October 16, 2018

I’m a Teenager Who Craves Conversation

Photo from Pinterest

Before Americans became divided, people turned to advice columns or blog posts for conversation starters. These days, people seem to be looking for conversation stoppers. Expressions such as “bias” and “offense” infiltrate our conversations as vague statements that serve to dissuade discourse.

At a summer program on international relations, I asked a Lebanese participant about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I was caught off guard when he told me that my argument was shaped by “media bias.”

The conversation shifted away from what was going on in the region and into an argument about whether Western media favors Israel. He used millennials’ hyperawareness of “media bias” to evade uncomfortable dialogue.

He continued arguing that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians and others, including “his people.” He also called the conflict a “tragedy of white supremacy.” 

White supremacy? That’s a real conversation stopper. King Leopold of Belgium was seen as an example of white supremacy during the “Scramble for Africa.” He monopolized the Congo and ordered his men to tie natives to trees and slash them so that they bled to death in front of their children. Recently, violent white nationalists protesting in Charlottesville, Va., displayed a horrid modern-day example of white supremacy. 

But a democracy trying to survive in a region surrounded by oppressive governments? I don’t think so. 

Nuance hardly seems to matter anymore. Instead, it is OK to trivialize terms with profound significance if it means halting uncomfortable dialogue. 

One example is the misuse of words such as “misogynist” and “sexist.” Sexism describes discrimination based on gender. Misogyny is contempt for women, and the attempt to prevent them from succeeding in roles traditionally attributed to men. 

Journal columnist Karen Lehrman Bloch addressed this issue in her Aug. 17 column, “Dear Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.” In response to Ben Shapiro’s request for a debate, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “Just like catcalling, I don’t owe a response to unsolicited requests from men with bad intentions.”

Bloch wrote, “You and your millennial cohort were never taught real feminism. … You were taught to see anything you don’t like as sexist.”

I see no similarity between a man calling after my friends and me and a political pundit seeking to hear ideas from all parts of the political spectrum. Shapiro complimented her as the “future of the Democratic Party.” A man giving credit to a female minority candidate and suggesting a debate is not the same thing as a man hollering objectifying catcalls at women. 

Clearly, Ocasio-Cortez has ideological disagreements with Shapiro. But rather than expressing those disagreements, she halted the conversation by accusing him of sexist catcalling.

As a feminist, I am humiliated on behalf of the feminist movement. We were given the opportunity to engage and be heard by those with different views. Our response? The distorted use of the word “sexist” that exploits its validity. 

Here’s a potential conversation stopper: If a man says something to me such as, “Don’t wear that, you’ll distract boys,” I could raise my voice and call him sexist. If I want him to understand why I should be able to dress how I want without comment, I would formulate sentences in a calm manner and express my views. 

I adore my generation. Some of the most passionate people I’ve met are teens fighting for causes they believe in. I hope our interest in global politics emboldens us to seek a deeper understanding of what we argue. I hope we avoid using ambiguous terms as arguments. If we want to articulate our opinions, I hope we will learn to justify the narratives we use and modify our approach to create productive discourse.

Our beliefs and views should be used as conversation starters, not conversation stoppers.


Charlotte Kramon was a Jewish Journal intern this past summer.