On Doggedly Sustaining Connection

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We can’t hope to have an impact on someone if we don’t engage with them.

Let’s be honest. As social animals, human beings want to have influence. Why would we not want others to believe similar things to us? Or things that are in our interest to believe? And if we’re really honest, it’s why many people come to Braver Angels.

“There’s got to be a way to reach out to those who are so misguided in their thinking! If only I could connect with them, I could help them to see their blind spots!”

But when they land in their first workshop, they’re quickly disabused of the notion that the conversations are about changing each other’s minds. The first rule of a Red-Blue workshop? We’re here to understand one another, and to see if there exists common ground. No one’s here to change anyone else’s mind.

We’re here not to drag each other to the middle, but to discover there’s already a place where we meet, and where we can work together, without forsaking what we believe.

That is, if we’re willing to have a conversation.

I do hear some consistent reasons that people give up on Braver Angels. Is it really okay to give a platform to someone just for the sake of being nice to each other? Must I actually give my time to someone who believes that dangerous lie? You have to draw a line somewhere, don’t you?

Well, if we’re talking about a personal line, absolutely. Most of us have our limits in terms of what we can handle, especially those who’ve had experiences that give them good reason not to trust that others won’t abuse them.

But should there be a socially enforced line? A line we refuse to cross out of solidarity, when we say enough is enough, and declare someone so hopeless that we can’t possibly hold a good-faith conversation with them without risking legitimizing their behavior and ideas?

Well, if I were ever the one considered irredeemable, I would greatly appreciate someone reaching out to me across that divide. And it just so happens that they did.

I experienced cancellation recently. I was set to appear with the CEO of a leading national animal welfare organization, Best Friends Animal Society, at a keynote event for their organization. It would set the stage for some trainings we were planning with them as well, so I was excited for the event. But I didn’t quite get the chance.

Leading up to the event, I was planning for the demo conversation she and I would do, and since I had just written an article concerning dogs and breed restrictions, I suggested it might be a good topic of conversation. Now, before you click this link to read it—or if you already have—please know that there are several things in it that I would now change.

That article landed with a thud at Best Friends. And it set off internal consternation about my appearance before their organization.

Let me say upfront that the people of Best Friends have been unfailingly kind to me. When my dog Ferry passed earlier this year, they sent me a set of memorial windchimes that, even at this moment, are reminding me of him with the loveliest tones. And I get the sense that they would do the same thing now.

So the cancellation was of the event—there was a very understandable hesitation about putting me in front of a crowd who might not take kindly to my words—not of me personally. Let me explain that hesitation.

First of all, I compared dogs to guns. Strike one in their book, and I totally understand. Objectifying dogs as a means of defense, while perhaps a reasoned analogy in the circumstance I mentioned, is quite upsetting to a group that constantly fights against the notion that certain dogs are utter killing machines that cannot be allowed to live.

Best Friends does amazing work; they stepped up to rehabilitate and rehome many of the dogs rescued from Michael Vick’s infamous fighting ring, even as others—including PETA—said they’d never be suitable for adoption and should be put down.

Far beyond my poorly considered metaphor, however, was the argument I was making about breeds. One of my Facebook friends had been making what I’d felt were some powerful arguments that pit bulls were a legitimate problem for society. I’d run across a compelling 2014 article in Time Magazine about it. And a reader had commented on my previous article about my love for a certain pit mix with links from a website that aggregated these stats and claimed that two-thirds of fatal dog attacks were the work of pit bulls.

While I actually argued against breed restrictions for communities, I based it on the benefit that owners might get from that very fearsome reputation. And I said their reproductive breeding should be restricted, largely buying into the notion that breed is destiny.

While Best Friends pulled the plug on my appearance, they did not pull the plug on our connection. One of my contacts there patiently and kindly walked me through their position, listening carefully to my responses. The group expressed sadness at the irony, that because my view was so painful to some in their organization, they’d have to shelve a workshop about listening to the views we disagree with. After the cancellation they kept up their exchanges with me, and one of their staff who was particularly upset by my article even reached out to set up a conversation.

When I spoke at another conference, a member of their staff who happened to be there gave me some supportive words, as well as some reading material about their position. While I’d linked to one of their blog posts in my column, I hadn’t actually seen the info in that booklet, which cited significant research attesting to the ineffectiveness of breed restrictions in benefiting public safety. And it offered salient support for my emerging realization that I’d been misguided about the entire breed issue.

I’ve come to understand that there are significant problems with breed identification when it comes to incident reporting. Many dogs possess characteristics associated with pit bulls, but DNA tests are fuzzier on the correlation between ancestry and appearance. The fact is that there’s more variation than we appreciate in dogs, just the same way that there’s more variation in us humans than things like race, ethnicity or gender can ever account for.

Yet breed often gets blamed in deadly incidents, with significant confirmation bias involved. If the breed is unknown, but the dog in question has certain pit characteristics… well it makes perfect sense that it was a pit bull! They’re dangerous dogs, right?

The parallels with racism are certainly not lost on me. Nor the parallels with so many other stereotypes and assumptions we foist upon one another, based upon categorical thinking.

I was hit pretty hard by the whole incident, since I’d been excited to speak to Best Friends, and because I’d had such positive experiences with them prior. I’d been open about it with my girlfriend, who knew that I was eager to learn from the episode. So she sent me this article, citing new research that confirmed that breed is next to useless when explaining dog behaviors. (The new study had the advantage of including mixed-breed dogs, which many pits and animals blamed for fatal attacks are, and points out that while genetics do have a hand in dog behavior, these traits were actually formed well before the physical characteristics we associate with breed.) With it, the last of my doubts about my folly were obliterated, and I’d finally come to the full measure of my error.

I credit this change to kindness. The sort of kindness that sustains connections, and enables vulnerability. The sort of kindness that says, although people I love are too hurt by your views to do so, I’ll still reach out to you to try to understand them more fully.

Each one of us can, and should always seek to, keep growing and changing for the better. But our only hope is for others to give us the space, and the grace, to do so.

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1 thought on “On Doggedly Sustaining Connection”

  1. Wendy Rudnicki

    Wonderful article! I was thinking before I reached the end, how what you wrote could be used in reasonable conversations about guns. Imho it really is about stopping demonizing and othering people (and the parts of oneself hidden in one’s “shadow’l and learning to listen and learn and counter stereotypes.

    Braver Angels is doing wonderful work.
    Namaste and Blessings,
    Wendy

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