When you’ve spent enough time thinking, reading, and acting on something you care about, you sometimes forget that not everyone thinks the way you do. Not everyone hangs out in your amazing queer, feminist, sex-positive bubble. When you encounter those people who aren’t there yet, it feels like crap. But, before you completely give up on humanity, I assure you there are ways engage in conversations about social justice that a) won’t make you want to claw your eyes out and b) make people more likely to actually listen to you. 

To Engage or Not to Engage?

First things first: you always have the choice to engage with someone when they say offensive, oppressive, or generally problematic things. It is not your job to be their social justice tutor. Some perfectly legitimate reasons not to launch into a conversation about the offending incident include:

  • you’ve had a really terrible day;
  • you’d really just rather curl up in bed and marathon Lost Girl (maybe that’s just me?);
  • you’ve had similar conversations with 10 of your friends and acquaintances already;
  • it will be emotionally triggering;
  • this person holds such an extreme view there’s no possible way to engage with them.

Use your judgement. If you’ve decided that it’s worthwhile to have a conversation, then it’s a good idea to figure out where this person’s coming from. Does this person have any exposure to the issue at hand? Do their statements stem from an eagerness to learn, or are they entrenched in their problematic views? Getting involved in social justice is like learning a language. Every movement has its own nuances and vocabulary. You can’t just berate someone using terms like kyriarchy and heteronormativity and expect them to be on board with you. Change is a process. It takes time, and there are steps.

Stages of Change

There are many different ways to think about change, but in the community health world, we swear by the Transtheorhetical Model of Change (TTM). While this model is most commonly used in smoking cessation, it has been applied to everything from condom use to bullying to healthy eating. The TTM posits that there are five main stages to adopting a healthier behavior. Interventions geared at behavior change will be more effective if they follow a graduated approach, taking these stages of change into account. For a detailed look into the strengths, limitations, and varied applications of this approach, click here. The basic model is as follows:

  • Pre-Contemplative – the client sees nothing wrong with their behavior and has no intention of changing.
  • Contemplative – the client is considering a change, but isn’t ready to take action at the moment. They are in the process of balancing the pros and cons of changing their behavior. They need more information and tools at their disposal.
  • Preparation – the client is starting to take small steps and is formulating a plan of action to make a bigger change.
  • Action – the client has begun to implement their plan of action. They need support in sticking with it while they develop healthier habits.
  • Maintenance – the client has implemented the behavior change for 6+ months. They have begun to solidify long-term habits, but they need support in maintaining those habits.
Different stages of change require different types of support.

Different stages of change require different types of support.

In contrast to the one-size-fits-all approach to change, the TTM allows providers to meet people where they’re at. For example, rather than tell a smoker “cigarettes kills,” it is more effective in the long run to say “there are more cons than pros to smoking. Have you thought about quitting? Can I support you in any way?” When service providers take the time to assess which stage their client is in, they are better able to implement an effective intervention.

How can we apply this to activism?

Simple. Any movement worth its salt is nimble, and changes its tactics depending on who they’re dealing with. On a macro level, movements don’t try to win over the Lila Roses and the Rick Santorums. Those groups are pre-contemplative, and will probably stay that way forever. Rather, they attempt to diminish or discredit their opposition, energize their base, and sweet-talk people on the fence. On an individual level, few activists start out being extremely well-versed in the issue they care about. Most likely, they started out by asking inappropriate questions and making unfortunate missteps. Along the way, they changed because they had support in taking those positive steps.

As a general rule, it’s not a good idea to walk up to someone and start dictating what they should believe or how they should act, even if you believe you are in the moral rightJust like you can’t tell a drug addict to simply stop using drugs, you can’t tell a virulent, diehard sexist to just stop being a sexist if they don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. They’re just not there yet. You can only teach someone to not be an asshole if they’re willing to learn.

The next time someone shares a sexist, homophobic, racist, or generally offensive thought with you, try to assess: are they contemplative? Are they making a concerted effort to change, but messing up in the process? I’m not saying you shouldn’t feed the trolls or get into arguments on Facebook. You should, if you’d like. Just take a moment to read your opponent and alter your approach depending on who you’re dealing with. In the end, the conversation will be much more productive for all parties involved.