Talking about controversial things (speech version)

Some of the things I said in my speech were so obviously personal that controversy wasn’t a relevant concept (I personally am terrified of dementia).  Some were uncontroversial (babies dying of malaria = bad).  Some were so controversial and such a minority view that they were obviously meant to be provocative (female circumcision is, on the individual level, a loving choice).  But what I want to talk about are the statements that are controversial on a national scale but tend to have strong agreement w/i a subgroup.

I always get really nervous when people say things in that category as if they’re certain, much more so then when people state their batshit views as a certainty.  I think it’s because in the latter, you can be reasonably sure the person knows the views are fringe and can take their certainty as a sign of belief, rather than security other people agree with them.  Moreover, the social consequences for disagreeing with them are likely to be localized.  They can get as mad as they want but the worst I will face from other people is annoyance I took the troll bait.

But if someone is stating a locally-uncontroversial/globally controversial view as a certainty, and especially if they’re implying negative things about people who hold the opposite view, I don’t have that security.  It suggests they don’t recognize that “good” (for however you define it) people could hold different views, and that there might be severe social consequences for publicly disagreeing.

An example:  in a 5 person seminar I took in college in 2004 (biology, no human component), a professor said the following: “something something I’m from Texas…. but don’t blame me I hate George Bush.”  I felt really unsafe that a professor would so obviously put down the views of a nontrivial minority of his students.  This despite the fact that during those ellipses, I was thinking “ew, did he vote for George Bush?”

It was important to me during my speech to not just list bad things in the third world, as if the first world were some egalitarian dream.  It was also important to me I didn’t shy away from talking about scary things because I was worried about the personal consequences (e.g. people get mad at me).  At the same time, I wasn’t invited to give a speech on Things Elizabeth Thinks.  I was fulfilling a specific purpose and it wasn’t okay to use it as a platform for my pet projects.  But it’s a purpose that can really only be fulfilled with a substantial amount of raw emotional energy, which is inherently personal.

My original thought was to mention the number of black teenage boys and young adults shot down by cops.  Nothing ends potential like dying.  If that had been controversial to the point that people in the room (most of whom were strangers to each other) felt comfortable disagreeing, I would have said it.  But there was a serious risk that someone would either disagree and feel uncomfortable saying anything, or would agree but still feel like this was a group that didn’t tolerate dissent because they didn’t acknowledge disagreement.  Under other circumstances I would simply have acknowledged the controversy, but the speech really wasn’t set up for that.  But saying nothing felt like throwing black people under the bus because their pain was inconvenient to me.



My ultimate solution was to

  1. remove direct references to race.  Under other circumstances this would be a bullshit move (white men and black men do not face equal chances of imprisonment), but the entire list was full of things that obviously applied to a specific group and I never named the group, so I felt good about it in this context.
  2. Moved from talking about shootings to the criminal justice system as a whole.  This tends to be less of a lightning rod and there’s more room for numbers to settle arguments.  And while I wasn’t thinking this at the time, someone pointed out this actually affects a lot more people.
  3. An intermediate version talked about politicians punishing people disproportionately because it got them votes.  I dropped this because motives are hard to argue and ultimately irrelevant to the damage done.
  4. Dropped argument that the people were entirely innocent.  Some of them are, of course, but you can argue that to death without making any progress.
  5. Focused on the sticky nature of the criminal justice system rather than any one decision.  Then if I had to argue it, it was about results, which are provable with numbers.


There’s a lot of bad stuff about race in America I left out.  But there’s a lot of non-race bad stuff in America and the rest of the world I also left out.  The speech could only be so long.  This to me felt like a respectful acknowledgement of the issue while integrating it into the larger purpose of the speech.