There’s a difference between disagreeing with someone, and dismissing someone – between saying you’re wrong and saying you are not capable of being right.
You can disagree – emphatically, even! – on minor matters of opinion, or on subjective questions of taste etc., without invalidating the other person’s right to have their own perspective.
For instance, if you like a certain book, and someone else doesn’t, disagreement might sound like, “But this and this are in the book! It’s brilliant in the way it does this! This element really spoke to me!”
Dismissal might sound like, “You just look for things to dislike. It’s because you spend so much time with those snobby friends of yours.”
One of these is a respectful expression of disagreement about a book. It opens up a conversation where it’s possible for everyone to talk about what they did or didn’t like about it. It might be possible to come away from this conversation with a better understanding of each other or even the book itself.
The other is a dismissal of the other person’s
right to even have an opinion. It shuts down the original conversation about the book and
opens an attack on the other person’s entire worldview. You’re no longer saying they’re wrong about a book, you’re saying that they don’t have any real thoughts or opinions of their own, that something about them (in this case, the “snobby friends” they like to spend time with) completely invalidates anything they might ever think or feel or believe. You’re telling them they have no right to any opinion at all.
a difference between shutting someone down like this and respectfully pointing out
reasons you might have noticed something they didn’t. There’s also a
time and a place for intentionally shutting down a conversation. But know the
difference, and be aware of what you’re doing.
This dynamic is very
easy to accidentally slip into, especially if there’s an existing environment of dismissal. I’ve noticed this dynamic is incredibly common in
the way families treat their members who are developmentally disabled
or mentally ill, or otherwise different to everyone else. It’s also common in social groups where one member has a vulnerable or marginalized identity the others don’t share. Instead of
just disagreeing about small things, the automatic response to that person becomes condescension and dismissal.
When this kind of dismissal becomes a habit, it fosters an extremely unsupportive environment where someone may not feel able to talk about things that are important to them, things that are hurting or scaring them, or things they need. And it encourages other people to cement their disrespect of the target and take them less seriously in an increasing variety of contexts.
It’s an incredibly effective tool for isolating someone, making them feel as though they have no right to be heard, and in its most extreme form, gaslighting them about their own experiences or stripping them of their right to make choices.
Pay attention to how
you behave when you think someone you care about is wrong. Your response
can affect them more than you may realize.