When liberal gay podcaster Dylan Marron and conservative gay writer Guy Benson got together for their dialogue about political conversation at the 2018 SXSW Festival and Conferences — entitled “Cucks, Sellouts & Snowflakes: A Convo Across the Divide” — Marron said, “This is not a debate. So if you came here looking for us to shut each other down or destroy each other or to own each other, that’s not my plan.”
Rather, the two men wanted to offer advice on how conservatives and liberals can communicate in good faith across the political divide while avoiding approaches that shut conversations down. These approaches are purely for conversations when you’re truly looking to understand an alternate viewpoint and not for conversations that you’re trying to “win.”
Benson is the openly gay political editor for a conservative website called Townhall, is a Fox News contributor and the author of a book called End of Discussion: How the Left’s Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).
Although the premise of his book, according to him, is that the American political left is trying to win debates by preventing them from happening, he says people on the right are increasingly trying to shut down conversations before they begin.
Conversely, Dylan Marron is a gay performer who you may know from his Unboxing video series, in which he literally unpacks a box filled with objects relating to different social and political issues. He also runs the critically acclaimed podcast Conversations with People Who Hate Me, on which he calls people who have left him hate messages online.
“The really fucked up shit is when you’re listening to someone you disagree with and you agree with points they’re making, because that fucks with your mind,” Marron says, “and that’s exactly what we’re going to talk about today.”
So here are five tips from their dialogue about how to have a productive political conversation, even with those with whom you might strongly disagree.
1. Avoid insults, threats and assumptions.
Name-calling, saying someone deserves mistreatment or assuming things about someone’s background or agenda closes down avenues for free communication.
For example, equating anyone who might vote conservative with a Nazi is unhelpful, because it assumes the worst in your conversational partner and shows that you have already reached a judgmental conclusion about who they are and what they believe.
Similarly, saying that someone “shouldn’t be Republican” if they’re gay or a member of a certain race (or any group) isn’t helpful for opening up dialogue either, Marron adds. Nor does slamming someone as “transphobic” if they ask clarifying questions or accidentally misgender someone.
2. Don’t let the trolls take over your mind.
Anyone who has ever tried having a polite and reasonable political conversation on social media knows that it’s rarely a place for civility and nuance. Even if you’re on your best behavior, a friend or troll is liable to come in and light the place up with inflammatory comments.
But don’t let angry comments from others derail you from your purpose, even if you have to take your conversation with someone into a one-on-one personal chat.
“It’s part of training my brain to not let the bad [comments] crowd out a lot of the good,” Benson says, “and also to not allow awful trollery to make me shut off my brain when it comes to legitimate criticisms or challenges, and to say, ‘Oh that’s just another troll,’ because that’s not always true either, and it’s a way to dismiss without maybe grappling with a point that you don’t want to.”
3. Fight the urge to jump in immediately whenever you disagree with something you hear.
If you jump in repeatedly to correct someone’s statements during political conversation, excitedly going head-to-head to prove them wrong on every single point, that game-style approach can easily get in the way of you hearing someone’s larger points, or it can make them feel like you’re not willing to respectfully hear them.
Alternatively, don’t make it your goal to convert the other side into “seeing the error of their ways” and joining your point of view, otherwise you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and failure. Opinions and worldviews are formed from life experience over many years, and so changing someone’s mind takes time.
“If you can listen to someone,” Marron says, “you can understand there is a nuanced take to what they believe.”
4. Make an attempt to stay in contact with those with whom you disagree.
This doesn’t mean you have to stay in contact with people seeking to harm or insult you, nor does it mean that every interaction with a person you disagree with should be a tiring debate. It merely means that surrounding yourself with folks who always agree with you or writing off everyone who doesn’t is ultimately disempowering.
When we get into these silos — frankly, echo chambers — it becomes a lot easier not only to get very intellectually lazy and to learn just one or two talking points and never bother to even remotely understand what the other side believes or why. It also, by the same token, allows you to much more easily caricature what other people believe and why, and build them up as much more monstrous than they actually are when you sit down and have a conversation with them.
Occasionally that involves a Thanksgiving dinner or a dinner out with friends, sometimes just agreeing to disagree and putting a pin in it and moving on. That’s not the end of the world, and I think it’s super important for us to maintain those relationships and have them in the first place or else we are poorer. I think my soul would be poorer if I put up those ideological walls in my individual life.
5. Just because you talk to someone doesn’t mean you like or agree with them.
There’s sometimes a worry that if people see you engaging someone you disagree with online, they’ll automatically associate you with them, will assume you agree with them or will blame you for “legitimizing,” “honoring” or “giving a platform” to their worldview.
It’s other people’s right to see it that way, just as it’s your right to try and better understand them through engagement.
Have any other tips to successful political conversation across the aisle? Sound off in the comments.
Featured image by Wavebreakmedia via iStock