The difficulty of trying to talk to people

I was thinking today about something that’s occupied my mind many times in the past: namely, the differences between people, and how they can be bridged (or can they?). On our last day in Seattle we were taking a food tour around downtown, and the guide said something obliquely referring to gayness, and followed it up with something like, “But never mind, folks! Not a political show!” He was being jokey (why are US tour guides always jokey?) but I didn’t like it, this reducing of a whole body of struggle into a glib word, “political.” I saw this again today on Facebook, when in a discussion about whether a particular incident was racially motivated, someone suggested that this was not the space to discuss “hot-button issues.” While I had a lot of sympathy for that user — I’m doubtful whether Facebook is ever the space for serious discussion — again I didn’t like it, this reduction of racial consciousness into “hot-button issues.”


The thing is — and as someone who has feet in many different worlds, I’m ever conscious of this — one person’s “politics” is another person’s life-or-death, and on the flip side, your life-or-death is someone else’s wink-wink ha-ha “whoops, guess I’d better be ‘politically correct’ when I talk about this!” Which is to say, regardless whether you are a caring person or a self-centered one, an engaged activist or wilfully oblivious, we are not all affected by the same things to the same extent. Racism affects me more than it does my white male friends, but it touches me far, far less than it does my black friends. I’m upset by the news of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, but on an immediate, material level, my life doesn’t change. Obviously an unjust world hurts us all, but we can’t all care about everything equally, and so, inevitably, we meet others’ outrage with only mild regret, and grieve and rail over our own sorrows while others look on with disinterest.

I wrote a post years ago asking “why aren’t we all revoluting?”, and this is, I believe, one of the answers: we can’t get it together enough for us all to revolute about the same thing at the same time. I suspect this is just a fact of humanity, exacerbated perhaps by our increasing diversity and lack of clear central allegiance (to culture, state, country, etc). At the same time, though, it bothers me when people don’t recognize that what they see as “politics” or “hot-button issues” are actually central to other people’s lived experience. That is what privilege is, right there: the ability to easily ignore something that other people can’t escape no matter how hard they try. And yes, of course, we are all a mixture of privileged and marginalized, but it doesn’t do to get too comfortable within our own privilege. You lose your humanity that way. You think you earned things you did not, and from there it’s only an itty-bitty step to believing that those who have less must somehow be less deserving, must not have tried as hard, must have made more or dumber mistakes.

It’s so painful to be on either side of this kind of discussion (regardless of whether you’re participating or merely observing). People feel attacked, misunderstood, dismissed, unseen, and it is so hard not to form allegiances, real or imagined: us versus them. We build bridges every time we get to know someone enough to transfer “them” into “us”, but nevertheless, real differences will always remain.

Not sure I was going anywhere specific with this, just wanted to write it out. If you have thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them.



14 responses to “The difficulty of trying to talk to people

  1. I just posted something about activism, then got on here and read your blog. There must be something in the air right now. The person who said Facebook isn’t the place for activism: I have to ask, if not there, then where? If not your tiny piece of the planet, the things you touch and see and do every day, including the social media you post to, then where? I want someone to make me think, question, grow. Some days I tire of cute photos of kittens and puppies and babies. Wonderful post, as always.

    • I just left a comment on your blog. 🙂 I loved your post too, and that we’re thinking about this simultaneously.

      I don’t know that this person was saying FB isn’t for activism, more that she wasn’t sure that particular wall was the right space for controversial discussion. Personally I think FB is a great space for activism but a tricky space for real conversation on difficult topics — for many reasons, not least of which is my inability to stop refreshing a contentious thread even when it’s no longer doing me any good. I have a fraught relationship with online activism. I don’t have a terrible lot of social anxiety but what I do have, really gets jerked around sometimes by what other people post; it all makes me want to hide, and that’s the opposite of being engaged in the world!

  2. Lisa, I enjoyed reading this post. While this is not a topic that I would write about (I think I’d struggle to articulate it in written words), I like discussing about it and hearing what other people think about it.

    I was reading yesterday an article on the uprising in Norfolk, England in 1381 and there’s a quote in there that I like very much and still holds true for today:

    “To rebel, arms in hand, to risk death in battle or on the quartering-block, men must not only be at odds with the old ways, they must have some hope of securing by rebellion a better condition of living.”

    • Thank you so much, Angelina. That’s a great quote and I think it really gets to the heart of rebellion, whether it’s risking death or even just risking social disapproval.

      Funny you were reading this yesterday, as I was reading The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, which is about the 14th century!

  3. Hi Lisa, this post was just what I needed to read. I was recently talking to a friend about how my boyfriend (a white male) is constantly attacked for his privilege even though his story is anything but; oftentimes, the accusers are more privileged than him. I can’t help but feel personally attacked when friends and family make insensitive comments about “white people” or direct blatant insults at him, i.e. “If I looked like you, I’d be famous by now.” I’m glad you acknowledged that the conversation is hard from both ends…I think the danger is really in attaching a single story to an entire group of people. It erases the integrity of each individual story and creates waves of misunderstanding, anger and pain. Thank you for sharing your good thoughts on this.

    • Thank you for your thoughts, Maryn! I’m with you on hating it when people seem to throw an entire population’s problems onto one person, e.g., “You’re white, everything goes smoothly for you.” On the other hand, I’ve been thinking lately that there’s an element of this particular conversation that often goes unarticulated, which is: the difference between individual privilege, and structural privilege. In fact, I’ve been struggling to write a post about this, to be the final post of this series (although it may turn out to be more than one post).

  4. Lisa Stowe is right something must be in the air because I have experienced something quite similar recently and those situation are not emotionally easy to deal with. But I did learn one thing that any action we take with people requires communication based of love, kindness, acceptance and understanding. Big hugs to you, Lisa!

    • Big hugs to you too, dear Aga! I do wonder what’s in the air (rockets, perhaps, halfway around the world 😐 ) — it seems there is a lot of this talk lately, which is not fun, but I think ultimately it’s a good thing.

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