[Column] Infuriating opinions

Our new columnist Monique van der Veen was inspired by an African American film-maker who became friends with Ku Klux Klan members. “Have a conversation with the other.”

Monique van der Veen: “Als je je zorgen maakt over polarisatie, dan is uitgaan van ‘Ik ben het probleem’ een goede optie.” (Foto Sam Rentmeester)

What if you would make it your business to meet people who hate you? I don’t mean meeting them to taunt them, but to really meet them, to really hear them out. That’s what Daryl Davis has done for almost three decades. As an African American, he wondered ‘how can you hate me when you don’t even know me?’ In a quest for an answer he started to meet Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members. It started by lending them his tour bus – he’s a musician – when no local rental services would rent to the Ku Klux Klan. Or driving a mother and children across states to visit their convicted father who’s doing time for KKK related crimes. That’s what the documentary Accidental Courtesy is about. It’s impressive to watch, and indeed it won a series of film festival prizes in 2016 when it came out. 

Give them a platform

In the film Daryl Davis says that “The most important thing I learned is that when you are actively learning about someone else, you are passively teaching them about yourself” and “Give them a platform. You challenge them. But you don’t challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform.”

He explains this process. At first they will answer his questions, but they don’t care about his opinion, because ‘he is nothing’, so to speak. And then, after a while, as they get to know him, they do start asking his opinion. And then further along, they consider him a true friend, and one even asks him to give his daughter away at her wedding. And by now through their friendship with Daryl, about two dozen KKK members denounced the KKK and gave him their robes and hoods.  

I don’t know if I have the nerves of steel and the empathy that Daryl Davis has to do such an extreme feat. It did bring to mind, though, a piece I read a while back that talked about techniques used by mediators that help change people’s mind.

Sending tweets like ‘Trump is a racist. If you still support him, so are you’ are not such a good idea if your goal is to convince someone that has a different opinion to see things differently. If your goal is to simply virtue signal, then by all means go ahead. But remember, ‘He who knows only his own side of the case knows that poorly’ (J.S. Mill).

So next time someone has an opinion that infuriates you, maybe try and have a conversation with that person. You might both end up learning something about the other, and possibly even about yourself and your view of the world.

Monique van der Veen is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Applied Sciences, department of Chemical Engineering. You can read about the work of her research team at www.tudelft.nl/cheme/vanderveengroup and follow her on Twitter at @MAvanderVeen.

Monique van der Veen / Columnist

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