Every time Donald Trump tweets, there is a race to respond. The resulting conversation is typically hateful and childish.
“Next time there's a flood about to happen in your town, just pretend its fake news and die,” one user lobbed at another in a typical exchange. “Ha ha ha dumb faggot. That's all you liberal ass has? You believe every thing you see,” came the response.
Why do we talk to each other like this? Since last fall’s election, there has been bombast from both sides online, on social media sites, chat forums, and news comment sections. Libtard. Deplorable. Hillbot. Trumpkin. Snowflake. Nazi. Cuck. Uneducated. The latter term is most often applied with a wide and condescending brush to many living in the South or the Midwest, as a more delicate way of saying “stupid” or “simple” in the spirit of the phrase “flyover states.” Meanwhile, conservatives crow about drinking the tears of liberals mourning over Trump’s latest cabinet appointment.
America is in zinger mode.
This type of vitriolic exchange happens mostly online, on user-generated content platforms where people converge to shoot the shit. Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit are prime locations, and to a lesser extent, comment sections on news sites.
We are primed for stinging off-the-cuff retorts: we favorite them, repost them. George Saunders realized his own inclinations while traveling the country talking to people on the campaign trail last year. In a 2016 article for The New Yorker, Saunders describes how he researched a critique of President Barack Obama that had been levied by a Trump supporter, eager to counter with a witty rejoinder of his own, and found a more convoluted answer than he’d expected. “There sat reality: huge, ambiguous, too complicated to be usefully assessed by our prevailing mutual ambition — to fight and win, via delivery of the partisan zinger.”
The most rewarding zingers are delivered in front of an audience, preferably a sympathetic one. And so we've entered an era of grandstanding: long rants to friends about how you lectured some Trump supporter into submission; fiery status updates demanding that all Bernie Bros or #imwithher hashtaggers unfriend you immediately because of X, Y, and Z; making sure everyone sees the tweet where you pwned that Nazi. But while it is gratifying to rack up likes and retweets, this instinct is leading us into oblivion. Soon, half the country will be completely incapable of talking to the other half.
“We listen very differently to people who we recognize as kind and share some core values with.”
Insults make conversation impossible, according to Matt Motyl, PhD and professor of psychology at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “The immediate reaction whenever we’re insulted is we become defensive, we want to prove that other person wrong,” he told The Outline. “Or maybe we insult them back. But it’s never: ‘Really, why do you think that?’ That’s never how people react to these types of very extreme insults that we launch. We respond by saying ‘Nuh-unh, you’re wrong,’ or ‘Screw you!’ and then we disengage, we just stop the conversation there.”
Furthermore, once we do find ourselves in unavoidable contact with people who are not anonymous enough to dismiss with an insult, the instinct is to shut down. Thanksgiving guides published in the aftermath of the election warned against discussing politics at the dinner table, and etiquette guides have long been against the idea. “[I]t would have to be a very rare occasion for you to find out what my political party was or who I'm voting for in this upcoming election,” boasted an Elite Daily writer in a 2012 article titled “The Things You Should Never Talk About”.
The idea that politeness and honest conversation are mutually exclusive is no doubt influenced by the form such exchanges often take: hostile, confrontational, lacking in details, facts, and nuance. But politeness is not equal to silence — or at least we shouldn’t allow it to be — which means the task at hand is figuring out how to talk to a person with differing views without falling back on political slurs.
“Confirmation bias makes it hard for people in conflict to hear positive comments or opportunities and they tend to focus on the points of conflict,” said Joan Blades, co-founder of the nonprofit civil discourse organization Living Room Conversations. “We listen very differently to people who we recognize as kind and share some core values with.”
To be clear, there is a difference between challenging what someone values and challenging their entire humanity. There has been much in the words and actions of our current president and his administration that threatens the concept of a shared, precious mortality in all people. To push for considerate conversation in the face of this reality is not to request that one sacrifice their soul for the sake of friendliness; some things just do not lend themselves to compromise.
Rather than hashing out the matters that do however, Americans are segregating themselves politically.
We block, unfollow, or unfriend people whose posts clash with our political sensibilities, often with relish. According to a 2014 report on political polarization and media habits, Facebook users with consistently liberal views were 13 percent more likely to block or unfriend someone because of a political disagreement than consistently conservative users. On the other hand, when asked about the people with whom they most often discuss politics, 50 percent of consistent conservatives named only conservatives, compared to 31 percent of consistent liberals who named only liberals.
Ostensibly, everyone in the U.S. shares some core values. We seem to have completely forgotten that. We desperately need a new way of talking to each other that isn’t so abrasive, rude, and ultimately unproductive. So how do we get out of it?
Living Room Conversations tries to do that by facilitating in-person discussions between people with disparate viewpoints. There are co-hosts from different sides of an issue, who each invite friends and share the organizations’s ground rules. These guidelines emphasize “learning” as well as being “considerate” and “authentic,” and give these talks a structure that “allows people to move away from defensiveness and toward relationship,” according to Blades. Relationship means making a sustained investment in relating to your conversation partners.
Getting this out of 140 characters has clearly proven difficult, as people are far less likely to be respectful of who they’re talking to if they don’t have to deal with the person’s reaction.
Political parlance online is still salvageable, however, if we commit to reckoning with internet strangers as people. Spencer Greenberg, founder of nonpartisan bias-reduction organization Clearer Thinking, advises that potential debaters remember their shared humanity. “One of the most useful things to do regarding any polarizing topic, but especially for this one, is to stop for a second and assume that at least some of those that disagree with you are intelligent, knowledgeable and moral people... Sure, some who disagree with you are probably unintelligent, ignorant, and immoral, but these are not the people that have something important to teach you.”
We need to get out of our internet bubbles and talk to people who we aren’t 100 percent sure will agree with us.
Here, two Twitter users have a rare insult-free conversation about the veracity of a Trump tweet. After an extended exchange, they agree to disagree:
If we believe in any type of unity (you know, for the United States of America), we need to swallow some pride, get out of our internet bubbles, and talk to people who we aren’t 100 percent sure will agree with us. The cultural lines of this country have been drawn such that when we do get to be in physical spaces with people who hold different political views, it seems like a waste of an opportunity to not talk to them.
Pushing for a more respectful tone in our spaces of conversation is therefore not about changing for the simple sake of being nice, it’s about getting real. When people speak in one language to their home political communities, and use a different one to speak to those outside, they are committing a fraud that benefits absolutely no one, and leaves us both divided and shocked at the division at the same time. Our most basic plan of action in these times is to at least try to talk to one another: real talk.