Pretend it’s 1859 and someone just asked you, “What do you think about the anti-slavery movement?”
Here’s the thing: the wider the group, the more likely generalizations are going to be unhelpful. And in this case…it’s a very broad group.
Ten-second history recap! Early on, abolitionists were a few “extremists” who subscribed to the same papers, attended the same rallies, and had a similar ideology. Obviously, even that is covering over a lot of differences, but early on, you could say with a reasonable amount of accuracy things like “anti-slavery advocates believe in the dignity of all people before God regardless of skin color.”
As time went on, more people joined the anti-slavery cause. These included:
- “Free soilers” who wanted slavery outlawed in new territories because they didn’t want slaves to steal white jobs.
- Northerners who saw Southerners and their “slave power” economy as a threat.
- Extremists who advocated violent opposition to slavery.
- Goodhearted but sometimes condescending white people who saw themselves as patrons and liberators even if they just talked a lot and never did anything.
- Politicians who wanted to increase the power of the federal government and saw slavery as a threat to the unity of the Union.
- Actual racists who didn’t want slavery because they wanted all black people to go back to Africa. (You would be surprised how many “free soil” people were anti-slavery because they were anti-black.)
Suddenly, you had a massive collection of folks with different beliefs, values, and solutions who had only one thing in common: they were against slavery.
If everyone in the anti-slavery crowd had marched on Washington, chances are you’d only agree with a third of the signs they hefted into the air. They would range from “There are neither slave nor free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus” to “Save the Union Through Gradual Emancipation” to “Make America White Again.”
Your answer would depend on a lot of factors: where you lived, which newspapers you read, which issues you cared most about, your political party, your geographical region, to name a few.
So. It’s 1859. Someone asks you what you think of the anti-slavery crowd and their cause. What do you say?
Regardless of your answer, I hope you’d…
- Ask them to be more specific. Maybe point to just one issue or statement and evaluate it, or take one approach and say whether you think it’s helpful or not.
- Try to get a sense of what a particular event meant—what happened and why—and acknowledge that there isn’t one story to explain the actions or motives of everyone involved in a cause.
- Know someone involved with anti-slavery activism so you can ask questions of a person on the front lines, while realizing that one person won’t represent everyone involved.
- Expose yourself to more than one side if they ask about a particular event, say, John Brown’s raid—reading more than just the flowery poetry idolizing him or the Southern screeds condemning him to inform your opinion.
If by now you’re thinking that I’m not really talking about the anti-slavery movement, you’d be right.
Am I saying that the anti-slavery movement in the 1800s is the same as the anti-Trump protests after the inauguration? Nope. Except in this one, very important way: they were both movements that encompassed a wide range of ideologies and motivations.
Fine. Two ways—they were also both subject to a lot of broad generalizations and caricatures that oversimplified the issues involved (on both sides). And I think that’s extremely unhelpful, if not destructive.
When you try to glorify or demonize a diverse movement, you risk giving a false picture of what’s really going on.
So when talking about politics, please, tell the truth. Fact-check your news sources, be okay with saying, “I’m not sure” and willing to admit when you’re wrong.
Tell the whole truth. It’s okay to have a strong opinion about an issue and still acknowledge its complexity. That might look like: “I realize that X, and I’m obviously not okay with Y, but I still think that the overall impact of Z is positive, and here’s why.” Or: “I appreciate that some people are motivated by X, but here’s the negative impact I think Y has—I’d rather see more Z and here’s why.”
Tell nothing but the truth. Personally, I think that often, sharing memes/cartoons/articles that intend to mock instead of provoke thought are pretty pointless. Sarcasm is a destroyer of gracious conversation. Ask yourself, “Why am I posting this?” and only go ahead if you have a convincing answer.
How you talk about politics matters because it both shows and shapes the kind of person you are. So be the person who does the hard work of overlooking insults and using logic and asking why, who thinks before speaking, who holds convictions graciously and always seeks to learn and understand more. History will thank you (and so will I).