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speaking up is hard to do: tips for surviving a verbal showdown

A lot goes into the decision to raise my hand and speak in lecture. Have I thought through what I want to say? How much will have I have to project to be heard (since I prefer not to sit where people can see me, or where I’ll be in the way)?  Is what I’m about to say likely to start an argument?

Despite being a feminist writer and blogger, I hate live debates outside of the comfort of my home or among my friends. Putting my thoughts in writing, free of the pressure of having to think clearly and quickly on my feet, is my preferred method of dispute.

Though I’ve worked myself up to a level of confidence by now to state my opinion and risk the backlash, there is still something cripplingly terrifying about going head-to-head with my peers.

But worse than the dejection of having your argument ripped apart in front of 20 pairs of critical eyes is letting an offensive, uninformed comment go by unchallenged because you’re too afraid of looking stupid. Looking stupid is fine! It doesn’t last long. The agony of knowing what you could’ve said lasts much longer.

Almost 18 years of school, and approximately seven years of healthy sparring have taught me some things about surviving classroom confrontations:

1. Thick skin strongly recommended  

It’s easy to believe that feminists, and activists of any issue are always loud, outspoken, and unflinchingly combative. The image is regularly drawn in the media and popular culture. However, not every person is like this and that’s okay.

However, when you do feel the need to speak up, to make noise, to take on the loudmouth misogynist or Limbaugh apologist, prepare for the worst.

I’ve never been a fan of the expression: ‘don’t let them see you cry’. It’s geared at women who are considered “emotional”, as if expressing emotion is shameful and weak. But can be sound advice. A recent article by News Online Australia delved into the psyche of aggressive Internet trolls, confirming what we already thought: there is nothing more annoying to trolls (online or in person) than someone who refuses to lose their cool.

I wholly support crying in frustration later.

2. Don’t engage unless the other person is willing to listen

I had the opportunity to speak to the co-founders of Slutwalk in Toronto earlier this year. The movement has faced its share of naysayers, who adamantly refuse to believe the outrage at police officer Michael Sanguinetti’s comment (that women should avoid dressing “like sluts” if they don’t want to be raped) was valid.  The women made this rule for engaging in discourse, one that I’ve adopted for myself.

It’s a waste of energy, time, and effort otherwise. Great debates with someone who doesn’t agree with you are possible. Sharing ideas, listening to and deconstructing other points of view are necessary to advocate for any issue. It’s how you learn. But there are those who will not only disagree, they’ll refuse to listen. Every minute you spend speaking is another minute for them to organise their diatribe against you, whether or not it has anything to do with what you just said.

Save yourself the headache. Don’t even bother.

3. Don’t be tricked into name-calling or personal attacks

In the words of popular video blogger, Jay Smooth (of and YouTube fame), go after what they said, not what they are. It’s too easy to assume the “fiscal conservative” is a raging bigot, and that the unfaltering liberal is a naïve bleeding-heart. Maybe it’s true. The minute you say this – lose your cool and make accusations about someone’s character – you’ve lost. There is no easier way for someone to wriggle out of an argument than to insist you know nothing about the motivations of their argument or who they really are. Besides, name-calling doesn’t succeed but to make everyone seem childish and desperate.

4. Beware of over-intellectualising, faux-concern, hypotheticals, and derailing

You were talking about the right to choose but are now talking about unemployment. A debate about Photoshopping on magazine covers brings out the “it’s just about being healthy” crowd, followed by some sociology 101 jargon and evolutionary psychology theories, and the endless cycle of what-ifs. I’m a fan of the Socratic method of debate as the next person, but not smokescreens.

5. Know when to back out

Not all debates start out hopeless. Sometimes there is promise. You can see the light of mutual understanding (not agreement, but understanding) at the end, and it’s glorious. Until you start repeating yourself. Or they start repeating themselves — or saying the same thing in different words. When the conversation begins to spiral into the danger zone, and the benefits of healthy discourse no longer outweigh the costs to your mental health and wellbeing, it’s time to go.

6. Even when it seems like you’ve lost, you might’ve won (somewhere)

I once suggested in a tutorial of maybe 15 that news outlets can benefit from diverse staff and points of view, and was swiftly shut down by a classmate asserting that a ‘multicultural education’ being enough and claims that disallowing straight white males from covering the Egyptian Revolution was somehow discriminatory. It was not at all what I claimed or suggested, and I disagreed strongly, but couldn’t raise my hand quick enough to rebut before my TA jumped in. Moment lost, I thought. Point unmade.

As I was getting ready to leave class, a classmate sitting next to me turned and said (I’m paraphrasing) he understood what I was saying and thought I was right. We ended up talking about it for a few minutes before going our separate ways.

The possibility that others heard me, even if the dissent was louder, made speaking up worth the risk.

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