Estimated reading time: 7 minutes.
“Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Socialism”
“Don’t Apologize to the Mob”
Do titles like this sound familiar? Sure, the content inside might be entertaining to those who agree, but if you spoke like that in a conversation, would you convince anyone?
It’s really easy to forget the “relational” part of “relational apologetics,” especially when interacting online. It’s hard to remember that there’s a person on the other end of your comment or tweet. In dialogue, it’s critical to treat others with respect, even to give them a more-than-fair hearing. [Tweet that!] It’s the right thing to do, and it also makes you stand out if you treat people charitably in spite of deep disagreement.
Of course, this is hard to do, especially when you’re passionate and you believe your cause is just. You probably know “that guy” who knows all the arguments—he’s got personhood nailed, he has a whole magazine of bullets to bite for sovereign zone objections, and he’s memorized the entire De Facto Guardian paper—and he can’t wait to destroy the weak points of the opposition! It sounds funny to read, but too many people get excited about fighting for truth and justice against the new American way and forget that people normally have to want to talk to you in order for you to help them change their mind.
I don’t want to spend too much time here arguing against the destroy approach—I’ll just say that it’s somewhat fun but not helpful and please don’t do it—because I want to focus on a different question.
Let’s say you previously took an approach that put the “warrior” in “culture warrior,” but you’ve been convinced by someone you know or something ERI has written to turn over a new leaf. You’re now the paragon of dialoguing virtue, but people still act like you’re a conversational time bomb waiting to uncork your favorite snarky one-liner, metaphorically drop the mic, and leave the room. What do you do?
Talking to the Man in the Mirror
In case you’re wondering, this is not a hypothetical question for me. In fact, some number of the people reading this who knew me from college, or high school, or middle school, are probably waiting for that moment where I finally reveal my true colors as the version of me they remember. And make no mistake, I was obnoxious. In high school, I was the guy who went on the website of a well-known atheist to take on all comers about the existence of God. In college, I pounced on any pro-choice or pro-abortion Facebook post, which did not endear me to my classmates.
You shouldn’t be surprised to hear that my pro-life efforts in college largely flopped. Sure, maybe I had better arguments, but no one was going to take the time to seriously consider them because I was confrontational and put anyone who disagreed with me on the defensive. Fortunately, I had the sense to realize that what I was doing wasn’t working. I worked on listening. I restrained my urge to pounce on opponents. I tried to relate better on an emotional, empathetic level. I even sought feedback on my writing, especially from my wife, to make sure I didn’t take potshots that opened me up to easy rhetorical retorts.
Making changes to better yourself is good and healthy. The difficult part is that others don’t see your subjective internal state and judge you instead based on your words and actions, especially your past actions, and especially the ones that rubbed them the wrong way. So, I might think of myself as a patient (though still passionate) dialoguer, but others remember me as that awful pro-life guy and unfollowed me on Facebook before they saw anything to show that I had changed.
That SLOW Grind
One of my favorite basketball players is Isaiah Thomas, who currently plays for the Denver Nuggets but whose best season was here in Boston. He’s my height (and I’m by far the shortest guy on staff at ERI), but he put up one of the highest scoring seasons in Celtics history, and he was at his best when the game was on the line. Unfortunately, playing through a hip injury helped the Celtics get to the conference finals but cost him the next year-and-a-half of his career and a lucrative contract extension. Even worse, people wrote him off and instantly forgot that he was an All-NBA player and MVP candidate.
Why am I talking about a basketball player in an article about pro-life dialogue? Because, after his first attempt to get back to the game resulted in underwhelming play and an offseason surgery, Thomas took a more deliberate approach to his recovery. He knew he would have to do months and months of work behind the scenes before he could ever make it back to the court and change people’s attitudes about him. He posted updates on social media during his recovery, always using #ThatSLOWgrind. Silly as it may sound, I think that hashtag (and the attitude behind it) illustrates perfectly the approach to rehabilitating your image in others’ eyes.
It’s going to be a slow process to move past a perception based on your previous actions. You’ll need to develop a positive track record, and it’s going to feel like a grind at times, especially when you’re talking to a friend or family member and you’re frustrated because the conversation isn’t going anywhere. Be patient and keep practicing good dialoguing skills, and you will eventually make progress; you may be surprised how many people are willing to give you a second chance, even if they won’t immediately give you that chance. Here are a few tips as you work towards renewing your image:
1. Be patient. If you have been rude or abrasive when talking about abortion in the past, you will be fighting an uphill battle to be heard. It’s easier for people to write you off, and you will have to work hard to prove to them that you will take them seriously and treat them respectfully. Don’t expect to change minds in a day.
2. Don’t let personal attacks distract you from dialogue. People will use your past self as evidence against your current arguments. Yes, it’s an ad hominem; no, telling them that it’s an ad hominem won’t be helpful. Take a moment to acknowledge their point and respond to it, but redirect the conversation to what’s central before it gets lost.
3. Seek outside counsel frequently. It’s helpful to reality-check yourself. I may not think I’m being aggressive, but I might come across as snarky or provocative. When in doubt, I like to run things by at least one other person to make sure I don’t cross a line.
4. Use some good old-fashioned self-deprecation. It’s totally okay to throw your previous actions under the bus to show that you know they were a problem. If you can inject a little humor, even better!
5. Don’t use a bad image as an excuse to avoid dialogue. If you did dialogue badly in the past, it’s important to continue to practice good skills, and what better way to do that than by using those skills in dialogue? Don’t put yourself on the sideline because you made mistakes; learning from mistakes and putting that new information into practice is how you grow to be more persuasive and relatable.
It can be challenging to dialogue well about abortion even if you aren’t dealing with the ghost of bad conversations past, but don’t let the added difficulty scare you away. I can’t stress enough how worthwhile it is to try to convince others of the value of fetal humans. Abortion is a hard topic, one that often sets people shouting and caps-lock-tweeting; people will notice when you consistently speak carefully and listen well while talking about it. Who knows: the change in your demeanor might just be enough to help others change their minds.
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The post “Does Your Image Need a Face-Lift?” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”