexist,” your friend says – but with the way the woman is dressed, they say, it wouldn’t surprise them if something bad happened to her.
You’re justifiably outraged, horrified and saddened by what your friend has just said. You know you need to speak up and tell them why what they’ve said is not OK, ever.
But the problem is they’re your friend. And you’re afraid of what they might say, do – or even if it’ll ruin your friendship for good.
Having these types of conversations isn’t easy, but we all know they’re essential – not just because there’s a need to speak out, but because it’s important that others understand what’s important to us (like, you know, that everyone deserves to be treated with respect and as an equal member of society). To boot, quite a lot of us prefer to spend our time with people that share our values; no-one wants to be friends with someone for years, only to find out they’re a misogynist.
As writer, activist and Feministing founder Jessica Valenti explains, it’s important we have these conversations to share our beliefs and push for positive change. By having them, she says, we can begin to create a more inclusive society.
Kris Taylor, a PhD candidate at the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland focusing his research on pornography use among men, says one strategy for having a difficult conversation is to first focus on the views the person you’re talking to might have, and try to understand why they might believe the things they do. “If somebody says ‘but look at what she was wearing?’ I would ask why they think that,” he says. “If somebody used a slur, I would ask them why they said it, and why they thought I would want to hear it. Questioning people and asking them to account for their opinion can be very disarming and powerful.”
It can also help to find common ground in a discussion, he says. “Often I don’t have to look too hard to see that the person who is angry at feminism, for example, will actually agree with a lot of the central tenets of feminism, while simultaneously rallying against the ‘label’. As such, I have found it effective having those conversations as a series of questions, and questioning underlying assumptions, instead of trying to take somebody to school. Me acting like some kind of final authority and preaching to somebody will only alienate them further, and I am more interested in where their disagreements stem from.”
Cristen Conger, co-host of the podcast Stuff Mom Never Told You (a kickass series that does an awesome job of explaining some of the basic ideas about feminism, encouraging listeners to question the patriarchal social structures around them), explains that when discussing feminism with friends, family or flatmates, it’s important to understand privilege, including how the personal attributes you have might influence the advantages you might enjoy. Some of those privileges, she says, can include one’s race, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, ability or disability. It’s also important, she says, to recognise that not everyone has the same privilege, and that everyone has different experiences and perspectives – which could mean they might not agree with all your points.
Writing for The Huffington Post, life coach Laurie Gerber recommends listening to the other person’s response after we make a point. “After you have said everything you needed to say, ask for their response,” she writes. “Know that they may have a few difficult things to say as well. Really listen to their thoughts, and make sure you understand them. If a hard conversation is executed well, it can cause a whole new depth of connection and intimacy.”
Auckland University’s Taylor also says that a single conversation will not be enough to change another person’s mind or come to an understanding. “Changing people’s minds and having these conversations is a constant work in progress, both for myself and for those I talk to. One conversation is never enough!”
But, he says, even having just one conversation is still important, especially if it is something we care deeply about.
“I remind myself that the disagreement frequently stems from a lack of understanding, ignorance, and a failure to engage empathetically with the people affected by discrimination,” he says. “As such, as much as is possible, I try to extend a level of empathy to the person I am talking to, with an understanding that their grievance most likely arises from some deeply held – although to me misguided – idea. I may not be able to change their mind on the spot, but questioning their assumptions gets that ball rolling.”
When talking to our friends, flatmates, family and whanau about feminism and the importance of equality for everyone, he also has a bit of final advice that’s particularly relevant given the highly charged political environment we currently live in. “I am a firm believer in the power of discussion and civil debate.”