By Skyler Wixom
Identities are tricky to manage. Even the word “identity” seems to consistently either evade a concrete definition or refuse to let any imposed definition stick. Trickier still is two identities trying to manage interacting with each other, especially if those identities seem at odds. When I publicly came out as a gay man, through which I simultaneously left the religion of my upbringing, I’ve had friends and family members respond less than favorably, which has led to uncomfortable conversations where emotions run high. My identity connected to my sexual orientation feels really vulnerable, and my loved ones’ identities connected to their faith feel a certain vulnerability as well. It’s caused me to often question how to best engage with my loved ones, or even whether I should engage. As time goes on, it doesn’t seem to get easier.
It’s a recipe that begs to be volatile: Ideologies and identities that crash into opposite ideologies and identities with the velocity of language. Writing and rhetoric scholars have long examined the realities and consequences of this fragile cocktail. Such a scholar, Tony Scott, succinctly discussed these very issues:
Ideologies are both formed and sustained by a variety of factors, including religions, economic systems, cultural myths, languages, and systems of law and schooling...Writers are not separate from their writing and they don’t just quickly and seamlessly adapt to new situations. Rather, writers are socialized, changed, through their writing in new environments, and these changes can have deep implications…. As ideological activity, writing is deeply involved in struggles over power, the formation of identities, and the negotiation, perpetuation, and contestation of belief systems. (48-49)
In other words, identities are communicated, created, and reinforced, by these “struggles over power” called discourse. When communicating, we face a choice: defend our identities, compromise them, or disengage. Add to that the fact that language is vulnerable and imperfect, and the ground beneath discourse seems unstable at best. Words are simply symbols for ideas that we’ve settled for. Thus, any claim to completely understand one another is a process of collective pretending that allows us to connect with each other.
Because language is imperfect, the chaos of butting ideologies and identities through discourse often feels like a battleground. Written language seems especially conflict ridden with its lack of vocal inflections and the absence of physical human traits. We all often become so focused on being understood that we don’t try to understand others. And in the midst of discoursal conflict, our egos constantly practice self-defense due to perceived attacks on our identities and ideologies. Sherman and Cohen, psychology scholars, discuss the psychology of self-defense and define our individual need to affirm our identities:
Self-affirmation theory (Steele, 1988; Aronson et al., 1999; Sherman & Cohen, 2002) begins with the premise that people are motivated to maintain the integrity of the self. Integrity can be defined as the sense that, on the whole, one is a good and appropriate person….Consequently, people are vigilant to events and information that call their self-integrity into question, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of others. In such situations, people try to restore or reassert the integrity of the self. Thus, the goal of protecting self-integrity, and the impact of that goal on psychology and behavior, becomes apparent when integrity is threatened. (7)
Essentially, Sherman and Cohen are speaking to our wariness of any compromise to our self-integrity. Language, at some point in our life, inevitably becomes the weapon that threatens our self-integrity or makes us a perpetrator of that threat. We dodge, lunge, parry, often stab with our words to emerge the victor. We can observe this phenomenon on talk shows, on the news, and wildly through the largely unadulterated platforms of social media. Language often becomes an act of violence. So, how can speakers and writers instead wield language as a tool rather than a weapon?
The answer to that question lies in response strategies to linguistic “threats.” Sherman and Cohen discuss three particular responses to self-integrity threats: threat accommodation (accepting the failure of the self and adopting the new information), direct psychological adaptations (dismissing, denying, or avoiding the threat of our identity), and indirect psychological adaptation (affirming identity traits unrelated to the threat, thus lessening the consequence of the threat to our self-integrity) (7-8). These responses depend highly on our willingness to engage with perceived linguistic threats and are largely internal processes.
At the risk of diluting Sherman and Cohen’s research concerning responses to threats, I’d like to explore two questions that factor a discoursal lens into their discussion:
- Will I engage with this discourse? (Speak Up or Back Off)
- If so, how will I engage? (Stand Up or Sit Down)
In making these choices, we must emphasize to ourselves that neither choice in either of these questions is always right or always wrong. As I often tell my students when they ask me questions, the answer is, “It depends.” The answer relies on the situation. I’d like to explore some possible contexts in which each reaction may be more appropriate than another, giving us more agency with our identity in any given discoursal situation.
Speaking Up or Backing Off
In many religions or individual spiritual belief systems, the process of reflection is often practiced and sometimes ritualized. Buddhists create their own matras to aid their reflection practices. Christians have a variety of sacraments and prayers that create a space for reflection, devotion, and repentance. Biblical anecdotes commonly include someone retreating to a place of solitude (like a mountaintop) to pray, fast, or simply reflect on the state of their spiritual selves in context with the world or their creator. Often, after such reflection, individuals return to their communities of worship to teach, preach, proselytize, or simply serve those around them. However, the practice of reflection before speaking and doing is not solely religious and doesn’t require a mantra, prayer, or fast. Reflection is a necessary way to learn oneself in the process of participating in or preparing for discourse.
I want to make this as clear as I can: Retreating from discourse to focus on ourselves is perfectly acceptable. Backing off is a legitimate choice especially when we understand the weariness of constantly subjecting our identities to verbal (often violent) pressure.
Here’s what stepping away doesn’t mean:
- It doesn’t mean you don’t care about what is being discussed.
- It doesn’t mean you are a coward.
- It doesn’t mean you cannot contribute valuable insight.
- It doesn’t mean you can’t eventually engage in a certain discussion.
Conversely, here’s what stepping away may instead mean:
- You are not emotionally ready to tackle a certain conversation for personal reasons.
- You do not have enough information yet to speak about a certain topic.
- There are more pressing matters that require your emotional and mental energy.
- The person or people involved in the discourse are not willing to respectfully engage.
Most importantly, we need to understand that when we back off from engaging in a certain topic with certain people, or at a certain time, we are not accountable to anyone but ourselves. Sometimes, when we engage and then change our minds, violent communicators have this “That’s right, you better run!” air about them. We need to tune those voices out, because they compromise our ability to use the space we’ve created to its maximum potential.
How, then, can we make the most of the space that we’ve created by backing off? Again, it depends on the person, the situation, and the nature of the discussion we’re backing off from. Here are a few suggestions:
There is power in simply walking away and leaving a topic alone, especially if the stakes of the conversation are not especially high. As much as I want to care deeply about every singular issue in the world, I’m not that powerful, and I suspect few hold such power. So the decision to say, “I don’t need to think about this,” is a process of prioritization based on agency and self-awareness.
You may not walk away saying, not ever but rather, not now. If there is a discussion and divide on a topic of which we are familiar but in which also dwells trauma, you may be a valuable voice and advocate, but it doesn’t have to be now. Let yourself have the space to work through whatever you need to work through. Similarly, if you know little about a topic, but it seems like something you want on your radar, you don’t have to adopt a viewpoint right this very instant. Use your space to learn more about the topic before you jump back in.
Struggle with It
Backing off from one interaction doesn’t mean we have to back off from the topic at hand. It may just mean we need to reflect about this topic and struggle through the complexities. With hot topics like abortion laws or gun control, every public angle will ask us loudly to commit to a side RIGHT NOW. We don’t have to. We shouldn’t. We can back off and struggle with the topic without the loud voices decrying each and every avenue our minds explore.
Any decision to back off is an acknowledgement that our identities have growing pains and need processing time. The more we allow ourselves to practice the art of reflection, the more space our identities have to experiment with certain angles, questions, and even changes. With this growth comes a great capacity to speak out when the opportunity comes and to do so with much more mindfulness of yourself, the topic, and the overall nature of discourse.
Speaking Out: Sitting Down
If you were brought up in American public education, you’ve likely learned the importance of the mighty thesis statement. when arguing or persuading through writing. A five-paragraph essay demands that the writer state clearly, purposefully, and powerfully an opinion, the basis of their essay. The writer proceeds to defend said statement of surety with sources that prove the author right, throwing in one counterargument to “balance” the argument before shredding the counter to pieces. The author walks away with a proved correct worldview reinforced by an “A” from the teacher or a high score on the ACT writing section.
It may be surprising that many scholars of writing do not adhere to the prioritization of the thesis as taught in public schools. It’s not that there is no importance to learning how to develop, state, and defend an opinion, but rather that its presence in curriculum implies that it is THE singular most important skill in argumentative writing. Many of us disagree. Bruce Ballenger, a scholar of composition education wrote an article that I use religiously in my classes called “Let’s End Thesis Tyranny.” In the article, he poses the following perspective:
“I’m not arguing against teaching students how to write a thesis statement. What bothers me is how thoroughly this convention dominates our discussions about what is meant by strong academic writing. The thesis has been hogging the bed, and it’s time to make room for its tossing-and-turning in academic inquiry: the question.” (1)
Because the thesis has the potential to shut down conversations and inquiry before it ever happens, it is a problematic first step to academic inquiry. The same applies to public discourse. Our culture has so ingrained the “Be right” mindset that it has become falsely synonymous with “be informed.” Being informed doesn’t start with a statement. It starts with a question.
I’ve often heard the harsh-sounding advice toward me or others to “take a seat” metaphorically in discourse. Harsh-sounding as it may be, it is fantastic advice. When I think of taking a seat, I imagine a mode of integritous listening and questioning. It means that rather than listening for an opening to assert our rightness, we look for opportunities to challenge our rightness, suspend our ideologies, and open our identities. The concept of “sitting down” is a relationship-saving, underused practice that transforms discoursal weapons that destroy into discoursal tools that build.
Questions on when it might be appropriate to sit down are just as contextual as questions concerning when to back off. But here are several ideas based on discoursal patterns that I have seen and experienced:
- Sit down when someone has a level of ethos, expertise, or experience that you don’t have. You can learn from such an individual.
- Sit down when your need to be understood supersedes your need to understand someone else. Check yourself, and take the first step in mutual listening.
- Sit down when someone tells you that your words are hurting them. Believe them and redirect yourself. Similarly sit down if you want your words to hurt someone.
- Sit down when someone chooses to challenge the norm in an echo-chamber. Change is made through new ideas, so contribute to making space for those new ideas.
A great general metric for when to sit down is when you feel yourself boiling over, and your fight or flight response starts kicking in. Defensiveness is natural, and it’s an indicator that our identities are practicing that self-defense mentioned earlier. So intervene. Decide whether it's best for you to back off and reflect or to sit down and listen. Often, fighting back may make the discourse more violent, threatening the relationship and any potential solutions. So we need to consider sitting down way more often than we do now. But what does sitting down look like?
Strides can be made by making a powerful statement to someone else: “I’m listening to you.” It’s easiest to set the goal to avoid responding immediately with your own thoughts. Active listening is a FANTASTIC tool. Active listening involves repeating ideas back to the speaker in order to affirm that you understand their viewpoint and to give them room to correct your understanding or reword their initial statements.
Asking questions might be the hardest skill that I ask my students to refine. We want so badly to be right, so we more naturally think up statements rather than questions. Question those who disagree with you. Do not try to trap them. Do not condescend. Use your integrity to legitimately seek understanding from the other.
Sometimes, the best thing that people with two opposing viewpoints can do is say, “I hear you. We disagree. You are still my friend, and I care about you.” In certain heated conversations, this declaration may not be taken for granted. If you don’t feel comfortable or honest affirming your relationship, that might be an indication that you need to back off.
Not only does sitting down place us in an open-minded mode of inquiry, it also gives us a firmer ground to stand on when the time comes to speak out with clarity, surety, or certainty. When we’ve taken the time to explore and question the world around us, we are more equipped to explain what we’ve seen, heard, and experienced in a thorough, thoughtful, and persuasive way.
Speaking Out: Standing Up
For the majority of this article, I’ve discussed alternatives to arguing and persuading through discourse, and this proportion is completely purposeful. Choosing to firmly declare a stance or to be wary of “attacking” stances is what we are conditioned to do psychologically and what we are reinforced to do educationally. Consequently, I’ve so far chosen to focus on alternative means of engagement or lack thereof. But without question, declaring our ideological point of view in the form of discourse is necessary for societal changes large and small. It can even be used as a building tool in relationships rather than a threatening weapon. I tend to think of this discoursal act as “standing up.”
In standing up, we are choosing (to use a common idiom) to make a stand. To declare loyalty to an idea, an opinion, or a course of action. Every single change in global history is rooted in a person or people choosing to make a stand in some way. Likewise, taking a stand is the root of every single conflict: two opposing stances. So with the desire to stand up in discourse, the question becomes, “How do I take a stand without creating violent conflict?” With this question comes the assumption that conflict cannot be avoided, which I don’t believe it can. Through the pressuring fires of discourse come the refined gems of change. So before we discuss the manner in which we can choose to “stand up,” let’s continue the pattern of discussing possible scenarios in which we can choose standing up:
- Stand up when individual or systematic powers are unfairly violent toward you or others.
- Stand up when you have taken the necessary time to reflect, process, and listen. With your additional information, you can speak from a place of understanding and empathy.
- Stand up when your particular expertise can offer valuable insight or solutions.
- Stand up if your goal is to build rather than to harm or destroy.
- Stand up when your life experience speaks to an important issue and is not currently being represented.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it does represent a variety of angles that can initially set the stage for intelligent, complex discourse, making less room for hostile voices that are founded in destroying rather than building. Likewise, when we make the decision to stand up, the manner in which we take our stand can positively affect the outcome of your declarative discourse. Detailed below are some suggestions on how to engage through standing up:
Acknowledge the complexity of the topic
A surefire way to distance your message from your audience is to pretend that your stance is obvious and that anyone who doesn’t think the same as you is deficient in some way. By acknowledging that your stance has come with a struggle through complex thought and research, you acknowledge that it is only natural that others disagree with you. In other words, you frame your stance within a realm of open-mindedness.
Summarize the work you’ve done to understand the intricacies of the topic
Some might call this “establishing ethos” or “building credibility”, but either way, it makes clear that you are not speaking off the cuff. You are communicating that you are not simply reactive in your discourse, but active. Your activity encourages active (not reactive) engagement from others, or at least makes active engagement more likely.
Verbalize your uncertainties connected to your certainties.
For everything that you are sure of, there is likely a laundry list of things connected to the topic that you are still unsure of. When academic writers assert a point of view following extensive research, they commonly list off further research that needs to be done or further questions that need to be answered. The act of declaring that more research is needed is not a sign of weakness, but a strong indication of critical thinking and self-awareness.
Above all, remember that you are speaking to other emotional human beings. This point is crucial. If you remember nothing else, if you aren’t sure the best course of action, remember that discourse is not words interacting with words, but people interacting with people. We all feel things and care about things. We require kindness. Conflict, though unavoidable, can coexist with kindness and respect.
Go Forth and Speak. Or not.
Concerning the relative that I mentioned at the beginning of this article, my choice has been to back off. I struggled, I felt my emotions, I wrote fiery letters that I never sent, and I sought counsel from those who were a bit more removed from the situation. I figured that the best way to maintain my relationship with this particular relative was to ultimately disengage from this particular strand of discourse, and I clearly and succinctly communicated such to them. They, in turn, gave me the space that I asked for. Will this decision change in the future? I can’t say. But I am confident in my choice as it is helping me to do the necessary reflecting and self-affirming that I need to prepare myself for any future discourse that takes place.
Participating in discourse is not easy, so it’s no use pretending that our participation doesn’t tax our identities and ideologies. But that doesn’t mean we can’t build the discoursal muscles necessary to make the moves that we need to in order to change ourselves and change our environments. It takes practice and a lot of awareness, but it ultimately preserves relationships and strengthens our self-integrity. So the next time you have the opportunity to engage in a conflict or discussion, be mindful of your choices. You can choose to back off or speak out. You can choose to sit down or stand up. And ultimately, you can enrich your life with the diversity of experiences, beliefs, and individuals that makes the world and our world a more interesting and beautiful place.
The views expressed in this guest article do not necessarily reflect the views of the staff of The Civility Initiative. The purpose of guest articles is to to help our readers more fully understand and see current issues from as many different vantage points as possible.
About the Author: Skyler Wixom teaches at Boise State University. He teaches composition and rhetoric in the First-Year Writing Program. Skyler has a master’s degree in Rhetoric and Composition, and his research interests include composition pedagogy for beginning writers, student advocacy, and rhetoric of popular culture and discourse. As a gay man and former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Skyler does a lot of writing and advocacy work involving the intersection of LGBT+ topics and religious discourse or participation.