Today on The Argument, how to have tough conversations with the people you love.
Once again, the holidays are upon us. And this year’s a little bit of a weird one.
We’re still under the cloud of the pandemic. But unlike last year, a lot of us are vaccinated, which could mean that many of us are planning to maybe gather with other people to celebrate the holidays this year. And while I pray you have the kind of idyllic, non-argumentative gathering that only seems to exist in sitcoms and Norman Rockwell paintings, one way or another, you might find yourself in an argument. It might not even be about politics. Maybe it’s about what you’re wearing, who you married, what you’re eating.
I’m Jane Coaston. And here on The Argument, we know a thing or two about having productive conversations between people who disagree with each other a little, or a lot. And to help you survive and thrive this holiday, I’m bringing in the guy who literally wrote the book on talking to people who disagree with him.
Dylan Marron hosts the podcast Conversations with People Who Hate Me, where he talks to people who hate him, and who he’s not a huge fan of, either.
It’s more difficult to come out as not a liberal than it is to come out as gay nowadays.
- dylan marron
Hmm. I — as a member of the LGBT community, I would disagree. But I’m also not a member of the right-leaning community. So I’ve never had to tearfully tell my parents that I identify as right-leaning, you know?
After dozens of these conversations, Dylan’s become the expert in dealing with the worst people on the internet. So we can totally help you deal with [SIGH] Aunt Kathy.
Hi. Thank you so much for being here. Before we get into tactics for surviving family events that might get a little tense or passionately heated, I was wondering if you could briefly explain where the idea for Conversations with People Who Hate Me came from. Why did you want to start doing this?
I was making socially progressive social justice satire videos in 2016, leading up to the 2016 presidential election. And what’s relevant is that these videos were on Facebook. These videos were growing more and more viral. More people were loving them, and of course, we understand the rule of law of the internet, that also meant that people were hating them, too.
And I shared the detail that it was on Facebook because when I was getting hate messages, which were mostly homophobic, or swipes at my masculinity, or my voice, my body, my general existence —
— and my political ideas, I was able to click on the profile picture of the person who sent it. And I was able to scroll through, sometimes, every photo ever taken of them for the last 10 years.
Which it’s an immense sense of power, where you’re just like, hey —
— in 2013, you looked like an asshole.
[LAUGHS] Or what I always say is like, it is like sending a hate mail letter with a paper clipping of your resume and a partial family tree, and like, a ton of photos of you. But the truth is, I was doing this sort of as a coping mechanism. Because I needed to construct these like, full, three-dimensional people out of these flattened, quote, unquote, “enemies” that were in my inbox or in my comment sections. And that was this strange way that I kind of soothed myself. It was like a self soothing practice to be like, these people are real, and they are not monsters, and they have full lives.
And I would also rely on the standard coping mechanisms that so many people have, which is to screenshot these comments and messages, make fun of their typos, kind of roast the people who wrote them. And then someone saw me do that.
And he got in touch with me. He was a teenager at the time, named Josh. He got in touch, and he saw that I had, you know, shared his message. And he suggested we get on the phone together.
And so I jumped on the phone with him. And what I experienced was this — like, something I had dreamed of. And it was like the next step of clicking through the profile pictures and posts, and trying to construct these like, fictional backstories for these people. And now, I was actually talking to someone.
And after speaking to Josh for that first time, I wanted to do that with every other person whose hate message I had shared. And out of that grew the podcast, Conversations with People Who Hate Me. And I started having conversations with people who sent me hateful or negative messages and comments. And then I grew the show. And now, I mostly moderate conversations between people who get into it with each other online.
Sometimes, it’s people who clearly want to troll you.
And then it’s people who seem like they want you to stop doing whatever it is you’re doing because you’re making people like you and them look bad.
How do you navigate these different types of conversations, where these are two people you have something in common, that seems a little different from the typically oppositional ones.
The call is coming from inside the house, so to speak, right, when we are speaking with people who we’re ultimately very similar to, but we disagree on one thing. And I’ve had a number of calls like that — sometimes, liberals who think I’m the wrong kind of liberal. I mean, one of my favorite episodes is a call I moderated between a Bernie supporter and a Warren supporter who really clashed on Twitter.
I think the way I approach those is with the awareness that sometimes, those disagreements are what can set us off the most, right? Because it’s not this caricaturistic other side. We are speaking to someone who is almost like us, but there is that one thing that just sets us off, that is so different.
And I think that’s when emotions play into it. Because we see a reflection of ourselves in this person. And we’re like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no — I suppose I’m putting myself in their shoes. But like, they see a reflection in me, or they see a reflection in each other.
And they are even more incensed that they see themselves. And they want to distance themselves from that. And they want to focus on this specific thing.
Those are the worst. Like, you know that you’re going to —
— be in opposition to someone who’s totally different from you.
But it’s harder to get into a conversation with someone who is a lot like you, or if they’re a member of your family.
And I think that for a lot of people, this can be a trepidatious time. I think this year especially, I’m very hopeful that this will be a wonderful moment of coming together, and that people won’t decide that the first thing they need to do is have a giant disagreement. And I also do want to give the caveat and the permission slip to listeners that if you’re an adult person who doesn’t want to go somewhere painful or unwelcoming to you —
— you don’t have to go. Just don’t. Let’s get down to brass tacks.
In your work, is there a way to sit down at a table or start a conversation with someone that you may disagree with in a way that could be productive or just peaceable?
Yeah. I shared that story of clicking through the profile pictures of my early internet detractors. And that is also a helpful exercise. It may not be on Facebook that you are doing this with a family member or someone you’re about to share a Thanksgiving meal with, but if you have the energy to do it, it’s a helpful exercise to imagine the most loving backstory possible for this person, right? If they’re saying something that absolutely offends you, if they’re saying something that is offensive not necessarily directly to you, but another group of people, what is the most loving backstory that you can write for them? What is the reason that they are this way?
And see it as an exercise. And this is not something you have to sit down and do and write, but I think that often centers me, to be like, oh, this is not an evil person. I am not sitting down with an evil person. In their mind, this is the most right thing they can do or say at this time. Sometimes that helps disarm me from being more defensive. So that’s one step.
My basic thesis on a lot of family disagreements, that you might think that you’re disagreeing about politics, but actually you’re disagreeing about, like, you don’t come home very much, or —
— your mom was mean in, like, 1964, and no one’s moved on past that. But I’m curious as to when you’re thinking about creating this loving backstory for a family member, how do you not let that context get in the way of that? Like, how do you give them the fresh start in your mind that you would want them to have towards you?
I mean, that’s an act of love that you just have to try. It’s impossible to plan for it. But I think you do bring something up, which is like the history that is always applicable in a family, right? The chaos of every story you know about this person, every interaction you’ve ever had, every negative interaction you’ve ever had. And I think it creates this kind of chaotic environment to have any conversation about anything at all, even if it’s not an argument, and even if we’re not at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
So I will share something that I learned from speaking to politically oppositional people, but I think is relevant here, which is something I found when I was in the middle of a call with a guest who was on the opposite end of the political spectrum, is that I found myself wanting to talk about every single hot topic that we could possibly cover. And so I started calling this the everything storm. And the everything storm, like, often finds its way into a conversation. And it’s when you are talking about so many things that you have no idea where to even begin.
In families, the everything storm is also there, it’s just present in a different way. It’s not necessarily all the hot topics you want to run down, but it’s that thing you did a decade ago, and then that thing that you keep doing that I’m finally going to tell you that you do right now, and that thing that you keep saying to me, and that look you keep giving me. And all of these things are at play as you’re trying to talk about vaccines, you know, and as you’re trying to talk about college campuses today. And it’s a really challenging setting for a conversation.
It’s a challenging setting to connect with anyone at all. And I find that the only antidote I know to that is to mutually agree upon, like, what is admissible and what is inadmissible, right? Like, is that thing that I said to you five years ago relevant to this conversation? I don’t know. It might be on your mind, but I don’t know that we can really tackle that now. But what we can tackle is what’s right here in front of us, what we’re talking about, and why we believe in what we believe. I think getting to the why is, to me, so much more productive than kind of getting into the fray and arguing about the facts that most people at the table won’t have.
I think that the point about the everything storm is really important, especially because we exist in what I call debate team energy culture. And I hate debate team energy, especially because if you’re having a conversation with someone who’s a family member or someone you love —
— if you win, then what? Like, they don’t go away. A judge won’t come in and award you points.
What do you think the goal of those conversations, if they turn into disagreements, what should it be?
Well, I’m so glad you brought this up. I have been beating this drum for a long time that I don’t think debate works. And worse, I think debate is our default in any contentious environment. People will often praise me for hosting a debate show, even though I’ve made it explicitly clear that it’s not a debate show. And I think that just shows us that we have no word for difficult conversations. And we just think that the only way to do it is debate. And you said it yourself, like, to me, debate is gamified conversation, where there’s a winner and loser at the end.
But what does winning a debate actually do, right? Like, does it actually change the mind of the other person and does it bring the audience onto your side with your quickie comebacks and talking points? I really don’t think it does. I think it’s a sport where we sharpen our takes and where we sharpen our point of view that we already have, necessary caveat, and then we, like, go back to the gym so we can train to come back to the mat next time. I’m getting my sports metaphors confused because I, of course, don’t understand sports, but you track.
Debate is also really tricky because it kind of distills us just into these athletic opponents for things that are way more complicated than a game, right? Like, for issues like identity, for example, right, we can’t necessarily battle each other with talking points and then solve identity issues, right? It becomes impossible, and it becomes incredibly depersonalized. And it then becomes way more a spectacle than an actual conversation. And conversations, when they’re good, they’re ultimately fulfilling, and also boring. A conversation is not meant to be a spectacle. It’s meant to be this place where we connect with each other.
And I think debate is our default. It’s not only our default word, but I think debate is also our default because we’re constantly trained in this combative environment that we all live in, both digitally and physically, that like we must battle people we disagree with. And if we don’t, we are letting down our side, our beliefs.
Right. How do you stop that from happening? How do you stop being emotionally riled? How do you avoid the debate team energy and having something become a spectacle or debate? How should you think about it? Is it like an interview? Is it like —
Yeah, you should create a podcast —
Yes, just, you know —
— called Conversations with People Who Hate Me, and just do that with your family.
Yeah, exactly, Conversations with People to Whom I Am Related Genetically.
But how should you think about it?
Whenever I feel us veering towards the debate arena, I always find that personal stories are the antidote to that. Finding ways to connect not about these big, macro issues that are important to talk about, I’m not saying that, but finding ways to connect on a more personal level that allow you to share stories about yourself, hear stories about the other person, these are much more helpful access points to even talking about difficult issues, right? Because that’s laying more fertile ground to then be like, OK, now we have that base.
We have taken the boxing gloves off. We are out of the boxing ring. We are even walking out of the whole sports arena itself. And asking yourself, what am I going to get by winning against this person? And who am I trying to win for? I think when you ask these bigger questions, that itself de-escalates you. Why am I debating? Who is my audience right now? Who am I trying to impress? Sometimes you’re trying to impress yourself. And then when you think through those steps, I find it can be helpful to kind of veer away from that.
I think something that’s hard is that, like, if it’s about something that is personal — like, I remember before same-sex marriage was legal, there was an idea that you should use your personal stories to get people on board.
But that’s something where I want to urge the other person to see my hurt or see my pain, and change their mind as a result. Like, you have hurt me in the following ways, by being against my marriage.
Please go to idea rehab. How do you think, especially because you’ve had these conversations with people who talk about how being gay is a sin or something like that — you’ve managed to have very effective conversations where you’re well aware that you are not going to change their mind. How do you get around that when it’s someone who’s close to you?
I hope this doesn’t come off as a cop-out answer, but it’s patience. All we can ever hope to do with a conversation is plant a seed. And I think the speed that Twitter suggests change happens at, which is like the harder you yell at someone, the funnier you clap back at someone, the more they are willing to change, the more you demand an apology from them immediately.
Twitter is the worst conversational school imaginable because it turns out that you can’t quote tweet something else that someone says and just be like, you are wrong, dude.
And they don’t go away. It’s weird how that doesn’t work on, like, your uncle.
No. Completely. And I also think all media and all storytelling does that, too, right? We’re exposed to a five-act story structure where some change or evolution happens in those five acts. We look at home makeover shows, where a house is renovated in 40 minutes in this timeless pocket of television time. You know, I’ve never seen anyone, including myself, change that fast.
And so in the course of a Thanksgiving meal, even if it’s an all-day affair, even if you follow all these steps, right, you avoid the everything storm, you steer clear of the debate arena, you share personal stories with your family members, you successfully imagine the most loving backstory for them possible, it’s also like centering yourself in the patience that, like, this one thing, this one conversation, this one day with them is not going to, like, make them change their voter registration, suddenly recant every hurtful thing they’ve ever said to you, change that 1 percent way that they are different from you, if they are 99 percent the same and 1 percent different.
Like, change doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t work like that for anyone. And so I ask, in the most loving way possible, that we disabuse ourselves of this notion that change happens the more we humiliate someone, the more we cyberbully someone, the more we shame someone, the more we demand change from them in all-caps tweets or posts or clapbacks, because that’s just not how it happens.
So what do you think a success looks like? That you get out of the conversation peaceably? Maybe that’s the debate team energy there, is that maybe there’s no such thing as success or failure when you’re having a conversation with a real person.
Well, I just think we have to reframe it. Maybe success is just having another conversation down the road. And that’s impossible to measure in one day. When it comes to conversation and when it comes to evolution, personal evolution, and when it comes to change and growth, I think we need to throw all of what we think we know about success out the window and almost enter this meditative state, where it’s like you see it coming, you see it going. You are part of the conversation, and then you leave the conversation. And to measure the success more is the fact that you had the conversation at all.
So let’s say your great aunt Leslie asks why you’re not married, why don’t you have children. Your older sister has children. Why don’t you have children? Where do you go from there with your thinking?
I would ask this lovely person why that matters to her. You know, why does that matter to her? And then hopefully, if she’s open to it, which there’s no guarantee that she will be, to give the most honest, you know, like vulnerable answer, I suspect it will go into an interesting tangent into family values and what makes a family and what makes a person whole. And that is fertile ground for a lovely conversation that doesn’t require you to answer what you’re going to do with your own body or what kind of family you’re going to create yourself. So yeah, I would — not to one up her or to kind of turn the dagger on her, but I would recommend lovingly using that opportunity to explore why that matters so much to her.
Right. Another possible one is that your uncle Rob says something disparaging about your generation and laziness and identity politics, or the need for participation trophies. If we are trying to come from a spirit of love and acceptance and existing in the moment, how would you respond in a non-dunking way?
Well, first of all, that observation is very macro, and entirely based on generalization. And these conversations often want to veer towards the macro, but they can only exist in the micro, right? You can only have a conversation with an individual human. So I can’t answer for my entire generation.
No one can answer for their entire blank, right? Their entire race, their entire gender, their entire sexuality. So he’s kind of creating a difficult situation, this huge paintbrush that he’s painting. And you’re meant to answer for everyone and combat this thinking that he has for millions of people, one of which is you. But then you’re just like, OK, but I can only tell you my story.
I would share with him how you do or do not identify with that. I would pick just one thing. Pick one thing that this person is bringing up, and try and focus on that. Participation trophies. Let’s take that. Why does that bother you so much? And there is a total likelihood that he will give a compelling and interesting answer that this was never an opportunity when he was growing up, right?
That is also a much more interesting path to walk down in the conversation than talking generally about generations. And then you’re talking about a specific, and then he’s talking about a specific, and you’re suddenly battling each other with news stories that you kind of both half remember. And you’re like, OK, well, we’re getting nowhere, and I’m just saying the name Malala over and over again, and she’s very successful, and he’s saying participation trophy and snowflake. And you’re like, I don’t know where to go here.
Every year, we all collectively groan and say, worst year ever. Or at least, I feel like that’s what I’ve done for the past few years. But I wonder if that’s actually true. Now thinking about it, the 2020s have been better for me than, say, the late 1990s were. But it’s probably different for other people. So what do you think? Are things getting better or worse?
From your vantage point, was 2021 any worse or any better than previous years, both for you personally and for the world? And it’s OK if you have two different answers to that question. Share your answer with me in a voicemail by calling 347-915-4324. And we may share some of it in a future episode. And happy almost end of 2021, everybody. We’re nearly there.
I think one that might be very personal for a lot of people listening is a family member who it’s not even an argument, it’s a lack of respect. Maybe they’re not respecting you or another person at the table’s pronouns. Maybe they’re not respecting their name. Maybe they’re not respecting your relationship. I think that if you’re visiting home for the first time with a partner who is perhaps of a different gender than what your family might be expecting, or a different race or a different religion, what’s the way to handle those types of interactions that aren’t storm out? With the proviso that storming out, also an option.
Conversation is not a prescription for activism. And I try and make sure to always say that when I talk about my work, which is like I think a lot of people celebrate what I do because it’s like, yep, let’s do this. Everyone should talk to each other. And what I always am careful to say is like, you should not engage in a conversation if someone refuses to respect you.
And if someone refuses to listen to you. And if you are trying to meet them with vulnerability and they meet your vulnerability with venom, or they continue to not listen to this thing that you are saying offends you, and they keep making fun of you for it, or they keep making you feel small, that’s not someone who deserves your time and energy for this conversation.
So I do think, like, it is important to say that we can talk for a long time about the most helpful ways to have the most productive conversation possible, but none of this matters if you are feeling disrespected. And this also, like, radical empathy for the other is a luxury. And it’s a luxury that you have if you’re willing to engage in this ideological exercise of speaking to people who offend you, of speaking to people who you’ve offended, right?
And so I do think one viable answer — and this is going off of something you said at the beginning of our conversation — is like, you don’t have to be there. And you can find ways to give just 5 percent of yourself, you know, and just be like, this isn’t worth my energy. I’m not really going to engage. I am going to concede, and know that my concession is not giving up. It is not betraying my side. It’s just I don’t have the energy for it.
Right, no. And they don’t deserve that.
And I would argue it’s a show of strength for yourself. None of us are these perfect beings who are the Energizer bunny who can go forever. You know? Like, we get exhausted. We get tired. We want to shut off. And I hope that everything we just discussed is not used as proof that you need to bring yourself to and stay in situations that are horrible for you.
And this is what I try and say about difficult conversations, capital D, capital C, is that, like, we need to always create a safe space. It’s important to both challenge yourself to have conversations that maybe make you a little uncomfortable, maybe expose you to thinking that you find offensive, people who are saying things that are offensive, but then to also know and respect your own limits, when you’re like, oh, this person is not safe for me to speak to. This person is neither emotionally safe for me to speak to or physically safe for me to speak to.
I would say definitely don’t engage in that, if they’re not physically safe for you to speak to. But like, I think it’s a balance of respecting ourselves and our safety enough, and also honoring the necessity of the challenge to keep exploring, inching forward and asking, how far can I go? Who am I willing to talk to? What am I down to talk about?
Do you have any tips as to how to get out of a question or a conversation you don’t actually want to have? When you see a red flag on the horizon, and especially when you see that debate team energy look in someone else’s eyes, and they’re like, hey, I hear you’re a Bernie Sanders supporter. So, like, you can feel it. You can see it a mile away. How do you get out of that?
Well, if they’re coming at you with a fight, like, first of all, yeah, that’s a flag. This is not a place you want to be. This is not a conversation you want to be a part of. Your plate is full of mashed potatoes, and you’re like, I can’t right now.
No, it’s mashed potato time.
It’s mashed potato time. I would say — so the easy part is saying, oh, I don’t want to get into this right now. The hard part is what happens in our brains when we say that, which is the fear that we are somehow betraying what we believe in by not engaging this person. But like, I mean, there are myriad ways to avoid someone’s invitation to a fight. One is to make a joke about it, right, to escape it by simply changing the topic in the most awkward way possible. And also, you can get up and go. No one is forcing you to stay there. I want you to eat your mashed potatoes in peace.
Let’s say it didn’t devolve into a fight and it turned into one of the deepest conversations you’ve ever had with your cousin, who it turns out is much more adult than you remember. And maybe he really regrets the things he said when he was 14, and he was going through a lot. So if you want to see the person again, maybe next year over the holiday table, maybe sooner —
— how do you end a conversation and get to the point where you’re like, I want to continue this dialogue, in a sense?
There’s a two-parter to this. One is how do you end a conversation at a Thanksgiving, and then part two is how do you then continue it. So to end it, let’s say it’s a very difficult one. I always say we can’t solve this today. We can’t solve this in this hour. We can talk until midnight. We can talk until the sun comes up. And we will not find the solution to the thing that we’re here to talk about. So we can kind of mutually agree to stop talking about this right now, and we can move on to totally inconsequential topics or we can stop talking all together.
So to name the obvious is sometimes this permission slip to be like, all right, OK, here, I put down my sword. To continue it, I think time is one of the best ingredients to all of this stuff. And if you want to continue it in a few weeks, a few months, set a time to be like, I really love what we were just discussing. Why don’t we jump on the phone sometime next month? Let’s jump on the phone in the new year.
Set a time so that they know you’re not trying to escape them. And also, setting a non-digital space for this conversation to happen is really helpful. And that doesn’t mean you have to reconvene in person, but the phone is this wonderful invention that binds us in real time, and yet we don’t have to see each other’s faces. You can, of course, do a Zoom. You can meet for coffee. You can take a walk. But I’m a big fan of the phone, which I know puts me at odds with my generation.
Next episode of The Argument, the phone: our eternal enemy?
Yeah, no, I would say our friend, our forgotten friend.
Ugh. I’m looking at my phone with, ugh, real loathing right now.
Before we wrap up, any last tips that you want to make sure we get to? Because what you do is so interesting, and I think something that people want to see more of, but don’t do themselves.
Well, I really appreciate that. And early on in the production of Conversations with People Who Hate Me, I was kind of feeling this weird feeling, for lack of a better term, which was that I really profoundly disagreed with my guests and many of their political beliefs, and if not their political beliefs, then what they said to me. And also, through and then after our conversations, I really, really liked them. I thought about them a lot. I enjoyed my time with them. I enjoyed them. I think about them as people quite often. And I like them.
How can I reconcile those two things, I kept wondering. And so I created a mantra for myself, which is this idea that empathy is not endorsement, that we can empathize with someone, we can like someone, we can feel for them, and that doesn’t automatically cosign everything that they think, believe, say, have done. It just means that we’re recognizing their humanity. And that mantra — and I’m always reticent to share it because it’s like the title of my TED Talk, and it is like a mantra that I share a lot, but no matter how many times I’ve said it, it always helps me, even privately, because this is an ongoing struggle that I have of trying to reconcile liking someone who said something offensive, and also believing that what they said is offensive, right?
And so I offer that to anyone listening to this to adopt for themselves, to remind themselves that — we had a long conversation, you and I, about how conversations can go wrong. And I think it’s important to also talk about how amazing they are, and how, a lot of times, you leave, even if you fought a little, even if you got caught in the everything storm, even if you were, as you said, debate team energy, there is something really beautiful about it. And when you get that glimpse into someone’s thought process and you offer them a glimpse into your own, there is something incredible about that feeling.
And I also ask that we don’t shy away from how amazing that feels, and that when that feels amazing, especially if it’s with a family member who has hurt us or who thinks differently from us, like, you are not wrong for feeling amazing about this conversation. You are not betraying your side. You are not conceding to their side. You are simply a human being who connected with another human being. And I believe that this is our way forward.
Dylan Marron, thank you so much for being here. And I hope you have a very happy Thanksgiving.
Thank you so much. And you, too.
Dylan’s book, Conversations with People Who Hate Me, will be out in March. You can pre-order it right now, and subscribe to his podcast of the same name. Next season returns early 2022. And yes, Welcome to Night Vale fans, Dylan is indeed Carlos the Scientist.
The Argument is the production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett, Elisa Gutierrez, Vishakha Darbha, and Matt Kwong, edited by Sarah Geis. Engineering by Sonia Herrero, with original music and sound design by Isaac Jones. Fact checking by Kate Sinclair and Andrea López-Cruzado. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta. And special thanks to Kristin Lin.
It’s funny because, for one thing, you develop a sense of intimacy with the turkey that, by the time you’re done, you’re kind of like — you can’t — I worked so hard.
— me and this turkey, we got to know each other. I know this turkey probably better than the turkey knew themselves.
Oh my god.