The Advice I Give My 10th Grade Students About Discussing Hard Things (That Some Adults Could Use)

1. Don’t assume that things you don’t understand are wrong. The only certainty you can hold about things you don’t know is that you don’t know them.

2. Just because something is “your opinion” doesn’t mean it’s not offensive or factually correct. That term doesn’t excuse you from a) responsibility for the impact your words have, b) responsibility to truth, or c) responsibility to civility.

3. There are really good ways to get someone’s point of view: ask them. And then, as they tell you, listen. Don’t just hear, but listen. Don’t anticipate what you’ll say next, just listen. Unless the position is something really horrific that it violates all moral norms and human decency — if you haven’t taken the time to have a conversation with someone about their viewpoint you haven’t earned the right to make a judgment call on their intent.

4. Your experiences have shaped you, but they have not shaped other people outside of your experience. The inverse is also true. Try as you might, you will never understand what it’s like to be anyone but you. Try as anyone else might, they will never understand exactly what it’s like to be you either.

5. If you can’t be empathetic, you can still be sympathetic, you can still be polite, and you can still be kind. None of those traits are mutually exclusive of the others. If someone isn’t offering you the same, it’s okay not to continue the conversation.

6. A small difference of opinion isn’t worth ending a friendship over, but pay attention to the way that you’re treated while disagreeing. Someone who is dismissive of your opinion, resorts to insults, or refuses to offer you respect is probably showing you something about themselves that’s worth noticing.

7. Any sentence started with “I’m not racist, BUT…” or “I don’t want to offend anyone BUT…” is a pretty good indicator of what’s to come. If your opinion needs to be delivered with a disclaimer that preemptively attempts to absolve you from blame, it may be one that you should reconsider.

8. If someone claims not to care about a particular action, person, or topic, and yet can’t stop discussing it — they’re probably lying.

9. There are things — many things — that are unequivocally wrong. It doesn’t matter if they were done by the best person who ever lived. It doesn’t matter if 800 people did the same thing before them. It’s okay to say “Yes, that was wrong. I’m hopeful that going forward it will be different.” It’s okay to offer a different viewpoint. It’s even okay to attempt to look at cultural or historical relativism. There’s no need to deflect blame by adding a caveat. Not “But Jane did it in 2012 and no one cared!” not “But what she really meant was…” Defending the indefensible doesn’t strengthen an argument.

10. Lastly, and this is for you as much as it is the person you’re speaking with: admit when you are wrong. Apologize when you treat people poorly, even if it’s unintentional. Don’t attempt to control the tone that people use to speak, but make sure that your own reflects who you are and what your intent is. And always, always, always stay true to yourself.