culture shift

The calculus of cancellation over conversation

In Short

Reconsidering our own 'red lines' can expand our worldview and change our perspective

In today’s fragmented and siloed world, it’s easy to stay in our own echo chambers. The list of people we “just can’t talk to” — or even listen to — grows daily, and includes not just political opponents but colleagues and family members. Revulsion, not reflection, too often governs our decisions. But have we, as community leaders or individuals, stopped to parse the considerations used to calculate who we will and won’t engage with?

Heart of a Nation, a nonprofit organization that brings together Americans, Israelis and Palestinians who want to improve their own societies, decided to do just that. Earlier this month, we gathered six American Jewish leaders for a 90-minute virtual discussion, probing whether and how they decide their “red lines” when it comes to both public and private conversations. 

The six interlocutors included a member of Congress, a rabbi, an author, a journalist, an activist and a professor. They varied by age, gender, politics and Jewish affiliation. But as they described their thinking about red lines, some common patterns emerged.  

First, none of the six suggested that they are either always willing to meet with people they abhor or never willing to do so. They all weighed considerations that we think composed a sort of sliding scale of harm and benefit. On the “harm” side, the leaders asked themselves roughly three questions: 

  • Will the meeting harm me? The rabbi recounted meeting with a KKK member, but only after he was sure his personal safety wasn’t at risk; the professor declined a meeting that would have jeopardized her support from offended benefactors.
  • Will the meeting harm people close to me? The activist spoke of being willing to suppress her own political convictions to visit a sister who lives in a political environment she finds abhorrent – but she drew the line at taking her children (lest they absorb its politics).
  • Will the meeting appear to condone harm that the other person has done to others? The activist refused a meeting with a public figure who has been credibly accused of sexual harassment. The author nearly didn’t attend the wedding of a friend whose fiancé had worked in what she thought was a detestable White House.

On the benefit side, the leaders also asked themselves roughly three questions: 

  • Can I learn from this person? The journalist observed that the more he disagrees with another person, the more he tends to learn about both the source of their convictions and the effectiveness of his own.  
  • Can I broaden the perspective of this person? The professor recalled doing research in a German university where the archivist was an avowed Nazi. But over time, as she conversed with him, she felt that his worldview evolved.  
  • Can my collaboration with this person advance some greater, common purpose? The congressman spoke of fellow members who regularly excoriate him, as he does them. But when he saw an opportunity to collaborate with them on an unrelated issue, he jumped on the chance.  

But where the conversation got really interesting was when the speakers considered not just whether to meet with “problematic” people, but why and how? Is the purpose of such encounters to excoriate the other, so that the interlocutors (and their followers) decisively win the day? Or is the point to demonstrate that despite the obvious differences in opinion, one can recognize the other’s humanity, and believe that engaging those we disagree with – even vehemently – is a price we should be willing to pay for belonging to a civil society?

The more the conversation went on, the more central this idea of dignity became – including not just the dignity of the “opponent,” but also that of the audience witnessing the debate, whether that’s a hall full of undergraduates or one other family member. The vituperative nature of so much of today’s discourse too often makes the audiences dismiss both sides, or default to whatever they believed beforehand, or just check out of the issue entirely. The leaders agreed that the key challenge in addressing those with whom we deeply, strongly disagree, is to do so in a way that retains their dignity, and also the dignity of the audience.

In the end, red lines are rarely bright lines. Heart of a Nation’s forum helped to lay bare six of the key considerations that earnest leaders weigh, but the claims are competitive and the answers are elusive. Perhaps it’s time to make our reasoning, and our ambivalence, more explicit — at least to ourselves, if not to the person we might avoid. Being more mindful when making such a decision – weighing more carefully what is gained and lost – may help us hear the cacophony beyond our comfort zones in a new way and begin to broaden the range and effectiveness of civil discourse.

Kinney Zalasne and Alex Sinclair are, respectively, the advisory committee chair and a member of the editorial committee of Heart of a Nation.