How do you talk to people when they aren’t on receive?
Commiserating with my friend last night at Old Town Bar in NYC over the state of affairs in the US, he urged me to talk to people. The solution, he said, is to get out of our online echo chambers and reach across the political spectrum to anyone you know who doesn’t hold your values and try to start a dialogue.
But what if people aren’t open to listening? What if no matter how gently or forcefully you try to broach a subject and get a dialogue going, your words are just going in one ear and out the other?
My family’s Thanksgiving dinner went off the rails in 2004— the year I came out of the closet and the tsunami hit Indonesia in March, killing 230,000 people. My very religious mother suggested at the dining room table (after consuming many drinks) that perhaps the tsunami happened because Indonesians didn’t believe in Christ. My sister erupted in outrage at her justification. My Republican cousin responded with a rampage on how liberals can’t respect religious convictions. Voices raised, tension escalated, and then my someone shouted, “We all know what this is about; it’s because Philip’s now gay and no one’s talking about it!” Half the room swiveled toward me, the rest already gathering up their half-eaten plates and bussing their dishes, and I stood up, walked to the piano in the living room, and did the only thing I can think of: I started playing Claire De Lune. It was my mother’s favorite song.
Direct confrontation terrifies me. I’m ashamed to this day that I did not defend myself or fight the hate being hurled in that room. Instead, I appeased. I didn’t want to ‘ruin’ Thanksgiving dinner, even long after people had stormed away from the table. I wanted to calm and sooth the room and perhaps even make a joke out of it.
I’m not proud of how I handled that situation, but what I saw in that moment was that most people are not on receive.
My experience is when I try to begin a dialogue, I deploy facts as if a hard, cold fact could warm someone to my point of view, but truth these days is more irrelevant than ever. Donald Trump is considered in exit surveys to be more honest and trustworthy than his opponent Hilary Clinton, despite the non-partisan PolitiFact showing he is a serial liar who denies any lie you catch him in. Compare that to Hilary’s mostly truthful scorecard. How could people even think such a thing unless actual facts no longer mattered?
I try to open a dialogue via questions. “Why” and “How” do you feel the way you do? Hopefully I get someone talking openly…but what I usually then hear is firm opinions based on drivel that I know and can prove to be false. But no conservative I’ve talked to will even give an article that begins with ‘nytimes.com’ a chance to be read — it’s all leftist, ‘libtard’ propaganda to them. So I resort to sharing Fox News articles and quoting Megan Kelly — because they represent a known conservative source. They have the most chance to break through the ideological stonewall that fact-adverse Republicans have erected. And in return, I sometimes receive in response a Breitbart article refuting what Fox News reports. The spiral never ends — you can find some article on the internet that justifies any opinion if you look hard enough. The internet was supposed to make us smarter, but it’s just made us more adept at finding co-oberation for our most base beliefs.
So facts are no longer relevent and replaced by feelings. I try to say, “Look at me.” Look at who I am. My family: You love and care about me. I am a gay man. You just elected a President that wants to appoint justices who will take away my right to marry. Look at me and the effect this has on my heart. Do you care about me and your other friends that are gay (this is assuming they are not insulated to the point where they do not know any gay people)? And if you can look at me with empathy, please look other minorities in this country, who are terrified of the rising fear and hatred vindicated by the ascent of a man who openly espouses vulgarity and courts hate. Can you relate to our pain and terror at the result of this election — it’s the same emotions you have felt in your life? Can we begin to connect there, in that place where we feel fear and anxiety, and instead of pulling further apart, let empathy bring us closer together? Can we then take a breath and work together to remove emotion from our policy-making? Can we compromise?
I try for the one word that hits closest to many of us: “Kids.” Forget the effect all this has on people our age. How can you now tell your kids it is not OK to bully or shame or degrade others on the basis of their skin, faith, sexuality, gender? Kids are smart. They can see how one can brag about sexually assaulting women and still be elected President of the United States. How there may not be a survivable climate for their grandchildren because the man in charge now denies climate change as a haux made up by the Chinese.
I am at a loss for words for on how to communicate with people across the political spectrum. I think the most important question our Divided States of America needs to figure out is, “How do we talk to one another again?” We are literally split down the middle, and the last time that happened, the last time conversation really broke down to the point of one half seceding from the another, it resorted in Civil War.
Please — if you have advice on how to begin the conversation when people are so unwilling to listen, I want to know.