I spent 20 years in a white church. I’m done trying to persuade people.
This article is part of a new series called “On Persuasion.” We asked thought leaders to consider what persuasion means to them. What works in terms of persuading people? Is it moot in 2020? What is the Jewish value of persuasion? Should we be opening our minds to other points of view, or closing them to dangerous ideas? Read all the pieces here.
I spent nearly two decades in a mostly-white Evangelical church in the Deep South. That’s why I’m done with trying to persuade people, and don’t know when I will ever try again.
I was baptized in that church, in the heart of the Deep South in South Carolina. I had my kids dedicated there, put in countless volunteer hours to help the church’s outreach efforts, defended my white pastor and white church members against charges of racism. I had them over to my house for dinner, had dinner at theirs. I loved on their kids, they loved on mine.
I led race relations workshops and gave them the benefit of doubt when they said or did something that was clearly ugly and racist, hoping to engage their better angels rather than shame them. I prayed for them and with them.
And at the end of it all, a good chunk of them were outraged when a Black man won the White House in 2008 — not only because of common political differences — and quickly glommed onto a bigoted birtherism conspiracy theory about Barack Obama. And in 2016, they voted for the most prominent birther of them all.
I’ve learned the hard way that people change when they want to change, that people learn when they want to learn, that people believe what they want to believe, no matter how nice you are, no matter how much you think you can role model your way into convincing them to see more clearly.
That’s why I’m done. That’s why I think it’s comical that so many people continue claiming that if only liberals and Democrats had listened more to those who would become Donald Trump voters, had only empathized with them, shown them respect, that they could be convinced not to follow a bigot and racist like Trump. That if only the right policy to help alleviate their “economic angst” or stem the tide against their “deaths of despair” could be articulated in the right way, that would make all the difference, they believe.
I know better. Because it didn’t matter that I shared the faith and concerns of Trump’s most passionate supporters in my area and even proudly split my political ticket numerous times to prove that I sincerely believe some of their ideas have real merit. I wasn’t trying to convince them to think like me. I just wanted them to commit to never becoming the biggest barriers to racial progress in our era the way too many of their parents and grandparents had in previous eras.
Watch the video of our “Jewish conversation about Juneteenth” with Rabbi Sandra Lawson and Tema Smith.
I couldn’t even convince them to do that, despite efforts that spanned nearly two decades.
That truth showed itself again over the past few months since the World Health Organization declared that we were in a pandemic because of the spread of the coronavirus. No matter how many studies I cited, no matter the volume of data I presented, no matter how many explanations I provided, many of those people I had spent all those years with in that church decided to believe that telling people to wear masks was part of a global conspiracy theory to make people sick, not to keep them well. And some of them still believe in birtherism, still think Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party ran a secret child sex ring in the basement of a pizza parlor, no matter that the man who drove up to D.C. from near where I teach in North Carolina and shot up the pizza parlor where the sex ring was supposedly being housed found out there wasn’t even a basement in that building.
This isn’t to say I advocate writing people off. I don’t. You will never hear me call them an ugly name and will often hear me defend them against overwrought charges of racism and bigotry. The truth is, their motivations are more complex than can be summed up in a tweet or a label. I still view them as the complex, fellow children of God that they are.
I will never stand in their redemption’s door. But I know I have no power to make them walk through it. All I can do is what I’ve been created to do: remain focused on holding fast to my own humanity so I never forget anyone else’s. All I can do is speak the truth as I see it.
I’m not giving up, at least nothing I ever had control of anyway. The illusion of persuasion is that it can convince you to waste time and energy on things you shouldn’t, on things that can distract and rob you of your own power and purpose.
I’m not meant to convince anyone else of anything, and neither are you. It’s a fool’s errand. Those who become inspired by us chose to become inspired. And only they can choose the timing of when that will happen.
Issac J. Bailey is a journalist and professor of communication studies at Davidson College. His book, My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South was published in 2018.