On Not Talking to “But” People

A.D. Carson

The new school year has started at Clemson. While everybody is eagerly sharing stories of adventures undertaken over summer, I’m dreading every single conversation before it starts. I’m identifying imaginary idiomatic exit ramps, so I’m not trapped in the ever-familiar position of arguing that the person to whom I’m casually speaking see and discuss other people as actual human beings worthy of consideration as such.

These chats sound like:

“Yeah, the police shouldn’t kill unarmed people, but we’ll never understand the stress and danger of their jobs.” or

“Yeah, discrimination is definitely an issue in America, but until we can get both sides to have a civil discussion[1] nothing’s going to change.”  or

“ … but what about Chicago gun violence.” in response to responses of Black deaths across the country.


On campus these kinds of conversationalists insist:

“Yeah, it’s awful that Clemson is 84% white and has such a low ‘diversity rating’ but so do all kinds of other schools.” or

“ … but  name a school that doesn’t have a [discriminatory] past it would rather not acknowledge.”

or the perennially popular

“… but are we just going to change the name of every building or street named for terrible people?”


While I do enjoy conversation, after three years of speaking out and writing about Clemson’s historic racism and revisionism as well as the many present inequalities here and across the country, I’m tired of talking. That’s a lie … kind of.  But, I’ve been constantly invited to talk since I started the See The Stripes Campaign, which highlights the often-unacknowledged history of slavery, sharecropping, and convict labor, as well as the unabashed honoring of slave owners, segregationists, and white supremacists by the university.

When students on campus wanted to meet to show solidarity with victims of injustice in the wake of the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, opponents asked what those incidents have to do with anybody on our campus. When white fraternity and sorority members on our campus threw a “Crip-Mas Party” [dressing like gang members posing for pictures and then posting them online] the eventual administrative solution was a campus-wide conversation in which offended students were offered space to name our concerns while the offending parties were able to talk about how their lives and their friends’ lives have been affected because the pictures that were shared all over the internet might ruin job prospects[2].

This past spring semester ended with a nine-day sit-in at Sikes Hall – the university’s main administration building. Though the action was to demonstrate that the talking wasn’t changing any of the action around campus, many people came to the demonstration site, rebuttals in tow. We directed those who wanted us to explain ourselves to the website where they could read our statements and let them know that we’d be happy to answer any questions after they’d become familiar with what was happening. Some people came back with questions, which demonstrated their willingness to learn and desire to know, but many people didn’t even bother reading because they weren’t really interested in the conversation they’d initiated. I’m tired of pointless conversations in which I’m forced into the position of advocating basic human decency to people who I presume are far more intelligent than they let on by way of conversations like the ones I’m describing here. Truthfully, I have no obligation to be open to every conversation presented to me, and I should be afforded the opportunity to choose when and where I’m willing to discuss the topics I choose, whether it’s racism on college campuses, the murders of unarmed civilians by police, sexual assault, or responsible ways of teaching American History and Literature. The fact that I have an opinion isn’t an open invitation to debate or discuss it. If I’ve put my thoughts in writing then those thoughts are likely accessible to anyone interesting in reading them. When I say I don’t want to talk it’s actually a matter of my time, attention, and energy.

Many of these conversationalists pose as sincere until we arrive at the “but” in their statement. There are far too many variations of this tactic that could rightly be called ‘butting.’ My suspicion is this is slightly different from trolling because of the level of seeming empathy that occasionally precedes the ‘But,’ especially if the response sounds like an acknowledgment of the problems presented in the topic of discussion. I recently almost had a conversation about famous athletes protesting on behalf of oppressed people with some guys I play ball with at the gym. The conversation veered out of bounds immediately, and someone offered, “There really are lots of problems with racism and oppression in America, but those athletes get paid too much money to be talking about being oppressed.” In the past this would prompt me to engage — combat it with example upon example, highlighting in the conversation what all people involved might agree is wrong, and then the ‘But’ would come again. And then I’d find myself providing analogies and comparisons only to be hit with the ‘But’ again after a certain amount of agreement. I’d leave the conversation emotionally spent, and the person to whom I was talking would say something along the lines of “But I really appreciate this dialogue.” in the better instances. In the worse ones we would “just agree to disagree.” These are not good conversations. I’d go so far as to say they aren’t even conversations at all. But I won’t. I’ll just say, rather than waiting for the ‘But’ to happen, I don’t want to talk. I happen to think “Let’s hear both sides” shouldn’t apply in simple cases of right or wrong, fact, or feelings. In many cases the “other side” isn’t a side, actually, and doesn’t deserve equal consideration. It’s a diversion tactic.

In a recent discussion a person suggested the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman was a product of “two bad people crossing each other’s paths.” Tempted as I was to engage, why would I take that bait? Is that really a conversation worth expending energy? Earlier this year, during the class I taught this summer, someone raised the point, “I don’t agree with #BlackLivesMatter because it’s not a real movement like the Civil Rights Movement. It’s just hashtag activism.” In asking for clarification, I questioned if the person actually knew anything about the official organization, its policies and aims, or read anything on their website. The person responded, “Oh, there’s a website?” Conversation over. These are the types of prefaces ‘But’ People present under the guise of playing devil’s advocate. The devil doesn’t need any more advocacy in my mind.

These so-called devil’s advocates are really no better than trolls in fancy clothes that would rather block the bridge to what might be understood as progress by engaging in what they like to call “productive dialogue.” At Clemson, they are people like the members of the student groups who have decided this school year to invite Milo Yiannopoulos – a well-known hate-speech provocateur – to campus under the guise of ‘free speech’ and pretend there should be no negative reaction from the student body or administration. Only they actually do want that reaction from the student body and administration. Their justifications are all-too familiar and tired. They call it a “cultural litmus test.” They say, “It isn’t in response to the sit-in that was held last spring, ‘But’…”

A local newspaper asked my thoughts on the event. I responded in kind with what’s written here. I said that I’m not attending and really don’t want to draw any more attention to it but, “If it is a matter of the freedom to think and say and act in certain kinds of ways – so long as they don’t infringe upon other people’s abilities to have an environment where they are not physically harmed or impeded in any way, you know, I guess that’s what a university is supposed to provide.” Regardless, my comments on their event resulted in more hate inveighed my way that I would neither categorize as productive nor as inviting more dialogue.

One would presume the devil would recruit seemingly intelligent advocates to provide counterarguments for the sake of argumentation. Evasion, scapegoating, false equivocation and all the other forms of fallacious argumentation don’t make for good dialogue. They’re exhausting. When engaging online, I’ve actually taken to posting the link to the Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments just to save time and energy. This rebuttal style certainly leads to the person dismissing my concerns as illegitimate because I refuse to address each ‘But’ presented, but I’m okay with that. I’m actually okay with my opinions not rising to the level of worthiness to a person who was never going to see them as worthy in the first place. A genuine change in perspective isn’t the goal of the ‘But’ Person. Their goal is to tire you out, to spend your energy and effort, to make you perform your best arguments all while resting on their ‘Buts’. And I’ll tell you now that it’s simply not worth it. If someone wants to know how we can work together to combat an issue, or would like to hear a differing opinion or perspective[3] I’m usually okay with those conversations.

If you’re trying to talk to me, however, and you haven’t read anything on the subject, or at least googled the topic, save your ‘But’ because I don’t really want to see it.

I would apologize, but I’m not sorry. Countless issues need our time, attention, and energy. Numerous conversations need to be engaged thoughtfully with open minds and hearts. These are the places I want to focus my effort. With that in mind, I’m treading lightly, looking for ways to exit any conversation headed in the opposite direction. It’s not that I can’t handle disagreement. We can learn plenty from those with whom we disagree. What I won’t deal with, though, are emotionally taxing, imbalanced conversations in which I’m posed to prove my concerns are even valid to begin with, only to have those eventually dismissed and be expected to feel as though something has been accomplished. Or that the work that needs done was completed by way of that particular talk, which was unnecessary for me. It’s not worth it. I’d rather just not talk at all.

I know, I know, I hear the responses already:

“But … ”

[1] If the two sides are ‘those who are discriminated against’ and ‘those who discriminate,’ it seems entirely understandable that one of those sides might be comprised of some people who are unwilling to engage in “civil discussion” about the problem. Just saying

[2] It was later discovered that parties like this one are annual events on campus dating back to at least the “Blackface Party” held on MLK Weekend in 2007, which also garnered national attention.

[3] I mean if they’re willing to listen after asking for an opinion, not if their goal is to attempt to discredit or disprove the opinion because it differs from their own.

A.D. Carson is a PhD Candidate in Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design at Clemson University. He is an educator and performance artist whose work has appeared in The Alchemists’ Review, Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public-Radio Program, and The Guardian, among others. His first novel, COLD, hybridizes poetry, rap lyrics, and prose. He is also the author of The City: [un]poems, thoughts, rhymes & miscellany, a collection of poems, short stories, and essays. Carson is a recipient of the Grace Patton Conant Award for Literary Creation and the 2016 recipient of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award for Excellence in Service at Clemson University. His work can be accessed at http://aydeethegreat.com.


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