Many of us have long been taught not to discuss three topics - money, religion, and politics. This advice applies to acquaintances and strangers in particular (as opposed to family and close friends), but these ‘controversial’ topics are often avoided in many social circles. Why? For the most part, these topics are avoided because they are considered personal, and can lead to disagreements, so avoiding these topics means avoiding confrontation and judgement. It seems logical, but what are the underlying costs?
To put it bluntly, lack of conversation can lead to a lack of progress. If someone has a flawed, problematic view on something but they never discuss it with anyone, they won’t be aware of the issues of their perspective. They’ll cling on to their preconceived notions without questioning it, without being exposed to ongoing dialogue to incite reflection. As Canadian politician, judge, and author, Thomas Haliburton once said, “Hear one side and you will be in the dark. Hear both and all will be clear.”
Race was considered a taboo subject, and look how far that got us. Without discussions about race, people held onto their prejudices, and even those who may have had good intentions failed to take anti-racist action. Progress in such an issue requires conversation to explore the most appropriate and effective course of action, individually and collectively. It requires sharing ideas, and listening to other people’s lived experiences. It requires critical reflection on one’s own beliefs, which can not occur without being exposed to others’ views.
Over the last few years we have witnessed the manifestation of this issue coming to life. Once Donald Trump started spewing his racist rhetoric, like-minded people seemingly emerged from the shadows in large numbers. Racists did not appear from thin air though, rather they had always existed and mingled amongst the rest, undetected. Since politics and other ‘charged’ topics are considered ‘off the table’, supporters for one party or another absorb their party’s rhetoric at face value. If we were to talk to one another about politics and ask each other the right questions, we would be able to educate ourselves, learning and unlearning political views until we are at a point of viewing political matters with an equity lens.
The same goes for religion. Our avoidance of discussions on religion has allowed for Islamophobia and faith-based discrimination to rise. Constant misunderstandings and misinterpretations worsen the problem as some people are unwilling to listen to others' truths and engage with them. Without conversation there is no common ground, and we tend to alienate one another rather than come together.
See the humanity in everyone. Listen to their lived experiences and feel free to share your own, so together you can engage, learn and unlearn beliefs to become more equitable and socially conscious. Even if you disagree with the person you are speaking to, suspend your judgement and process their perspective. It’s scientifically proven that practicing compassion improves brain function, proving that listening with compassion is not only good for others, but can make you happier and healthier. Looking beyond yourself, critical reflection and conversation are tools to create a better world. As Dalai Lama said, “the best way to resolve any problem in the human world is for all sides to sit down and talk”. The only way to eradicate prejudice and hate is to detect it first, so conversations can be the light to illuminate the darkness that fosters and incubates hatred, transforming prejudice to understanding.