When conservatives attack: how to deal with political abuse

In the Twitter/blogo/Facebook-sphere, every now and then we come across an angry conservative who dishes out not just every fallacious propaganda technique in the book, having been well schooled through years of watching Fox News, but flat-out insults.

It can be very hard, if not impossible, to resist the impulse to engage with them. Adrenaline is fired into our system; we feel compelled to defend ourselves. If you don’t engage, sometimes they take that as a victory and trumpet that you’re “running from the truth.” If you do engage, they twist your argument around Bill O’Reilly style and pronounce a victory anyway. You lose either way. So what’s the best course to take?

When I was phone-banking for Obama, the staff advised us to just move on if we find ourselves on the line with a conservative: that our energy was better spent on lukewarm supporters or people on the fence. However, this was during the crunch-time of a campaign; is there no hope of changing people over the long term?

To me, the question isn’t about the possibility of change or not. I see nothing wrong, for instance, in a healthy debate with a William F. Buckley-like pen pal, even if both of you walk away unchanged. You may come away with a greater understanding of both his and your own arguments, or at the very least, it might just be an entertaining, challenging exchange.

But when the other person comes out swinging, it’s a different issue. There’s no good reason to subject yourself to abuse. It will only hurt. There is no way to change this person—either their political views or their behavior, no matter how patient or ingenius you are. From what I can tell, these types seem to be prime candidates for a borderline personality disorder diagnosis due to their lack of sympathy and manipulativeness, and any medical professional will tell you that the only way to deal with these people to get the fuck away. Block them immediately and don’t give into the temptation to lay into them—thus becoming one of them and getting locked in an eternal battle that you will never win.

One could argue that engaging them is not for their sake, but for that of your audience, who may include those who are on the fence and whom you could win over. I guess you’ll have to weigh for yourself whether slim chance is worth the mental and emotional wreckage. To me, it’s not.

More likely, the main reason you feel tempted to engage them, even at the risk of emotional fall-out, is the “political junkie” effect:  reward circuits in the brain that are activated when making political counter-arguments “overlap substantially with those activated when drug addicts get their ‘fix.’” Undergoing a great amount of pain in order to get one’s fix sounds an awful lot like those rats in that experiment who crossed highly electrified panels to hit the button that induced pleasure in their brains. Don’t be like those rats. It isn’t worth it. It’s a bunch of sturm und drang without effecting any actual political change.

It may hurt to “lose” by fleeing the argument, but you haven’t lost at all, of course. If the feeling of having “lost” persists, see it as a lesson in humility. “Give” them the win. You’ll find you haven’t lost anything in doing so. You may even feel a bit generous.

If you keep hearing their invectives echoing in your head and maybe even start to believe them (a classic sign of having encountered someone with borderline), think of yourself as a psychiatrist with a mental patient who can’t help their vicious outbursts. Just as a psychiatrist wouldn’t take seriously any of the harangues directed at them by their patients, you have no need to take any of those from your encounter seriously.

And lastly, pray for them. You don’t have to believe in god for this; in Buddhism, it’s called metta meditation, whereby you just stir up feelings of loving-kindness in yourself towards that person. And I don’t mean that you should pray for them to “see the light;” pray for their well-being. They’re human just like you, with susceptibility to illness, death, and all sorts of struggles. After all, they’re probably in the 99%, too. They’re sick and need help (the fact that people with those disorders are some of the least likely to seek treatment, and when they do, it’s rarely effective is besides the point). These people spend much of their lives consumed in anger, and anger is painful; have compassion for their being continually caught up in that turmoil. Humanize them, in counter to their having demonized you. It may be difficult at first, but you should soon find that it acts as a soothing antidote to the adrenaline that the exchange has sent coursing through you.

You will now have the time and energy to get to more important and effective activist work.

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