Discourse shapes our society, and within its bounds, we find the power to uplift or to dismiss, to validate or to negate, to ‘win’ or to understand.
With this in mind, I want to draw attention to the words of Sarah Maddox, which hopefully remind us of a vital aspect often missed in debates on deeply personal issues: the emotional toll on those who are directly affected by the topic at hand.
While some may enter a debate as if stepping into an academic arena, others step in bearing their personal histories, vulnerabilities, and battles. This piece isn’t solely about Maddox’s perspective, but I’m hoping to use her wisdom as a backdrop to explore how we might better navigate conversations where the stakes are immeasurably higher for some than for others.
The Chasm of Experience:
In discussions that encroach upon identity—be it gender, race, sexuality, or any other form of diverse identity—there exists a chasm between intellectual exercise and emotional vulnerability. For many, these aren’t hypothetical scenarios but aspects of their everyday lives that carry weight and consequence. Recognizing this disparity is essential; it means understanding that a debate isn’t always just an exchange of ideas, but can be a recounting of lived trauma for some participants.
The Unseen Advantage: Navigating Privilege in Discourse:
The privilege of detachment in debates is often an unrecognized advantage. It allows for a calm and collected dissection of issues that, for others, can be anything but calm or collected.
This privilege means not having to defend one’s existence, or justify one’s identity.
Acknowledging this privilege isn’t an admission of guilt, but an acceptance that the playing field of discourse isn’t level, and one’s “objectivity” might actually be a veil for insensitivity to this imbalance.
We have been trained to think of privilege as a ‘dirty word’, as something that we are given which means we don’t have any disadvantages.
But that isn’t what it means, it simply means that there are intrinsic aspects of us that don’t cause disadvantages.
I am a disabled, neurodivergent, queer, trans woman. I could tick a LOT of ‘diversity quotas’, but I also live in a country where I have ‘free’ medical care, and being queer doesn’t land me in jail.
Even I have privileges that I am grateful for.
From Debate to Empathetic Dialogue:
The transition from debate to dialogue requires a fundamental shift in approach. A debate is about winning, about proving a point. A dialogue, on the other hand, is about understanding, about finding common ground, and about learning from one another. In dialogues concerning identity, empathy becomes not just a useful tool but a necessary one.
Creating Spaces for Marginalized Voices:
The true test of empathy in discourse is the creation and preservation of spaces for marginalized voices to be heard and considered. This means actively listening and, when appropriate, stepping back to amplify others. It’s about fighting the instinct to interject and instead inviting the expression of those who have been historically side-lined.
The Responsibility of the Privileged:
With privilege comes responsibility—the responsibility to be mindful of the weight that others carry into conversations about their rights and identities. It’s the duty to acknowledge when one’s experience does not encompass the entirety of an issue and to defer to the expertise of lived experience when it is offered.
Whilst it may seem easy to put ourselves in the shoes of those groups, and theorise about what their experiences are, it is vital that we understand that it isn’t the same thing as having that lived experience. Whether it’s a discussion about women being mistreated by men, or about the disparity of opportunities due to race, or discrimination for sexuality, or anything else. We have a responsibility to listen to the people within those groups, and not dismiss them if they’re getting heated in a discussion about something that deeply affects their life.
Impact > Intent:
This is one of the most important aspects, and it is something that I see happen depressingly often. I want to make it clear that I understand, too. It is really easy to get defensive, and to believe that whatever it is that we have done wasn’t actually bad.
We want to think of ourselves as good people, after all.
I have absolutely been that person, and even knowing this, I probably will be again.
If someone tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to tell them that you didn’t.
If somebody in a minority group is taking the time and energy to try to explain to you why an action or behaviour is damaging to them, either personally or to the group at large, then take it on board. They know more about it than you, they live this experience, they’re not just hypothesizing about it.
The way to make your intent matter is to make sure it is actively your intent to not do it again in the future.
The Power of Humble Listening:
Humble listening is the art of recognizing that the most powerful contribution one can sometimes make is to listen—to truly hear the experiences, pain, and hopes of others. It’s a quiet but formidable act that can change the dynamics of discourse, paving the way for more inclusive and considerate conversations.
Sarah Maddox’s quote invites us to reconsider our approach to debates on identity and personal issues. It’s a reminder to remain humble, to be aware of our privileges, and to elevate the practice of empathetic listening. As we engage with one another on the complex tapestry of identity, may we do so with hearts and minds open to the profound realities of those speaking their truths. In the end, our goal should be to foster a community where discourse leads to understanding and collective growth, rather than division and emotional toll.
Autistic, queer, D&D devotee, pun peddler, meme dabbler, home-brew hero.
Downton Abbey Diogenes!