An Important Note Before You Begin:
This list has been written from the point of view of a young, middle-class, university-educated Singaporean Chinese woman – I have tried to make it neutral and generic, but it is directed at people who occupy positions of social privilege in their communities (i.e. you are a member of majority groups more often than not). I cannot speak for my minority friends, but would like to help “curate [their lived experiences] by listening and asking [them] questions”, as put by my friend Agnes Mahendran. I am speaking to my own community and saying, “look, the way we’re doing things isn’t right.” It’s an unfortunate fact that the people most likely to silence the opinions of the weakest in society usually will not listen unless someone they deem credible is speaking.
This is a list of questions to ask yourself before responding to the latest social scandal. I wrote it with the gracious help of a number of friends who are named within the list and at the end of this note. Special thanks to Agnes Mahendran, whose views I included so frequently that she’s basically a co-author. Despite its length, it’s not comprehensive (or perfect), but hopefully serves as a good starting point, and a reminder that every difficult conversation is complex for a variety of reasons.
Although I grew up in Singapore as part of the majority ethnicity, I currently study in the UK, where I am an ethnic minority. If you are Singaporean Chinese (or part of the majority anywhere else) and do not feel you are privileged, I suggest that there is nothing like becoming a minority that forces you to realise that your reality is not everybody’s reality. I ask you to please listen more than you speak, and to know that impulsive and emotional responses usually point to deeply-rooted beliefs and prejudices that you hold for various complicated reasons. This is normal human behaviour, but must be investigated and addressed. This may be uncomfortable, but is part of growing into a more decent human being who is ready to understand a wider range of people.
Also, I don’t mean to confuse the social relationship between two people in majority and minority positions (a power imbalance exists) with that of two people who happen to have different opinions but are of social backgrounds that are irrelevant to the issue (a power balance exists). This list addresses the first situation – it aims to help people identify that they are in more powerful positions in society, and asks them to imagine the realities of people in less powerful positions.
[Last Updated 31 May, 5:50pm (GMT):
– Some text from Q9 has been moved to Q4
– Some content in Q9 has been edited
– Q10 has been edited
– Part 1 and 3’s titles have changed]
And now, The List:
How to Have Respectful Conversations About Social Issues
PART ONE: Assessing My Emotions
1. Why is this issue important to me?
This first question is straightforward enough. Perhaps you came across a post on the internet that stirred up an emotion in you. Maybe you’ve been in a similar situation and can empathise with the opinion-holder. Alternatively, maybe you feel the person is wrong and needs to be put right.
Example: “This post concerns people of my cultural background. I value my culture and way of life, and that’s why I care about this opinion.”
2. What am I feeling and why?
What emotions do you feel right now? Why? For instance, maybe you came across an online post that challenges your beliefs about your country, your community or some other group you identify with. Do you feel defensive and angry? That’s not always a bad thing. The important thing is to be honest about why. Do you feel the writer is wrong? Are they pointing out something that you do and labelling it as incorrect?
Example: “I am angry because this person is accusing someone of my ethnicity of being racist. I am not like that at all, and I have never met anyone of my ethnicity like that either.”
Unhelpful conclusion: “They must be lying or delusional! In fact, they’re racist for labelling me!”
Helpful conclusion: “Maybe some individuals in my group have made this person feel this way. Let’s find out more.”
PART TWO: Assessing Our Differences
3. Who is the opinion holder?
Is the person a member of a minority group? Are you? Could the different positions you occupy in society explain your differences in opinion over the same event? Why might this be so? The rule here is to always extend kindness and understanding. Imagine how someone else could have a different perspective that is as valid to them as yours is to you.
Examples: “This woman is expressing opinions about how men treat her. As a man, could my experiences be different to hers? Does this explain why she sees an issue where I don’t?”
“This person with a disability is telling me it is rude to use [term] to describe them. I don’t see any problem with using it because I don’t have negative associations with it, but maybe he does.”
Unhelpful conclusion: “If I don’t observe it happening it’s not the truth. These people are simply overly sensitive and playing ‘the minority card’.”
Helpful conclusion: “Maybe if I were this person I might have had these experiences. Let’s find out more.”
3a) Am I in a position of greater social privilege than s/he?
Sociologists have learned that the more minority positions you occupy in a society, the more your experiences differ from people in the most majority positions, usually in negative ways that are not immediately apparent (I’m very broadly paraphrasing Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality here).
If you are in the majority group addressing an opinion expressed by someone from the minority, the decent thing to do is to always listen carefully to the person in the minority and defer to them in cases where they might feel hurt. Emotions are real – you cannot tell someone to stop feeling hurt because the hurt has occurred and exists whether you like it or not.
Example: “I don’t think there is anything wrong with making jokes about rape. Everyone knows rape is awful and I would never actually condone it, but this is a joke, it’s meant to be funny!”
Unhelpful conclusion: “It’s just a joke, they shouldn’t take it so seriously! Why should I have to change the way I behave when I don’t see anything wrong with it?”
Helpful conclusion: “If I had been a victim of rape, I would be very affected by any mentions of rape. It doesn’t hurt me much to stop joking about this one particular topic. I may not feel that it’s harmful, but I’ll stop because I can see that others might feel differently.”
3b) Am I in a position of lower social privilege than s/he?
At the same time, being less privileged (i.e. in a minority group) does not automatically win you a moral victory. In all cases, extend compassion and empathy, especially when it’s hard.
BUT! this does not equate to blaming yourself for a hurtful thing that has happened to you. The solution to unfairness is not always to grin and bear it – expressing your opinions matters.
Example: “I am from a minority race and that person is from the majority race.”
i) “She can’t possibly be right in this discussion about race because she’s from the majority group.”
ii) “My boss said something racist to me but I guess I did make that one racial joke about myself so I deserve it.”
i) “The hurt and humiliation I feel may be clouding my judgement of things. Let me check myself and remove any unwarranted emotion before continuing the conversation. My emotions are valid and genuine, but unhelpful in a heated situation like this. We would both gain from learning about the other’s perspective.” [credit: Agnes]
ii) “I will speak up and tell my boss why her comments were hurtful. If she won’t stop, I may have to speak to HR.”
4. What is the person actually saying? Why?
Listen carefully to the person you disagree with, even though this might be hard. Try to look past your initial emotional response – pause and return to the opinion later.
Here, Ishu suggests you ask: What was the original intent of their message? Are they really saying what you think they are or has your emotional response affected the way you understand their words? Could your impression be an interpretation of the information that suits your worldview?
You might feel that someone is imposing their views on you unreasonably. Is this the case? Sometimes, a person is simply expressing emotions and values that you do not have in this situation – it doesn’t make them wrong by default.*
(*IMPORTANT NOTE: Again, this is directed at members of majority groups or in cases where majority/minority status matters less, e.g. differing political opinions. We might think a view is unreasonable because we’ve never heard it before – in that case, we should listen. If you are a member of a minority group hearing something that denies your experiences or existence, I don’t believe you need to give bigots the time of day.)
If you’re talking about an issue concerning a person from a minority group, for instance, ask a friend of yours from that group what they think of the issue – you might think they feel one way about it, only to discover they actually feel an entirely different way.
If you don’t have a single friend who is from the group you are discussing, that might be the first reason why you don’t understand that point of view. Most of us occupy massive “echo chambers” in our lives, whether by choice or circumstance, where we are surrounded with people who share our values, political opinions, and physical or social characteristics. Make a conscious effort to look outside your echo chamber.
PART THREE: Assessing my Beliefs and Responses
5. Does asserting my view mean I need someone to just shut up?
Sometimes it’s unpleasant when you’ve done things one way all your life, and then someone comes along and tells you to stop. In order to still be correct do you need to erase another person’s viewpoint? Doing so can make people feel as though you are not acknowledging their humanity.
Agnes suggests this insightful question: Do I care at all about the humanity of minority groups? Am I invested in their lives and livelihoods?
Carissa put it, more broadly, this way: Are you wanting to be understood more than you are willing to understand?
Example: “That person brought up a flaw in our society that I feel doesn’t exist.”
Unhelpful conclusion: “Nobody asked you to be so sensitive about this. You’re the only one who feels this way. If you didn’t say anything we would have gotten along fine.”
Helpful conclusion: “This is really uncomfortable for me because it challenges deeply-held beliefs I have. I have to understand that I cannot always be right, however, and this may be one of those cases where I am wrong. I need to find out more.”
6. How would a third party view my opinions and positions?
This is almost impossible to do because you can never actually remove yourself from your consciousness, but try your best. If you had to solve this problem as a third party, without knowing which side you might be on, what would you think is fair?
7. Am I stereotyping or generalising in any way?
Sometimes we are prone to explaining an opinion away by applying a generalisation or negative label to it (I have done this lots). On the contrary, however, there are usually wider reasons for why someone holds the views they do.
Example: “People who discuss social problems all the time annoy me.”
Unhelpful conclusion: “They are millennials who are overly-dramatic and entitled.”
Helpful conclusion: “Perhaps to that person, speaking about this issue the only way out from a very bad situation they are personally experiencing. I can see how feeling powerless could make me feel dejected and angry.”
8. Am I adhering to a flawed status quo?
Am I telling someone to stop complaining because the world is unfair? Identifying inequality is a good way of starting conversation and action towards solving it. It is not helpful to silence someone for voicing an opinion about inequality.
If you feel even more disadvantaged than the person making the point, and you don’t see an issue with what they do, refer to Qn 3b. It’s okay if you decide for yourself to not speak up about an issue – different things are important to different people – it doesn’t instantly make you wrong and them right, or vice versa.
9. Am I “othering” a person or group of people?
Sometimes it’s easy to think of yourself as “us” and people with different opinions from you as “them”. Making people “the other” is the quickest way to lose all empathy and understanding for them. Remind yourself that many of the borders we drawn between ourselves are imaginary.
Agnes suggests an important question to ask: Should I just speak to my minority friends and figure out their opinions on this matter?
Who does the issue concern? Do you have friends who fit the description of the person with whom you disagree? [If the answer is no, refer to my point in Q4]. Do you see them as exceptions to the norm of the group you are considering? Perhaps you have more in common with the people with whom you disagree than you think.
Example: “People of X ethnicity tend to be overly dramatic, so you can’t take what they say seriously.”
Unhelpful conclusion: “I know John is of X ethnicity, but he’s different.”
Helpful conclusion: “If I generalise people of John’s ethnicity, I’m applying a label to him too. I realise I am stereotyping and will stop.”
10. Would I say this to someone I know?
This final question is also straightforward – if you are discussing a member of Group X, would you say the same thing to a friend of yours from Group X?
Here, Tricia’s suggestion is also particularly pertinent: Will what I’m saying build another person up or tear him/her down?
Sophia adds: What am I trying to accomplish and what is my stopping point?
Our words have consequences – how much are you willing to do (and who are you willing to hurt) in order to assert your opinions? If you wouldn’t say something to a person you know, it shouldn’t be any different even for strangers or people you may disagree with.
For online conversations, Agnes asks: Would you say what you’ve said online to the person in real life?
If the answer is no, it shouldn’t be said. People online are no less real than people offline.
Thank you for taking the time to read this rather long list – I hope it is helpful in some way. Share it with your friends, enemies, frenemies, questionable relatives etc.
Any mistakes are mine alone and I know I may have used some terms with the assumption that I would be better understood than I should expect to be. I’m open to constructive criticism and suggestions but please bear in mind that I’m writing this from the perspective of a Sociology undergraduate – I’m not an expert.
The List was written by Izabella Chia, with the help of the lovely people named below:
Ishwarya Silvaraj (Ishu)
Special thanks also to:
Q3 Agnes: Are there experiences another group of people have lived, that I just cannot see and will never understand due to our relative positions?
Q4 Ishu: Am I listening to the actual intent of the message or am I interpreting the information to my suit my preference?
Q5 Agnes: Do I care at all about the humanity of minority groups? Am I invested in their lives and livelihoods? Will my voice help level the playing field?
Q5 Carissa: Am I wanting to be understood more than I am willing to understand?
Q6 This point was very slightly influenced by John Rawls’s ‘original position’ thought experiment and the ‘veil of ignorance’, thanks Chris Carroll for telling me about it.
Q9 Agnes: Should I just speak to my minority friends and figure out their opinions on this matter?
Q10 Agnes: Would I be able to say what I’m saying online, to an actual minority IRL?