People are arguing. People are arguing in bars, on the bus, and in dining rooms — but mostly people are arguing online. And we have a lot to argue about at the moment. But the problem is, we’re not very good at it. We end up yelling at each other, digging into our respective ideological trenches, then retreating further into our cozy echo chambers.
So today, a special episode in two parts.
In Part I, we return to an old episode: The Silver Dollar, featuring Daryl Davis, a black musician who has made it his life’s work to befriend white racists.
In Part II, we pay Daryl a visit to see what he can tell us about how to successfully argue — or even just have a civil, critical conversation — with someone who holds opinions very different from your own. Think of it as a field guide to arguing.
Kreidler – Moth Race – Den
Pan American – how much progress one makes – White Bird Release
Visible Cloaks – Terrazzo ft. Motion Graphics – Reassemblage
So I guess my first question is what specifically, in all the conversations you’ve had with these Klan guys, what do you think that you do differently that a lot of other people don’t?
I think what I do differently is I give them a platform to express their views honestly, in a safe place, where they’re dealing with their alleged enemy, a black person. I give them a space in which they can express their views without fear of attack, or retaliation or whatever, and allow them to discuss them, and most importantly, have a conversation with them.
You don’t have to respect what they’re saying, but you need to respect their right to say it. Nobody wants to be wrong, we all wanna be right, and so if somebody says something to you that goes against what you have believed from the day you were born, but there’s a little spark that piques your curiosity and you think that person might be right, you’re gonna begin to shift in that direction. It might not be an overnight turnaround, but over time.
I’ve never gone and said, “You need to get out of this organization, you need to stop this nonsense”, blah-blah-blah, or I don’t go on CNN and talk about them and bash them, and then tell them to send me their robes and hoods.That doesn’t work.
It’s like dog fighting. You get a dog that’s already predisposed to being mean. There’s certain breeds that have that disposition, say a rottweiler, a pitbull or what have you… And they take these dogs and they beat these dogs even more, and make them even meaner. Then they put them in the pit with the other dog to fight. It’s like that – if you have something that’s mean, and you’re mean to it, you’re making it meaner. You can’t beat the meanness out of it, but beating it, you’re increasing it. Same thing with hate. If somebody hates you and you’re beating on them, they’re gonna hate you more. It’s not like “I wanna beat the hate out of you”, no. But you can drive the hate out with logic, and love and respect, and that’s the example that I have set, and for me it has worked.
So if we go down through the list of how to argue…
Well at the top would be, gather your information, get an astute knowledge of the other person’s side before meeting them. Review it in your head, be as familiar with their position as you are with your own.
Okay, so that’s lesson one.
Yeah, because that way you pretty much know what to expect and know how to react. You might hear things that frighten you, you might hear things that make you angry, or make you sad, or hurt you, but these are words. And you go in there because that person has an opposing point of view; that’s what you’re looking for, that’s why you’re there interviewing that person, to find out why they think that way, why they wanna do these things.
Well, of course you’re gonna hear things that you don’t agree with, but if you go in knowing that, then you know, “You know what? You need to keep your cool.” That’s number one.
Then number two would be to invite them to have a conversation, not a debate. Have a conversation.
What’s the distinction?
Well, a debate is “I’m gonna make my point, you’re gonna make your point and we’re gonna fight it out verbally.” That’s a debate, where you’re gonna argue something. That tends to have them get their guard up. If you say, “Hey, I wanna have a conversation with you. I wanna understand why you feel the way you feel. I want you to convince me that I need to change my way of thinking, and I appreciate your sharing your views with me. I’m interested in how you feel.” That’s what a lot of people want, they wanna be heard. They wanna be able to speak their mind freely, without fear of retaliation or somebody beating them over the head for their views or ramming their own views down this person’s throat. So give them that.
Alright. What’s number three on the list?
Number three – look for commonalities. And you can find that in five minutes. Something. Even with your worst enemy, if you spend ten minutes with that person, you’ll find even more. You’re not gonna agree on everything, but you’ll find something. So find those commonalities, and you build upon those commonalities. For example, “I don’t like you because you’re white and I’m black, and I don’t like white people, and I don’t like anything you stand for. You disgust me. It’s because of you I can’t get a job where I’m making as much as you are, and I’ve got a degree that qualifies for that job, and you’re a high-school dropout.”
Our contention is based upon our races, but you’re like “How do you feel about all these drugs on the street and these meth labs that are popping up, and all that kind of stuff.” “Well, I don’t like it. I think the law needs to crack down more on drugs. People get drugs too easy and become addicted to all this stuff very easily, and it’s destroying our society.” So you say, “Well, yeah, I agree. I agree a hundred percent.” In fact, you might even tell me that your son has tried dabbling in drugs, or whatever, and drugs don’t discriminate against anybody – the wealthy, the poor, the black, the white, whatever. Drugs will take you out. So now I’m seeing, “You know what? You want the same thing I want, because I’m seeing that drugs are affecting your family the same way they might affect my family, so now we’re in agreement. Let’s focus on that.”
As we focus more and more and find there’s more things in common, the things that we have in contrast, such as skin color, begin to matter less and less. The relationship begins to blossom into a friendship. That’s number three.
Number four – this applies to anything. It can be about race, it can be about anything, any hot topic: abortion, nuclear weapons, the environment, global warming, the war overseas, whatever. When two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting. They’re talking. They might be yelling and screaming and disagreeing and beating their fist on the table to drive home a point, but at least they’re talking. It’s when the talking ceases that the ground becomes fertile for violence, so you wanna keep the conversation going. The more you keep the conversation going, even though you might be disagreeing or yelling or screaming, the more you keep the conversation going, the more commonalities you will eventually find. You’ll find yourself on the same page. But when you can’t talk to one another, then you’re laying the groundwork for trouble.
So that was four, right?
That’s four, yeah.
Is there a five?
Well, how many do you need?
As many as you’ve got. I think one would be “Be patient.”
Yeah, patience, absolutely. People say with me they’re really surprised that I have been able to do what I’ve done, and they say “You know what, Daryl? I would not have the patience to sit down with those people. I just don’t have the time for that kind of stuff.” You know what? I hate to use a cliché, but patience is a virtue, and you have to have patience.
Race relations and the racial animus that is the underlying fabric of our country has been around since the first slaves landed on these shores, and the problem is we have not communicated with one another. Now we can find ways to do it, but it’s gonna take time, and each method… You know, my method works for me, and the reason why my method works for me is because I’ve taken the time and the patience to learn about the other side. I’ve read tons of material on the Klan, on the neo-Nazi’s, on white supremacy, on black supremacy, so I know how the mentality works. And when I go in there, I tend to be a little more disarming than someone who does not have that background, that knowledge. Because while they may not like me because of what I look like and my skin color, they respect me.
I know there comes a point in time where you say, “Okay, enough time. Now things have gotta change.” Yeah, but spend the time first before you start trying to force a change. Spend that time first, and then if that’s not working and you need to legislate something or force something, then fine, you have those tools available. That’s why we have lawmakers. But the day the law changed to where black people could ride in the front of the bus and not have to give up their seat, the day that law changed did not necessarily change the minds of the white riders. You can legislate behavior, but you can’t legislate belief, and patience is what it takes.
Patience doesn’t mean sitting around on your butt, waiting for something to happen. Be proactive, and don’t just sit around and talk with your friends who believe the way you do. Invite other people who have differences of opinion; invite them to your meeting, to your table. Learn from them, because while you are actively learning about somebody else, at the same time you are passively teaching them about yourself. And I can tell you right now – I’m gonna say that again, because that sounds so good: while you are actively learning about someone else, you are passively teaching them about yourself. You only have one chance, ONE CHANCE, to make a good first impression upon someone.
What enabled me, after I got that first meeting with these people who don’t like me because of the color of my skin, what enabled me to get a second meeting with them, and a third, and a fourth? And whenever I want to, just call them up and say, “Hey man, what are you doing? Come on down to my house, or come have lunch with me… Ride around in my car with me while I go run some errands up in your county.” What made them say yes? They didn’t like me, and they didn’t know they were meeting with a black man that first time. They thought they were meeting some white guy, or something. What made them come back again the second time?
Obviously, I made a good first impression on them. If I made a bad first impression, I would not have had the second, third, fourth opportunity to correct it.
* * *
So that’s the list of Do’s. What is the list of pitfalls and Don’ts? What are the things to avoid?
Okay, the things to avoid is this: you can become argumentative, but don’t become condescending. Don’t become insulting. You’re gonna hear things that you don’t like. You’re gonna hear things that you know are absolutely wrong. Yes, you’re gonna hear opinions, and everybody’s entitled to their opinion, and their opinion may be ridiculous, but you’ll also hear things that are not opinions that they’re gonna put out as facts. There are more black people on welfare than white people. Well, that’s not true. That is not a fact, and you should counter that and correct that, but don’t do it in a matter that is insulting or condescending because you know they’re wrong and you’re gonna beat them over the head for being wrong.
Explain it calmly, collectively and show them the data or say, “I will get the data for you.” Or “If you really believe what you’re telling me – because I know it’s wrong, but if you really believe it, then bring me the stats. Show me the stats.”
I would think also — and I see this a lot in terms of arguments online and stuff like that… People will start arguing almost with what their perception is of that person’s movement. Does that make sense?
So would you put that on the list as well?
I would. I would say, don’t explain somebody else’s movement initially. Let them explain it, and then address the points in particular that they have defined. You may know about their movement; you should know about their movement. As I said in point number one, do your homework, learn everything you can about their movement so that they will respect you, but don’t start off by defining their movement for them, tell them what it is and why it’s going to hell in a handbasket and why it’s wrong.
Let them define the movement, and as they define it, there will be key points that you know you can counter and shut down, but let them finish. Don’t just cut them off and jump right in and start going on the attack. Give them a little more rope. Say, “Look, I hear what you’re saying, but I’m not there yet. I need a little more clarification, a little more explanation from you. For example, you said “blah-blah-blah”. I’m not quite clear on that. Can you give me a little more as to why you really believe that or why you think I should accept that?” and let them elaborate some more.
And they’ll come up with these key points that you probably already know because you’ve done your homework, and then you can address those key points, and then go with the point that they made; don’t put words in their mouth. Quote them, and then attack those points, rather than shut them down with what you know about them. And they will respect you for that.
You deal with these very, very extreme people where the rationale – in my view; obviously, I’m biased – is very, very weak. Do you think that this kind of method that you’re advocating can work in the more mushier middle of political discourse?
Yes, I do. The approach is similar. But you know, we are xenophobic in this country. Americans do not travel as much as Europeans. We just don’t do it. And when we do do it, where do we go? We go to some place that is a resort, where we see a lot of people who look like us. We need to get out of that comfort zone. So the approach is similar to where you wanna draw people out, but you’re not necessarily drawing people out who belong to an organization that is as extreme.
These people are fearful of people who look different, but you’ve gotta remind them that you’re dealing with a certain sect of that religion. Just like the Ku Klux Klan claims to be Christian. These people who are supporting this travel ban, most of them are Christian, too. But are they the same Christians as the Klan? Ask them that.
The Klan says they’re Christian. Are you the same as the Klan? “No, I don’t support the Ku Klux Klan.” Well, guess what? They’re Christian. “Well, I don’t consider them Christian.” Well, guess what? There are Muslims here and abroad who do not support the Muslims that are doing all this destruction and all this terrorism, so why are you gonna paint that religion with a broad brush, but not paint your own?
You’ve gotta show them different perspectives. Then they’ll say, “I see what you’re saying, but how do you tell?” Well, you know what? Why should I let any white people into my neighborhood? How do I tell that they’re not Klan unless they’re wearing their robe and hood? You might be a Klanswoman, you might be a Klansman, and you’re in suit and tie. How do I tell?
We need to come up with ways to figure this stuff out, but we don’t do it by discriminating against other people unless we have valid proof.
I was surprised to read you divided the Klan guys that you interact with – some of them are just ignorant and some are stupid.
Can you elaborate on that?
Sure. Well, to me an ignorant person is someone who makes the wrong choice, the wrong decision, because he or she does not have the proper facts to make the right decision or a good choice. If you give that person the facts, then you have alleviated their ignorance and they can make the right choice, the correct decision.
A stupid person is someone who has the facts, who has the right information, but they still make the wrong choice or an incorrect decision. For example, if I have a room and I paint all the walls in the room and they’re wet, and I post no signs that say “Wet Paint. Stay Off The Walls”, anybody walking into that room is ignorant to the fact that these walls are wet, and they might go and lean up against the wall and thus get paint on their clothes. I can cure that by putting up signs that say, “Wet Paint. Stay Off The Walls”, I can stand in the doorway and I can tell each person “Gather around the center, stay away from the walls. They’re wet, I just painted them ten minutes ago”, so now everybody has the facts. Everybody has the proper information to make the right choice.
So if I do all that, and still somebody goes and leans up against the wall and then wants to know why they’ve got paint on their clothes, it’s because they’re stupid. They had the right information, they had the facts, and they chose not to use it. That’s stupidity.
There is a cure for ignorance. The cure is called education. Unfortunately, there is no cure for stupidity.
Do you feel like — I mean, you’ve now talked to must be hundreds of white supremacists… Do you feel like you can assess fairly quickly now…
Oh, indeed. Yes, absolutely.
…which of those two camps they fall into?
And what are the signs of that that you look for?
Those who are resistant to sitting down talking, who don’t ask questions immediately – those are the ones who tend to be more — and that goes for anybody, not just white supremacists; it could be black supremacists, it could Asians, Hispanics, regular black people, regular white people… When I say regular, I mean those who are not affiliated with hate groups. Anybody.
For example, if I run into you and I say, “Hey Nick, what do you think of Donald Trump’s policy on blah-blah-blah?”, you’re gonna tell me what you think and then you’re gonna say “So what do you think?”, because you wanna know my opinion, right? If it gels with yours, fine; we move on to the next subject. If it doesn’t, then we have a conversation about it and you explain why you think what you think and I come back and counter with why I think what I think.
People like that, it’s a lot easier to be an influence upon, because they’re willing to listen. One thing that I noticed with most of these people who I’ve dealt with – the racist people – was when I first would interview them, they would not ask me any questions. I would be the one asking all the questions, and they would answer those questions or they would say, “I would rather not answer that”, because it was personal or it might incriminate them, or whatever. But they would answer my questions but they would never ask my opinion.
I might say, “What do you think about Martin Luther King?” and they’d tell me “He was a communist, he was a rabble-rouser, he was this, he was that… He brought about a lot of destruction of our country, because everywhere Martin Luther King appeared, there was a riot”, so they’d blame it on him; that’s their twist. But then they wouldn’t turn around and say, “Well, what do you think about him?” Because I had no value. I am inferior, they are superior, so I have no information that I can give them that is of any use to them, so they don’t bother to ask me anything. And as time progressed, then all of a sudden they would say, “Well, what do you think?” Then I realized, “Oh my goodness, I have an opinion. I have some value. They wanna know what I think.”
That broke the ice – they’re open to hearing what I’m gonna say. Often times when I would say something, that really just made common sense. It had a profound effect on them. The profound effect may not have manifested itself immediately right there at the table where we’re talking, but over time, they would end up leaving the Klan, or the neo-Nazi party or whatever, and it was a result of that conversation. They had turned that thing around and around in their head, because it made more sense than what they had believe for so long. And when you have believed something since day one and you have been living in that eco-chamber, in that bubble where everything you say is reflected back at you by your peers who are also in that bubble with you, that Klan group or what have you, you’re not gonna get change overnight. You have to work itself off.
I’m overweight right now. I didn’t put on this gut overnight, and I’m damn sure not gonna lose it by tomorrow, no matter how bad I want to. I’ll have to work at it.
We had so much similar upbringings… My parents are not from this country, so I spent a lot of time overseas. I grew up in Boston…
As did I.
Yeah, right. And I guess you had a very different experience than I did growing up there, but I felt like very much in this bubble there, that the few times that I’ve interacted with people who are on the other side of the political spectrum, it’s so rare for me to even have the opportunity to have that conversation, that I’m kind of an anthropologist about it… I’m just really curious.
I’ve often found — I remember being at this party in Boston, and there was this one conservative guy there, and all these people were just like totally getting in his face, telling him what they believed, instead of trying to understand where he was coming from…
And all that was doing was reinforcing what he believed.
Right. And I was coming at it just like, “This is so strange to me… I just wanna understand it”, so I just asked him a lot of questions. I was not trying to change his opinion or anything, but just trying to understand that. And I remember at the end of the party he came up to me before he left and he said, “You’re not like other liberals.”
Yeah, I’ve had people tell me the same thing, “You’re not like other black people”, that kind of thing. What I do is often times – after I get to know them a little bit, I’ll bring over some of my friends: some of my black friends, some of my Jewish friends, some of my other white friends, all who don’t subscribe to the racist belief. And I allow the person that I’m interviewing – or my racist friend or whatever – to interact with them. So they realize, “No, Daryl Davis is not an exception necessarily. Maybe the racist is the exception.” Because now they’re standing here talking to a Jewish guy, another white guy who feels the same way the black guy feels and the same way the Jewish guy feels, so now you’re the odd one out. And not attack this person, but just have a conversation like we’re having right now, and they have to go home and think about that.
I saw an interview with you and one of your Klan friends, he attended your wedding…
Yeah, a few of them did.
Yeah, and this guy had left the Klan but he still was against miscegenation.
He still came to your wedding; you have a white wife.
Yeah, that’s right. And guess what, he invited myself and my white wife over to his house for Christmas dinner.
Right. That’s gotta be frustrating.
I’ll tell you one more that’s even more frustrating. The person you’re talking about, his name is Bob White. Robert White, he went to prison… He was the Grand Dragon of the Maryland Ku Klux Klan. And while he was Grand Dragon, he conspired to bomb his synagogue up on Liberty Road in Baltimore. He went to prison for four years for that.
He still ran the Klan from within the prison through his Grand Klaliff, which means like a vice-dragon, on the outside. When he got out three years later, he continued running the Klan, and some years later he got busted again, this time for assault with attempted murder, two black men with a shotgun, up in the Woodlawn area of Baltimore. This time he served three years in prison.
So I was writing my book right around the time that he was due to get out of prison for the second thing, and I contacted him, and I did not let him know that I was black. I wrote him letters, and stuff, and he wrote me back. He even sent me a Christmas card. But anyway, Bob White – you don’t get an income from being a Klan leader, unless you’re stealing money out of the dues. You have to have a regular job. It’s like a boy scout leader – you don’t make a ton of money being a boy scout leader. It’s a title.
Bob White was a Baltimore City police officer, and he told me countless stories of things that he had done, and some things I’m not gonna repeat on tape, but he was not a good person… Vehemently racist, very anti-semitic, very anti-black etc. But over time he agreed to sit down and talk with me, even after he found out that I was black. He’d be the one pounding his fist on the table, trying to drive home his points, not asking me any questions, everything was the fault of black people and Jewish people, if we didn’t try to force our way upon white civilization, this country was founded by white people, it was built by white people – he doesn’t mention on the backs of slaves – and the Constitution was written by white people and signed by white people, and if people would learn and understand and respect that, then everybody could get along. That was his take, and that’s what he had to drive home to me.
But over time, he began to find out that no… He began listening to me and he began changing over time. He did not like miscegenation at all. At the time I had a white girlfriend, and I even brought her over to his house. He would talk with her, and it was obvious that she loved me, whether he liked it or not. He was cordial and polite and hospitable, but ordinarily he would have seen her as a race traitor. And there’s nothing more that a Klansman hates even more than black people, it’s to see a white person with a black person, because you have sold out your own, you have betrayed your race, you’re a race traitor.
So anyway, Bob grew fond of her, and when I decided to marry her, I invited him to my wedding, and he came. CNN interviewed him a few months before my wedding, and they said to him, “You know, Daryl is getting married and the woman he is marrying is white. Are you gonna go to his wedding?” and Bob said, “Well, I’ll be there if Daryl invites me.” I said, “You know you’re invited, you’re definitely gonna come, right?” and he goes, “Yeah, if you want me there, I’m there.” So the interviewer from CNN, the reporter said, “Well, wait a minute… You went through all this stuff, you don’t like to see blacks and whites intermixing, miscegenation etc. Why would you go to Daryl’s wedding when he’s marrying a white woman?” and Bob’s only response was “Because it’s Daryl.” That somehow mitigated any problem he had.
I’ve gotten used to it, but for somebody who doesn’t understand it, like perhaps yourself, you’re looking for rationale, you’re looking for logic. To be racist, number one, is to be irrational. There is no rationale to why you should hate somebody or disapprove of somebody because of the color of their skin. There’s no rationale in that whatsoever. So if you’re gonna be irrational to begin with by being a racist, then of course you’re gonna do irrational stuff, like hang out with a black guy, go and have dinner with him, go to his wedding… It makes perfect sense.
Do you feel that frustration yourself?
In the beginning, yes. But Bob changed, even after that interview. I’ll have to find it for you, but he sent me an e-mail which I still have, and he thanked me for inviting him to the wedding – he and his wife really had a good time – and he said, “You know, your wedding was done just the way white people do their weddings.” So I called him and I said, “Man, what on earth did you expect at my wedding?” and he goes, “Man, I didn’t know… I didn’t know if it’d be like a jungle wedding or cannibals or what…” At the cannibal thing he was just joking with me, but he didn’t know what to expect. When he got there he saw Hispanic people, he saw some Asian people, he saw black people, white people, Jewish people, all kinds of people. People that looked just like him. I even had some other Klan people there. They didn’t come to my wedding in their robes and hoods, right? but…
He saw everybody there getting along and having a good time, and they all were there to celebrate my marriage to my wife, and he celebrated it, too. We would get together after that and go to his house, go and have dinner with him and his wife. Bob didn’t dance… His wife liked to dance, so when they would come to my gigs, sometimes in the middle of a song I would leave the stage – there were people on the floor, dancing – I’d walk out to his table and I’d grab his wife and pull her up on the dance floor and dance. I’d even ask him permission, you know?
And have his views on miscegenation changed?
His views changed. I would not say that he a hundred percent changed, but getting there.
* * *
I have to ask you, since you know so many Klan guys, what do they make of Trump?
Oh, they all love him. He campaigned on their own platform. They had that platform long before anybody ever heard of Donald Trump. I played for Trump back in 1999, 2000, or something. Long before he ever got into politics. Let me say this about Donald Trump… Every racist that I know – and I know a lot of racists – voted for Donald Trump. However, that does not – and I expressly repeat it – that does not mean that everybody who voted for Donald Trump is a racist. There are plenty of people, even friends of mine, good friends of mine who are not racist, who voted for Donald Trump. A lot of people wanted a change from what they had been accustomed to for the last decades, where there was Obama, where there was Clinton, where there was Bush, where there was Carter, or whoever. They wanted a change of the status quo, a changing of the guard, and Donald Trump talked the talk, and they were willing to overlook his misogyny, his racist and bigoted comments, or whatever… They just wanted that change. They were not racist people, but every racist I know did vote for him because he campaigned on a campaign of fear – a fear of outsiders, who had all our jobs, who are taking our money, who are coming into our country and committing crimes, and all this other kind of stuff. That’s the same stuff we heard from the Klan; we’ve been hearing from the Klan ever since they were born.
So finally, they got the most powerful man in the world to say the exact same thing that they’ve been saying for decades, for over a century. You know they’re gonna vote for him… And they got their wish.
How does that make you feel?
Well, you know what? I think, personally, I feel that Donald Trump is the best thing that has happened to this country, and I’ll say why… Because as a result of his winning the election, all of the stuff that this country has denied for so long has now come to surface. We can no longer deny racism exists in abundance in this country. We are now in a global fishbowl. Everybody is looking at us. We are very hypocritical, we preach to other people how they should lead their country, we brag about being a country of equality, democracy and equal rights, and yet we don’t live up to that.
People turn a blind eye to racism in this country. “Oh, come on… The Klan? They vanish back in the ’50s and ’60s.” No, they’re still here. Yes, racism has been mitigated. People are saying, “Where is all this racism coming from? It’s all new.” No, it’s not new; it’s always been here. What’s new is they’re getting a lot more attention now because they feel emboldened by the most powerful man in the world, who is repeating their rhetoric. That’s why they’re coming out from under the carpet, from behind the rock, out of the woodwork.
What we’re seeing is just a resurgence of that which already exists, and I think it’s a good thing because you cannot address what you can’t see, and the people who did not believe it can no longer turn a blind eye, because it’s right there, and now we have to address it.
You go skiing, and you have a ski accident. Your leg is fractured, you go to the doctor and he tells you, “The way your leg is fractured, I’m gonna have to break the bone and reset it.” Donald Trump is breaking the bone of this country. He is breaking the bone, and it’s gonna have to be reset. This time when it gets reset, we all are gonna start off on even ground, and we’re gonna have to build it together. And when we build it together, then it belongs to all of us, afresh.
Here’s hoping… [laughter]