Content warning/TLDR: It’s usually unreasonable to demand that people calmly discuss topics which are personally charged to them. However, I think that it’s praiseworthy to be able to discuss these topics, and I want people to be better at not thinking of their political enemies as monsters. In this post I say that people should consider the possibility that they are wrong about things.

Kelsey recently wrote about this Tumblr post:

I interpret this somewhat differently than she does.

I think the author is making two closely related but distinct claims.

The first claim is that when you’re privileged, many fewer discussions are viscerally upsetting, and you might not realize that other people might get really upset about things you’re discussing lightly. So we should bear this in mind when we’re talking about potentially upsetting topics, and we shouldn’t look down on people for being unwilling or unable to discuss these comfortably.

There’s a whole host of reasons why I agree with this. In some cases, people are justifiably afraid of imminent violence from people with particular prejudices, and want to avoid people who have a particular opinion. In a lot of other cases, particular conversations make them feel really uncomfortable. A software engineer friend of mine said that people who think women are worse at programming just tend to be extremely unpleasant company for her, and she’s never met one who had enough positive qualities to override that negative one. And, like, just in general I think people should be allowed to opt out of conversations they don’t want to have, unless there’s a good reason to expect them to have the conversation.

I think the post kind of makes a second claim, though, which is that it’s not actually admirable or desirable for people to be able to talk to someone who disagrees with them on issues that the two of them care a lot about. And this one I strongly disagree with.

Here’s why I think it’s good to be able to talk dispassionately about things which matter a lot to you. To start with, I think that moral progress occurs more quickly when people who disagree can talk to each other and learn why they disagree. I think a good example is made by the OP writing about people who think that they “don’t deserve health care”. I suspect that the OP is talking about disagreements over how to fund healthcare. I think that’s an extremely inaccurate and unfair summary of the position that the OP’s talking about.[1]

I totally believe that when someone says they don’t think America can afford a single-payer solution, the OP hears that as the person saying that they don’t deserve healthcare. And again, the OP doesn’t have an obligation to talk to people who stress them out. And it’s probably harder not to get stressed out by these conversations when you feel more threatened in your daily life, because of poverty or whatever other reason. But the end result is that to make life easier for themselves, the OP has sacrificed their ability to change their mind or change anyone else’s mind on this. That’s a cost that might be worth paying, but it’s worth remembering that it’s definitely a cost.

(Just in general, I think it’s worth erring on the side of trying to convince people of facts rather than values. A few quick reasons I believe this: Fact-spreading is more co-operative. In political discourse, a lot of things can either be viewed as factual disagreements or value disagreements, and I think that trying to think of them as factual disagreements is a useful exercise for increasing your politeness and persuasiveness. And if you spend a while learning about facts to argue with someone, I think you’re possibly more likely to have learned something useful than if you spent that time trying to write emotional appeals to convince third parties that the person you’re arguing against has an abhorrent belief.)

I think this kind of attitude elevates intolerance of political beliefs to a virtue. Posts like this one tell the OP’s friends that their political enemies are monsters who literally believe that “native children should be ripped away from their cultures and people”. This post tells the OP’s enemies that the OP has no idea about why people disagree with them, and it makes the OP’s enemies quite reasonably less enthusiastic about taking the OP seriously in future. Social groups naturally have an evolutionary pressure to make themselves more insular, and hating outsiders is the kind of thing that they’re always going to be drifting towards; I want to oppose that trend, not encourage it.

So I think there are two very different claims the post is making. I think the reason that the post doesn’t distinguish between them is that they can be phrased very similarly: “it’s unreasonable to expect oppressed people to be able to dispassionately discuss political disagreements which personally affect them” is a sentence which could be taken to mean either claim.

In general, it’s always a subtle and difficult point to say that X is non-optimal but also we shouldn’t force people to not do X if they really want to. I wish English were better at expressing this.

[1] I’m not actually totally sure about this. I think that if you examined people’s System 1 beliefs about, for example, public health care for poor black people, you’d find that a good proportion of them are actually thinking of some “welfare queen” stereotype. I think it’s worth not describing this kind of disagreement as a value disagreement, though. If you asked the person to explain their belief, they’d probably end up revealing some empirically false belief they have about what it’s like to be poor and black.