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Protests and Force Don't Change People's Hearts and Minds

If you want to change people's hearts and minds, try empathy conversations.

Business Insider recently published an article titled One man has spent years befriending KKK members and persuaded 200 of them to leave the hate group. The article profiles Daryl Davis, an accomplished blues musician, with the unusual “hobby” of forging friendships with white supremacists.

"'I never set out to convert anyone in the Klan,' he told The Independent. 'I just set out to get an answer to my question, 'How can you hate me when you don't even know me?' I simply gave them a chance to get to know me and treat them the way I want to be treated. They come to their own conclusion that this ideology is no longer for them'....

Davis' unusual quest is now the subject of a new documentary called 'Accidental Courtesy.'" In the trailer for the film, Davis says, "Give that person a platform. Allow them to air their views, and people will reciprocate."

As Davis describes it, "'I simply gave them a chance to get to know me and treat them the way I want to be treated.' They come to their own conclusion that this ideology is no longer for them."

Reading this article, I was immediately reminded of an article I read several months ago titled The white flight of Derek Black.

"[Derek] was not only a leader of racial politics but also a product of them. His father, Don Black, had created Stormfront, the Internet’s first and largest white nationalist site, with 300,000 users and counting. His mother, Chloe, had once been married to David Duke, one of the country’s most infamous racial zealots, and Duke had become Derek’s godfather. They had raised Derek at the forefront of the movement, and some white nationalists had begun calling him 'the heir.'...

[Shortly after completing high school, Derek] applied to New College of Florida, which ranked as one of the most liberal schools in Florida....

He attended an introductory college meeting about diversity and concluded that the quickest way to be ostracized was to proclaim himself a racist. He decided not to mention white nationalism on campus, at least until he had made some friends....

Meanwhile, early each weekday morning, he would go outside and call in to his radio show. He told friends these were regular calls home to his parents, and in a way, that was true. Every morning, it was Derek and his father, cued in by music from Merle Haggard’s 'I’m a White Boy.' Derek often repeated his belief that whites were being wiped out — 'a genocide in our own country,' he said. He told listeners the problem was 'massive, nonwhite immigration.' He said Obama was an 'anti-white radical.' He said white voters were 'just waiting for a politician who actually talks about all the ways whites are being stepped on.' He said it was the 'critical fight of our lifetime.' Then he hung up and went back to the dorm to play Taylor Swift songs on his guitar or to take one of the college’s sailboats onto Sarasota Bay."

[Black's true identity was later discovered and he became rather isolated from his fellow classmates. However, one classmate commented that] 'Ostracizing Derek won’t accomplish anything. We have a chance to be real activists and actually affect one of the leaders of white supremacy in America. This is not an exaggeration. It would be a victory for civil rights....'

One of Derek’s acquaintances from that first semester decided he might have an idea. He started reading Stormfront and listening to Derek’s radio show. Then, in late September, he sent Derek a text message.

'What are you doing Friday night?' he wrote.

Matthew Stevenson had started hosting weekly Shabbat dinners at his campus apartment shortly after enrolling in New College in 2010. He was the only Orthodox Jew at a school with little Jewish infrastructure, so he began cooking for a small group of students at his apartment each Friday night. Matthew always drank from a kiddush cup and said the traditional prayers, but most of his guests were Christian, atheist, black or Hispanic — anyone open-minded enough to listen to a few blessings in Hebrew. Now, in the fall of 2011, Matthew invited Derek to join them.

It was the only social invitation Derek had received since returning to campus, so he agreed to go. The Shabbat meals had sometimes included eight or 10 students, but this time only a few showed up. 'Let’s try to treat him like anyone else,' Matthew remembered instructing them....

Derek arrived with a bottle of wine. Nobody mentioned white nationalism or the forum, out of respect for Matthew. Derek was quiet and polite, and he came back the next week and then the next, until after a few months, nobody felt all that threatened, and the Shabbat group grew back to its original size.

Some members of the Shabbat group gradually began to ask Derek about his views, and he occasionally clarified them in conversations and emails throughout 2011 and 2012."

Over time, Derek "began to question the movement’s ideology", until July 2013, when he publicly "renounced white nationalism, saying that he has been through 'a gradual awakening process' and apologizing for his past activism."

As Derek has said, "people have approached me looking for a way to change the minds of Trump voters, but I can’t offer any magic technique. That kind of persuasion happens in person-to-person interactions and it requires a lot of honest listening on both sides. For me, the conversations that led me to change my views started because I couldn’t understand why anyone would fear me. I thought I was only doing what was right and defending those I loved.... I never would have begun my own conversations without first experiencing clear and passionate outrage to what I believed from those I interacted with."

This is entirely consistent with Daryl Davis' experience. He has said, “It’s a wonderful thing when you see a light bulb pop on in their heads or they call you and tell you they are quitting.”

Davis has explained his logic as follows:

"The most important thing I learned is that when you are actively learning about someone else you are passively teaching them about yourself. So if you have an adversary with an opposing point of view, give that person a platform. Allow them to air that point of view, regardless of how extreme it may be. And believe me, I've heard things so extreme at these rallies they'll cut you to the bone.

Give them a platform.

You challenge them. But you don't challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform. So he and I would sit down and listen to one another over a period of time. And the cement that held his ideas together began to get cracks in it. And then it began to crumble. And then it fell apart."

In fact, the trailer for Accidental Courtesy shows a man in a purple Klan robe commenting, "Hey, this is somebody I can relate to.

Davis "credits his approach for helping to dismantle the local Klan. 'The three Klan leaders here in Maryland, Roger Kelly, Robert White, and Chester Doles—I became friends with each one of them—when the three Klan leaders left the Klan and became friends of mine, that ended the Ku Klux Klan in the state of Maryland,' he asserted. 'Today there is no more Ku Klux Klan in the state. They've tried to revive it every now and then but it immediately falls apart. Groups from neighboring states might come in and hold a rally ... but it's never taken off.'"

These stories are not anomalies.

As The Atlantic said in the title of its article pertaining to Davis, "Can conversation help end bigotry? An improbable example suggests that it would be unwise to discount the possibility."

Along those same lines, on April 10, 2015, I was contacted by Hass Sadeghi, the conference chair for the Southern California Mediation Association's 27th Annual SCMA Conference, entitled Conflict Revolution: Mediators as Agents of Social Change. Although I had never attended an SCMA Conference, Hass asked me if I would be willing to spearhead a program for the Conference on what mediators can and should be doing to bring about critical discussions needed in our society in order to move beyond rhetoric. Because of my published work and use of the social media, he told me that I was the first person who came to mind to tackle this program. Moreover, the request for proposals had not yet been published, when I received his call.

After the request for workshop proposals had been formally issued, I asked Hass if he had a particular subject in mind for my program. He told me that he'd like me to submit a proposal on LGBT related issues.

I immediately contacted my dear friend, fellow mediator and business partner, Leonard Levy, to see if he would participate on my panel. I thought of Len because he and his wife, Linda, have a gay son. I thought that his personal familial experience and the fact that he has helped a great many other families through his volunteer work with PFLAG, formerly known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, made him incredibly well-suited for the panel. He agreed and we discussed what other perspective might benefit our panel. I then suggested that I contact Lorri L. Jean, Chief Executive Officer of the Los Angeles LGBT Center. We agreed it was a great idea.

Shortly thereafter, I sent an email to Lorri Jean, advising her of the organization, the theme of the Conference and the conference chair wanting me to submit a workshop proposal on something pertaining to the LGBT community. I told her that I wanted someone on the panel from the Center who could discuss the door to door advocacy that was done through them to change opinions following Proposition 8 and other such things.

Lorri introduced me to David Fleischer, Director, Leadership LAB, Los Angeles LGBT Center. "The Leadership LAB organizes and empowers communities to defeat anti-LGBT prejudice locally, on the ground in campaigns across the US, and through hands-on mentorship with activists from around the world." Fortunately, David agreed to join our panel.

My idea was that Len would share his personal experiences as a father of a gay son and his work with families experiencing challenges when a close family member comes out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. David would then discuss the work the Center does with neighborhood caucusing through the Leadership LAB. I would then discuss the work I've done on LGBT related issues through my articles and use of the social media.

In any event, I submitted our proposal, which was accepted by SCMA.

Our program was titled Equal Rights for the LGBT Community: The Last Frontier Of The Civil Rights Movement and was presented on November 7, 2015. A theme that was intertwined throughout all three of our presentations involved the immense power of empathy conversations in which all participants felt safe such that they could be their authentic selves and share their vulnerabilities.

The program was so well-received that we were asked to produce it again on February 20, 2016. David wasn't available; however, I was ultimately introduced to Terra Russell Slavin, Deputy Director of Policy, Los Angeles LGBT Center. She agreed to join our panel and brought a different and equally valuable perspective to the program.

Following our program, SCMA posted a blog stating that our "important equal rights program provided insight for those mediators who may encounter the issues facing those individuals who may have been denied the benefits of marriage, faced discrimination in housing, who have been physically or verbally attacked or shamed or in other ways treated without human dignity due to their sexual orientation. The transgender umbrella of LGBT, also LGBTQIH identifies people who do not match their gender at birth. Items discussed included self identification versus sexual orientation, that sexual orientation is not a choice, and that those looking for additional information or greater understanding may want to contact PFLAG or LGBT LA."

Thereafter, on April 7, 2016, The New York Times Magazine published an article profiling David Fleischer and the LGBT Center's Leadership LAB. The article is titled "How Do You Change Voters’ Minds? Have a Conversation - Going door to door, a Los Angeles-based activist group tries to reduce prejudice against transgender people. A new study finds that it works."

Considering everything I know, I was extremely disappointed and frustrated (although, unfortunately, not at all surprised) to learn that Daryl Davis' efforts are considered "controversial."

In fact, "activists from Black Lives Matter, for example, have questioned his choice to speak with white supremacists.

"[Furthermore,] early in 2016, Obama invited a group of African American leaders to meet with him at the White House. When some of the activists affiliated with Black Lives Matter refused to attend, Obama began calling them out in speeches. 'You can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position,' he said. 'The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room, and then start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved. You then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable—that can institutionalize the changes you seek—and to engage the other side....'

Obama is unfailingly optimistic about the empathy and capabilities of the American people."

Interestingly enough, many within the Black Lives Matters movement also either opted not to vote at all or not to vote for president.

"Despite the documented incidents of racism that have occurred in the week following Trump’s victory, Walter 'Hawk' Newsome Jr., the 39-year-old president of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York and a former Big Law staffer, has no doubts that advocating staying away from the polls this election cycle was the right choice. Asked whether his group could have worked with a President Hillary Clinton, Newsome is convinced that her administration would have been more of an obstacle than an ally.

'If she would’ve won, black people would have fallen under the illusion that they were safe again until another one of us got killed and then we would be right back where we started,' Newsome said. 'Right now there’s no disillusion, it’s clear, America is a racist country.'"

In any event, "in an interview with The Atlantic, [Davis] recounted an episode in which a member of the NAACP criticized him, too:

'I had one guy from an NAACP branch chew me up one side and down the other, saying, you know, we've worked hard to get ten steps forward. Here you are sitting down with the enemy having dinner, you're putting us twenty steps back. I pull out my robes and hoods and say, 'look, this is what I've done to put a dent in racism. I've got robes and hoods hanging in my closet by people who've given up that belief because of my conversations sitting down to dinner. They gave it up. How many robes and hoods have you collected?'"

Meanwhile, Davis is engaging in empathy conversations which are highly effective and yet, he is being attacked by activists whose efforts are based upon protests and governmental force. His attackers aren't enlightened and emotionally intelligent enough to realize he's actually changing hearts and minds, unlike them.

Are people born with hate or are they taught to hate? If so, why and what can be done to cause the beliefs to change?

The following are the lyrics to Rogers and Hammerstein’s song from South Pacific titled You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught:

“You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!”

By reaching those who teach hate, as Daryl Davis has done so effectively, the teaching of hate can be reduced. Derek Black's classmate was absolutely correct when he said, "Ostracizing Derek won’t accomplish anything. We have a chance to be real activists and actually affect one of the leaders of white supremacy in America. This is not an exaggeration. It would be a victory for civil rights."

We have a huge problem in our society because of the teaching of hate. Protests and force don't halt the teaching of hate, except possibly by public school teachers.

"Because [Black] was home-schooled, white nationalism could become a focus of his education. It also meant he had the freedom to begin traveling with his father, who left for several weeks each year to speak at white nationalist conferences in the Deep South."

Many parents, such as Black's parents, opt to either home school their children or send them to private religious based schools, where the teachers can teach hate, among other things.

"[In fact,] the billionaire philanthropist whom Donald Trump has tapped to lead the Education Department once compared her work in education reform to a biblical battleground where she wants to 'advance God's Kingdom.'

Trump’s pick, Betsy DeVos, a national leader of the school choice movement, has pursued that work in large part by spending millions to promote the use of taxpayer dollars on private and religious schools."

If you want to change people's hearts and minds, try empathy conversations.

It all circles back around to my debut Psychology Today article titled Bridging Our National Divide Demands Empathy and Compassion - Solving problems facing our nation requires empathy and emotional intelligence.

More from Mark B. Baer, Esq.
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