By Emily Erickson
As a lover of long-form content, especially when focused on conversations between interesting people, I frequently find myself listening to the Armchair Expert podcast with Dax Shepard and Monica Padman. So when my podcast app popped up with Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness (JVN) — another favorite of mine — as a guest on the show, with nothing but a rainy afternoon of chores stretched before me, all I could think was “Yes, Henny.”
At the top of the podcast, however, was a trigger warning. After an introduction of JVN as a TV star, beauty mogul, activist and fellow podcaster — who identifies as non-binary and uses he/him, she/her and they/them pronouns interchangeably — was a declaration that the group got into a discussion on trans rights. And at about 30 minutes in, it became clear why that required a “heads up.”
One moment, I was a bouncing back and forth on Dax and Jonathan’s fun and lighthearted ping-pong match of banter, during which JVN’s fast-paced, bubbly, chattiness was on full display; and, the next moment, I descended with the host and his guest into a tense and seemingly forced debate that eventually ended in Jonathan’s exhausted tears.
What started with Dax and JVN differing on whether The New York Times is left-leaning, escalated into Dax parroting popular trans rights-critical talking points for what felt like no other reason than his perpetual love of playing devil’s advocate. This put JVN on the reluctant defensive, forcing them to take up the mantle of activist, eloquently and informatively sharing about the past, present and future of the trans rights movement and its positions — growing more weary every time Dax mulishly swerved around an opportunity to exit the conversation.
Jonathan explained this weariness, sharing, “I think if you aren’t personally impacted by an issue, for people who are, it just is a bit exhausting,” later expressing through tears that they had really hoped to come on the show to talk about their own podcast, Getting Curious.
The whole exchange and the herculean emotional effort required by JVN to return, post-confrontation, to the show’s initial lightheartedness, left me a bit queasy. It made me sit — sponge in hand — with the idea that if the path through our ever-growing cultural division is (as I suspect it is) hinged on hard conversations and honest debate, then the “how” and “why” of it has never been more essential.
Although there was very little I agreed with in Dax’s dialogue, I do concur with his sentiment that, “To even question [anything] makes you an enemy. I don’t think that’s the way forward.” Context, however, matters.
We have to consider how, when and with whom we instigate hard or sensitive conversations — whether it’s on an internationally distributed podcast, or with the person on the barstool next to us.
Before diving head-first into a heated discussion, grabbing hold of whomever we can find to be our conversational sparring partner, we need to consider: Are the stakes as high for me on this topic as they are for the person with whom I’m trying to engage? When someone is personally connected to a topic or issue, debating or discussing it can be a heavier task for them to bear. Being sensitive to the weight that different issues have on different people is a respectful starting point in productive debate.
Next, we should ask ourselves if the cards are stacked disproportionately in our favor heading into a sensitive conversation (here’s looking at you, guy bringing his Rolodex of memorized and obscure political statistics to the bar). Before engaging in debate, we should take a personal inventory of our actual intentions. Are we hoping to steamroll another person with our hot takes, or do we have an honest intention to learn or grow our perspectives?
Most importantly, we need to discern if the person with whom we’re trying to engage is also willing and interested in having a hard conversation.
Whether it’s a discussion of hot-button issues, human rights, politics, race, gender, sexuality or a general exploration of another person’s views, asking permission to engage in sensitive topics, and actively looking for signs of discomfort throughout the conversation, ensures we’re talking with a willing party. Because being genuinely curious, ready to learn and interested in listening as much as sharing — even in the most well-intentioned of circumstances — isn’t always an open invitation.
Instead of forcing conversations, we can aim to educate ourselves on topics in ways that don’t tax the people disproportionately tasked with doing the teaching. We can seek opportunities to engage with experts on the subjects in which we’re interested in discussing, who are prepared (and often compensated) for the labor of debate. And, of course, whenever an equally interested, mutually excited debater crosses our path, we can engage, listen, share and actively seek that mutual middle ground on which our way forward is etched — respectfully, together.
Emily Erickson is a writer and business owner with an affinity for black coffee and playing in the mountains. Connect with her online at www.bigbluehat.studio.
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