Recently in one of my classes, the professor asked us to consider ways we could have a productive conversation about difficult topics. Initially it felt elementary, but she was right to bring it up. Talking productively about issues seems like something that should come naturally, but it doesn’t. It may seem easier to ignore certain issues, but a lack of conversation around a given topic may stymie awareness and understanding, thus allowing hatefulness and bigotry to thrive. Further, if there’s an awareness of different opinions but no conversation, it could encourage division and resentment. Polarization is thus perpetuated, and it increasingly seems like it’s the “other side” has nothing to offer, if not worse. Thus, talking is necessary, but as my professor noticed, it’s most productive when certain aspects of conversation are considered.
As aforementioned, talking about sensitive topics can be tricky, and not just because someone’s feelings might get hurt. When talking about difficult issues, there’s the possibility – sometimes the likelihood – of intentionally and unintentionally perpetuating oppression and hate. Even the best intentioned people may use terms or reference ideas that have negative connotations. And again, though having hurt feelings is a valid experience and can happen, the damage done by reckless speech has broader implications for how hate and ignorance is perpetuated.
Further, talking about matters of oppression is a necessary method to share ideas and build connections, but the burden of educating others is not always equal. There’s research on how women are disproportionately responsible for emotional labor, meaning that in an interpersonal setting, women are often expected to effectively and respectfully communicate their feelings and needs in a way that men often aren’t. This seems to translate to political issues. Often, marginalized groups, including women but extending to many others, are expected to educate others about their oppression. Though this education is necessary, the responsibility is often forced onto marginalized individuals, requiring them to invest emotional energy into discussing their own oppression. It can bring up trauma and troubling experiences that are exhausting to talk about. As a result, it can be a taxing situation with minimal reward. Even if people end up agreeing or at least learning something, which is not guaranteed, the benefit is not always proportional to the effort required.
Considering the burdens placed on marginalized groups, people with more privilege should step in, when appropriate, to engage in difficult conversations. It is less taxing for people to argue about systems of oppression that do not directly affect them. Granted, the people affected first hand by oppression and their ideas should be centered, but there is worth in ensuring they are not the only ones engaging in a given conversation.
Despite the difficulties in engaging in difficult conversations, it is worth it to talk, even when it’s hard. Many students at Clark generally agree on sensitive issues, so disagreement can seem that much scarier when it happens. But difficult conversations, done right, can have benefits. One can learn something, or understand a different perspective. So when disagreement does appear, the reaction should not be to shy away, but to think about how to navigate it in a respectful way.