Journal Entry

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

On talking to your Trumpist relatives (the ones you care about)

My friend Eric Krupski asked on Facebook:

Hey All -- I'm looking for some advice on talking to my conservative relatives post-election, and how I can best advance anti-racism and anti-bigotry in conservative white circles. I tried the approach of "calling out everything" after the election and pointing out that my relatives have been backing a white supremacist out of fear and ignorance, and also that they didn't have to worry about the consequences of the election because of white privilege. That did not go well for predictable reasons, and it only got better when I agreed to "give him (Trump) a chance". I feel morally compromised for having agreed to that, but I also feel like the hardline approach that I took in the beginning wasn't working. It only caused my relatives to double down on their racist beliefs. From here, I feel like I could take one of two approaches, and I'm not sure what's best: -- I could continue to emphasize that Trump and his ilk are unacceptable bigots. It won't change any minds, but it will at least show solidarity, and humanize the progressive/anti-racist movement by show how close to home it is. (And there's certainly value in that) -- Or I could focus on specific policies and actions, for example by speaking up when my relatives say something specifically racist, and by voicing my opposition to specific policy proposals in an outcomes-oriented way. I imagine that this approach will increase my chances of changing minds, having productive conversations, and de-demonizing progressivism. But it will also come with the risk of legitimizing Trump and the alt-right movement by muting my anger. I'm not really sure what's the better choice here, and I would love to hear how you all have approached this.

A couple of people suggested I post my reply to a wider audience; here it is. Let's be clear at the start that this is not some kind of mandate from me that everyone be nice and sympathetic to all their Trumpist acquaintances in general; by no means! Please do not suffer your online trolls gladly; feel free, if this election was the straw that broke the camel's back, to cut your reprehensible relatives loose with relish. If you are exhausted and awash with grief and terrified, do not squander any of your energy fruitlessly on making nice: protect yourselves.

However, Eric is a prosperous happily heterosexually married white progressive urban techie who's making the trek back to his red state roots. He is not especially targeted by Trump, he loves his conservative relatives, and thus he's extremely well positioned to do the kind of intervention that cognitive science research suggests actually has the potential to change minds; he can be a mensch and stand up for justice and probably get closer to his relatives as a result.

So I wrote:


I'm presuming these are people you care about, and are willing to invest in, and that, while misguided, you believe they are essentially having the discussion in earnest good faith (as opposed to just using you as a conversational foil or straw man or scoring points with an audience); this advice is tailored for that situation. So here's what you do:

  1. You listen empathically without giving an inch. That is, you are unfailingly polite, don't interrupt, seem honestly curious about everything they're saying. You are warm and human and continually communicate that you love them. You give them the benefit of the doubt and make sure they feel heard. But you never assent to anything you disagree with. You just keep asking: really? But what about this case? What would you do then? Are you really saying X? How would you square that with Y?

    People can't listen unless they feel heard. The safer they feel emotionally, the more flexible their thinking becomes. And you can't convince anyone of anything by forcing your ideas upon them; but they can convince themselves. If they hear words coming out of their mouths that honestly shock them, and you are sticking with them through it, they may have room to reconsider.

  2. The above is a prerequisite, but once they feel heard: relate your personal experiences and those of people you specifically actually know -- not stuff from the news or intellectual positions. "My friends the gay couple, you remember them? They're really afraid they're going to lose their children. What would you tell them? I mean, Pence did say X"

  3. Where they make false claims, be curious and interested and reserve judgement about who's right and immediately go to Google/Snopes/Wikipedia and give them the facts.

  4. You don't actually need to moderate your opinions; you just need to say them lightly, with humor, taking the perspective that these are your opinions, but maybe you're wrong, how interesting that their opinions differ, with confidence that if you think about it together honestly you will both -- not necessarily agree -- but learn. Model openness.

  5. Hold out high, authentic expectations, and articulate them explicitly. Frame the people you're talking to in terms of their values and principles that you actually admire. "You've always taught me that..." / "I know you'd never..." / "Remember that time that you..." / "I've always thought of you as...". Don't bullshit them -- this won't work if you actually hold their character in contempt -- but evoke their virtues, and make the contrast between their better selves and the guy they're backing. People tend to rise or sink to expectations; expectations are an incredibly powerful social force. We are social mammals, and we don't want to disappoint.

  6. Also, in this particular case: just ask them about Trump! Ask them what they think of his positions, ask them what they think of his lapses, what he'll do, whether they admire him. Don't sound smug or rigid or like you're waiting to spring a gotcha. Just really listen them out on the subject of Trump. I mean, a lot of the people who voted for Trump are uneasy about him: they think he's a boor, they think he's erratic, and so on. A lot of team Republicans backed their candidate with gritted teeth; other anti-establishment folks threw him like a bomb at Washington, but are themselves worried about how it's going to go (one fence-sitter I talked to thought it would be really fantastic to ELECT Trump, just to fuck with Washington bureaucrats, as long as Trump didn't actually have to BE President...). Listen to all their concerns about Trump, and also listen to what they admire about him and hope for. Don't play along or conceal what you think, but just be really curious about this thing they did that seems, to you, out of character.

  7. Also, ask them why they think all these hatemongers are coming out of the woodwork now (you don't have to trust the SPLC to see this: a CNN news ticker just asked if Jews were people) , and mention how you see a connection between Trump's encouragement of them and the wave of hate crimes. But ask: be interested in their answer. I'd contrast McCain's handling of right-wing hate at his rallies in 2008 (his flustered but appalled and firm "don't say that, ma'am, he's a good American...") with Trump's seeming to revel in outrageousness. Ask them, do you think some people took that as a free pass?

Then Eric asked:


In the case that someone is using me as a conversational foil or straw man, is it best to just say "I feel like you're using me as a foil, and don't want to continue this conversation?"

My answer:


In the straw-man case, I think it depends on your relationship with them. If the fact that they're doing so is a violation and you care about them, by all means get angry and engage on the relationship level. "Are you just fucking around here? Because I really care about this and I think I deserve better."

If it's the kind of relationship where this is just yanking-your-chain banter or a competitive sport, and they're not available for a real talk, don't frustrate yourself, just either ignore them, or answer in kind with the occasional zinger, acknowledging that this is a game but, perhaps, leaving the door open if they want to get real.

If they're toxic or just not worth the effort of engaging, beg off politely, shut them down, redirect, leave... whatever will salvage your evening.

I should now add on that last point, "whatever will salvage your evening", that, of course, it isn't just about your evening. If your uncle is spewing toxic hate and you care about your nephews and nieces -- say, you don't want them killing themselves if they turn out to be gay, which would be a possible result of his comments left unopposed -- then yeah, man, ruin the evening. It won't change his mind, but his mind wasn't going to change anyway, and your nephews and nieces might have something to hold on to, and know that you're on record as someone they can turn to.

Posted by benrosen at November 22, 2016 04:56 PM | Up to blog
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