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Debate and Protest

I can’t tell you how often people insist to me that you can’t possibly change people’s minds online.  Or insist that I shouldn’t engage with someone participating in racist speech because spelling out that their behavior is racist isn’t going to change their minds.

What is fascinating to me is that these arguments prove we’ve forgotten the point of debate, and that we’re using far too many excuses to get out of doing the hard work we white people must do in our own communities.

 So let’s break this down a bit so we can remember the point of engaging in debate.

The change you seek in a debate is not with the opposing party in the debate. That is not the point of the interaction, and it is not why you engage.  Hillary wasn’t there to change Trump’s mind or vice versa.  We know this, and yet far too often we forget this when it comes to our personal debates.

 If you think arguing online doesn’t work it’s because you have misplaced your true audience and the real purpose of public discussion.

If you think arguing online doesn’t work it’s because you have misplaced your true audience and the real purpose of public discussion.

Occasionally you will change the mind of the person you are talking to, but this is very rare. You will be able to tell if this change is possible by examining the language used by the other party. If their language is inherently self-focused and self-centered, you will not change their views. Their views have already become a part of their person, a part of how they see themselves, and any change would require them to change their perception of who they are as a human on this planet.  That change can happen, but it almost never happens in one discussion.  It occurs over a period of time.  This discussion may be one of those blocks in the change, but it’s unlikely to be the entirety of it.  

Far too many attempt to make change with the opponent in the debate. Stop. That is never the point, or it shouldn’t be. And it’s why so many of you feel like discussion online is pointless. You’ve forgotten what debate is, what it’s about, and how it works.

You do not protest Nazis to make them see the error of their ways. You protest Nazis to show everyone else that their behavior is unacceptable, to help establish what society finds acceptable and create norms for group dynamics. Not protesting, not speaking up, will help establish that the behavior you see in these Nazis becomes the norm.

When you discuss or argue with someone online, engaging with that person is relevant only insofar as they are a medium to establish that their behaviors and views are not acceptable. You aren’t there to change their opinions.

Sometimes you are bringing out the underlying viewpoints (anti-immigration arguments are so often about racism) and sometimes you are merely signaling dissent and the lack of acceptance for a perspective to others watching the discussion. You are making sure to shame an unacceptable behavior to help ensure it doesn’t become a part of the social code, or help remove it as a part of the social code.  

Yes, people are watching.  Often there are many people actively watching a discussion who aren’t engaging in that discussion.  In my experience, there are always many people sitting on the sidelines who aren't participating in the conversation by commenting, liking or signaling that they are watching.

If you think arguing online doesn’t work it’s because you have misplaced your true audience and the real purpose of public discussion.

We publicly witness more Nazis and more various versions of racism because we did not signal our lack of acceptance when we observed behavior that was unacceptable in the past. This lack of action created the rise of this behavior as an acceptable part of the social code. Speaking up is essential, and again, it is not about the person you are talking to. It’s about the person watching who isn’t sure what to think. It is about codifying acceptable behavior and unacceptable, antisocial behavior.  And it’s about helping to educate those watching these interactions how views that appear or claim to be moderate are often steeped in racism at their core.

For the skeptics, yes, speaking up works. I have regularly received thank you notes from unexpected sources for explaining difficult topics via these kinds of interactions. These notes come from people who were never a part of the discussion, and they usually weren’t even a “like” in the topic timeline.

People are watching your actions. What are those actions telling them? What societal code are you creating?


Jessica Dally was born and raised in the Pierce County area and has lived in Washington State all of her life.  She has founded a number of nonprofits focused on education and community engagement and empowerment.

Jessica Dally