Bullish Q&A: How Can I Defend Feminist Ideas If I’m Terrible at Arguing?

Bullish Q&A- How Can I Defend Feminist Ideas If I'm Terrible at Arguing-

I am a recent college grad with a lot of strong, liberal beliefs, but I struggle a lot with articulating my thoughts out loud. This proves a problem when I come into contact with people outside of the liberal college bubble (i.e. all the time). Even though I know deep-down that X is correct and that there are statistics and examples to back up X, when put on the spot to defend my views, my mind goes blank and I can’t for the life of me recall any of the facts or arguments that I’ve read in endless articles or papers.

Most recently this happened at a family gathering when the topic of paying all tennis players equally came up, and my grandmother looked at me and said, “Let’s see what our little feminist has to say about this.” I know very little about tennis and the issues around pay, nor is it my top feminist priority, but surrounded by my conservative-leaning family I felt like I had to try and make a convincing argument ‘for the sake of feminism’. But facts failed me, and coherence failed me, and my face turned red as I angrily bumbled out some words which got some eyebrow raises and not much else.

It’s not really an option for me to respond to these situations with “I don’t know enough to make a case but I’m sure I’ve read some stuff at some point… somewhere… which convincingly argues that it is sexist/racist/classist…” – but I also don’t want to just respond with “I don’t have an informed opinion yet” because that feels like an admission that their arguments are superior and feels like a missed opportunity to lead the conversation onto something deeper. I also can’t predict these conversations, both in initial content and where they lead, so it’s not like I can just memorize a few examples and hope they’ll serve me in all scenarios. In lieu of going back to school and joining a debating club, how can I train myself to better articulate my beliefs out loud when under pressure?


Fantastic question. And, you know, the interesting thing about being a debate champion is that it doesn’t generally change anyone’s mind or make them like you, which is also important to changing people’s minds. It took me years of being an argumentative little jerk of a high school student to catch on – kick-ass debating skills are largely about defeating (and sometimes humiliating!) an opponent in order to persuade a judge, not the opponent himself. This has the opposite effect on the opponent, inasmuch as anyone in a debate round really believes what they’re saying anyway.

This is all fortunate for you, because your weaknesses at debating can become strengths here, especially when you’re outnumbered and in hostile territory. Just remember the following:

1. Always ask questions. 

Why are you suddenly on the defensive? You didn’t even bring up the thing about women tennis players. Here is a good response: “Hmmn, I’m not an expert on tennis specifically, but why do you think women players should be paid less?”

If you’re really stuck and flustered, just start with, “Well, what do you think?” If you’re still trying to collect yourself, follow up with “Why?” And sometimes “Why?” again.

I did this in an argument about Obamacare and discovered that my relative who was against it was against it because 1) she was worried about changes to her own healthcare, and 2) she didn’t want poor people to have it too easy, because they’d take advantage.

On the first point, I nodded sympathetically. You don’t have to argue with literally every thing a person says, nor is that productive.

On the second point, I asked for clarification, and ultimately talked about how most of the poor have one or more jobs and are often single mothers with terrible childcare options (having to take the bus doesn’t help with any of this) – that is, the poor have even less time than we do to sit around waiting for a doctor’s appointment. It seemed as though she had not known or considered this. I think she was open to hearing it because I wasn’t also making a speech about Obamacare in general (which I’m really not an expert on anyway).


But by the time I made that little speech, I’d said almost nothing for at least fifteen minutes. And I wouldn’t have known that that was an issue that needed addressed until I had asked fifteen minutes’ worth of questions.

You don’t even need to somehow wrap up your series of questions into a big conclusion. People hate that, actually. People want to draw their own conclusions. If you do it for them, they resist.

2. Your position is the default. 

You don’t have to build a case for equality. Equality is the default. It is the twenty-first century. We were all taught about fairness as children. People arguing for anything else are the ones who need to build a case. Just say that. Nicely and calmly.

“Well, I’d need to hear a good argument before endorsing gender-based pay for anything.” Say it casually, with a little shrug.

Practice saying, “Well, I’d need to hear a good argument before endorsing the government taking and killing everyone’s pets.” Seriously, act that one out, as though your extremely offbeat uncle has actually suggested this. There’s a bemused little laugh in your voice, perhaps? You certainly don’t sound threatened by this view.

Now use the same tone of voice for “Well, I’d need to hear a good argument before believing that any job is for one gender only,” or “”Well, I’d need to hear a good argument before I could get behind paying anybody differently based on their gender or race or anything like that.” *shrug*

So, I don’t know a lot about tennis players’ compensation either. Why would someone think women shouldn’t be paid the same? The only reason I can really think of is that women’s sports don’t sell as many tickets. So, next question: “Well, do you think professional athletes should be paid as a percentage of ticket sales?” Seems kind of weird, like they’re entertainers rather than athletes. So I’d want to hear an argument for that. “If not, then how should they be paid?” Tell us, Grandma.

Do more people like to watch men’s tennis? I don’t know. Grandma probably doesn’t know. Shrug. “Hmmn, that seems weird, because I can name at least a few female players and I don’t think I even know of any male players, but everybody has different taste.” Sure, fine. But also, “If we decide to compensate sports players based on popularity, why not do it at the individual level, then? I’m still not seeing an argument for stereotyping an entire gender.”

I just googled this, and indeed, here‘s a dude who says that more people like to watch the men play. Another reason cited for higher male pay (men and women have actually been paid equally at Wimbledon since 2007) is that men play five sets and women play three.

Let’s say grandma happened to know that. Shrug. “Yeah, they should definitely make that the same, too.” Done. Stop talking. You don’t need to be an expert on the facts of tennis. The default position is fairness. Is there information about tennis that you don’t know? Of course. Does that change the fact that fairness should be the default, unless there’s a really good reason otherwise? Not at all.

3. Nudging people just a little is the most you can do. Unless there’s a silent teenager in the room who you are really, really reaching but she doesn’t feel comfortable saying anything. Maybe you can rock her world.

But for the most part, people don’t change their minds on the spot – they like to change slowly, later, while pretending you had nothing to do with it. Most of us have relatives whose opinions today about gay people are notably better than their opinions about gay people when we were little kids. They probably didn’t change their minds all at once, but they did change slowly, over time. And those little nudges mean a lot. If people at racism level 100 can be nudged down to racism level 92, cumulatively, that will save lives. Those people at level 92 will still be terrible people. But that minus-8 degrees is – for someone, somewhere – the difference between being moved to violence, or not. Nudging people like that is noble work, and you don’t do it by making a debate-style argument that offends every single plank of their belief system.

What I’m suggesting is that your grandmother sounds like an asshole, but you might still love her, so work with that.

Obviously, you can just be nice to her, show an interest in her life, etc. But by asking questions about her views, you can sometimes unravel them enough that you can agree with some of them, and find maybe just one big thing on which you wish to present a fact to the contrary, or to drop your “I’d need a good argument before I could get behind X.”

If there’s a fact you’d like to present but you can’t remember it exactly, say that, and offer to send the information later if the person really wants it. If appropriate, even acknowledge that you could be misremembering, but you’re pretty sure that, for instance, the vast majority of people in the US receiving government benefits are seniors, veterans, and disabled people, and that in fact cash aid to poor families with children barely even exists anymore. But who can remember the exact stats? “I’ll send it to you later if you’re interested.” Shrug. You know the truth. If others want it, you’re willing to help them. You are not required to make an argument here. That doesn’t mean you’ve lost. You are reasonable and unruffled. You can leave the matter unsettled. That’s okay.

You will get further by pretending to care less.

There’s also nothing wrong with, “Hey, I was just in the middle of this delicious piece of pie, you sure you want a political debate?” Or, “Of course I’m in favor of equality in general, but I don’t know much about the world of professional chefs.” If you let a few go – without being defensive or bothered by it – you maybe build up a little credibility for the future, you remove yourself from the “little feminist” role wherein you are trotted out for entertainment, and you preserve your relationships enough to nudge people a bit later.


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