We Must Humanize the Opposition

How does a black American pianist inspire a high-ranking member of the KKK to toss away his garb and quit?

Daryl Davis, an R&B and blues musician, recently wrote a book about his experience inspiring around 200 people to leave the KKK. The primary method by which Daryl Davis was able to achieve such a feat was by engaging in one-on-one, in-person conversations with these people, which often took place over the course of years. Of note and importance is that Daryl Davis is a black American with a knack for friendliness and conversation not typical of your average American.

Daryl Davis first met a member of the KKK while he was playing piano at a gig in a particularly white bar. That KKK member appreciated his piano playing, likening it to that of Jerry Lee Lewis. He invited Daryl to sit at his table with his comrades. What ensued was a series of conversations about hobbies, interests, and life, with a bit of white supremacy sprinkled in.

What is most impressive about Daryl’s account of his conversations is his ability to speak to KKK members about topics that are essentially things we all care most about – our families, favorite sports teams, and what toppings we like on our pizza.

By humanizing those KKK members, he was able to humanize himself to them and consequently initiate positive change.

The political and cultural divisions ever-existent in the U.S. have intensified and ensnared much of the American populace over the last several years. We have reached a point in which echo chambers, cancellations, and anti-normalization define our discourse. The idea of “reaching across the aisle” and finding common ground with those who hold differing or opposing views is widely seen as a betrayal of one’s principles. The once cherished value of embracing complexity has been substituted by entrenchment and derision in the hierarchy of ideals.

As a result, political and cultural discourse has degraded into a zero-sum game much resembling trench warfare, where no one wins and everybody loses. The free-flowing exchange of ideas in pursuit of a mutual understanding, results-based conclusion, and elevated conception of reality is stemmed when parties can no longer empathize with one another and see each other merely as physical representations of a talking point. This is why we must see ourselves in others in order for others to see themselves in us.
We must humanize the opposition in order to make the world a better place for us and our children. Here is how we do it.

Understand what it is you believe in and why you believe in it.

Do you hold certain principles to be true because you were taught that to be the case in school, by your parents, or by your community? Is a belief about how certain things ought to be driven by evidence or, instead, by an insecurity you feel as a result of other events that have occurred in your life? We all have insecurities and that is okay. Make sure you are aware of the fact that they fuel some of your belief systems. You may also find, upon examination, that the biases that led you to believe such things were unfounded and you may change your own opinion. Also, understand that others have had similar or opposite experiences that have just as equally shaped their belief systems. This beckons our next step in humanizing the opposition.

Listen to and do your best to understand the person who holds an opposing viewpoint.

Most people think they listen to and understand people when they argue their points, while others do not even go that far. The reality is that we rarely do so. It is difficult to remove your ego from an argument you are making, especially if that argument concerns an emotionally charged issue. Do your best to peel back the layers, understanding the foundations of that person’s beliefs just as you have attempted to understand your own. The villain in a superhero movie is usually trying to solve a very real problem, just through unproductive means.

You will find that people are generally good despite the bad things they do or say. Behind all of our beliefs is a set of principles, developed over the course of a lifetime in response to external inputs and predispositions, which guide the way we react to the world. Understanding a person’s “why” will yield surprising results. Most often, you will reveal shared concerns by knowing someone’s “why.” The discussion then becomes about finding the best way to address those shared concerns rather than a perceived battle between good and evil.

Context matters and we should embrace complexity.

Reject the “cancel culture” at all costs. We are all complex individuals with belief systems that extend well beyond, and cannot be defined by, any single position we may have held. You should therefore look beyond the tweet, sound bite, or video clip to understand what someone may have said in context. Understand the intention behind the utterance and put yourself in the speaker’s shoes. Take the opportunity to suspend your disbelief and assume a person’s reason for uttering a “controversial” position might be based in reasonable thought. There may also exist detail surrounding the utterance that blunts its offensiveness or perceived inconsistency. Alternatively, you will be better equipped to engage in discussion with that person without the need to wave them off as biased or unreasonable.

Put controversial issues aside and get to know people for who they are.

Ask people questions about themselves and be interested. Understanding someone’s personal story, to the extent that person will disclose it, allows you to tear away at the labels you have assigned him or her. You will come to accept that person for what makes them just as human as you are. In turn, that person will feel the same. Push yourself to openly relate to that person’s story and tell your story to them. At that point, you will have reached a shared understanding of your drivers, both common and divergent. You will be more empathetic to those drivers and find productive ways in which to move forward toward a common goal despite any differences. You will be prepared to engage in discussion with those with whom you remain in disagreement because, most importantly, you recognize that your differing opinions are sourced from the same human instinct for well-being.

Have discussions in person, not over the internet.

Where possible, have the above discussions in person and not through traditional internet mediums like Facebook or Twitter. Arguments become most heated when conducted through the internet, which permits us to dump our views on others without the need for empathy, manners, or tone. We are not required to create any entry point for discussion, like asking someone how their day is going, as we enter and exit comment sections on Facebook posts as we please. We find out nothing about the opposing party and the system is designed for us to butt heads with impunity. Ultimately, discussions go nowhere as people talk past each other and the discussions are often fruitless. Humanize your conversations by having them in person. You will find yourself learning much more about yourself and others.

Much of what was stated above may seem obvious at first glance, but we are all guilty of succumbing to our worst inclinations. The world is simply built for us to indulge our baser instincts. We are in a societal rut that requires some extra effort as we engage each other in civil discourse. Our future depends on it.

About the Author
Le-el David Sinai is an attorney whose practice focuses on financial services regulation and financial technology. Le-el graduated from Hofstra University, earning a joint J.D.-M.B.A. Prior to that, Le-el studied in Israel, earning a Master of Arts degree in Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He also holds a B.A. in Psychology and Philosophy from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Le-el was born in Brooklyn, NY to Israeli parents and grew up speaking Hebrew in his home. Le-el is passionate about international affairs, defending Israel’s rightful place in the world through diplomacy, and facilitating interpersonal dialogue between American Jews, Israeli Jews, and non-Jews globally.
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