Is there any point to engaging with someone who’s rigidly dug in to their classism, or other oppressive attitudes?
I had to think hard about that question after a difficult conversation over breakfast at a B&B. One of the guests was beyond oblivious, into the realm of deliberately offensive. As I tell the story, I hope you’ll ask yourself what I could have done differently.
What did this man do that was so awful? First was his response to a mother/daughter pair of guests, in town for a college visit. The teenage girl said with pride, “I want to be a doctor, and I chose this college because you get to volunteer in a hospital starting in freshman year!” Mr. Arrogant asked, “Oh, is that a public college?” Yes, said the mother and daughter. “Well,” he said, “my son is only applying to elite colleges,” and he named the famous selective university they were in town to visit.
My jaw had dropped, so at that stage I said nothing, nor did any of the other guests. One woman took the girl aside and asked her more about her plans – an indirect way of rebuking the man for disrespecting her.
But soon thereafter I mentioned that Famous U has a reputation for admitting a lot of children of alumni. With a laugh, Mr. Arrogant said, “I don’t mind elitism as long as it benefits me.” Again I was speechless. What should I have said?
Soon the conversation turned to the housing and foreclosure crisis. I’ve found that this is one of those universal gripes that any given gathering of affluent Americans can easily discuss: irresponsible borrowers who took out bigger mortgages than they could afford. It seems that every homeowner knows one reckless borrower, and forgets the role of the banks and the overall economy in the crisis.
By this point steam was coming out of my ears, so I started arguing back. I said, “But millions of people had jobs when they took out their mortgages, and they didn’t know they would lose their jobs when the economy crashed.” Mr. Arrogant, however, thought I had the causality backwards; he blamed the entire recession on excessive borrowers, as well as on the Community Reinvestment Act forcing banks to lend in low-income neighborhoods. I told him bluntly that he was wrong, that unregulated mortgage companies had higher foreclosure rates than the local banks affected by the CRA.
It did no good, of course. He was so sure of his views, and so cocky, that there was no hope of influencing him.
But as breakfast wore on, another guest leaned over to me and told me an emotional story about a bank that had refused to negotiate with her unemployed family member, who lost her home. And before we left, the mother and daughter came up to us and told us more about the wonderful public-college hospital internship program.
So my take-away lesson is to go ahead and engage, even when I’m unsure what to say, and even with the least receptive and most offensive people – not for their sake, and not just out of my own need to object – but to give a little breathing room to the bystanders, a little encouragement that their different attitudes and stories were welcome. After all, it wasn’t only the classist guy’s breakfast room.