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How to Talk to People You Hate About Politics

Have we lost the ability to convince people who don't already agree with us?

Talmon Joseph Smith

Talmon Joseph Smith

Photo by Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Megan Phelps-Roper never used to care about the feelings of the people she disagreed with. "Have a lovely day. You're going to hell," was the kind of invective she threw around. Or, "Your rabbi is a whore!"

She was born into the Westboro Baptist Church, the far-right Christian cult infamous for loudly telling everyone from gay people to dead veterans that they're doomed in the afterlife. Nearly everyone hates the WBC, and the WBC hates them right back. "Politics were basically meaningless," Phelps, now 31, remembers. "The left and the right were both going to hell, and the whole political game was just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic."

Phelps-Roper was able to break free of her family and the toxic environment they fostered (her grandfather, Fred Phelps, was the church's founder*) in 2012; she gives credit in large part to ideological Twitter battles that gradually became a series of spirited, yet genuine, in-person dialogues. "We live in a world where each of us has a perspective that is ultimately limited by our experiences," she told me. "And the only way to truly expand our view is by communication."

During her departure from the WBC (which was detailed in a 2015 New Yorker profile), Phelps-Roper ended up forming friendships on social media with people who argued with her. Last year, she married a man she used to spar with on Twitter. She's now spreading her tale—and its fable-like moral of how engagement across differences set her free—through a recent TED talk and an upcoming book.

The Roman philosopher Cicero once wrote that the first goal in an argument is to secure the goodwill of an audience, so that they may then be more sympathetic to your cause. This is not usually the case in the forums of contemporary American politics, where the goal is geared toward "destroying" or "eviscerating" your opponent through mockery and pointed logic, earning plaudits from your political brethren but not convincing the unconvinced of anything.

"Cicero is spot on," Phelps-Ropers told me by email. "If we can't learn to speak in a way that our audience can actually hear, what is the point of speaking?"

Since the election, the "resistance" has been opposing Trump any way it can—protests, lawsuits, social media call outs. It has energized a huge number of people who were previously apolitical. But for it to succeed, it will ultimately have to change the minds of at least some Trump voters. And changing minds is hard.

The philosopher Daniel Cohen, a professor at Colby College, teaches classes on logic and argumentation. For him, the troubling thing about the current climate is how easily "alternative facts" are thrown around—often it seems as if Trump supporters and opponents are living in separate worlds. (According to one recent poll, 78 percent of Republicans trust Trump more than the media.)

A self-proclaimed opponent of "the deafness of smug dismissal," Cohen makes the case that when we view an argument as incomprehensible, "We ought to take that as a prima facie sign that we don't get it, that we're [the ones] missing something." (The catch in this model, Cohen realizes, is that it's dependent on largely rationally motivated participants.)

Watch the VICE documentary on the Westboro Baptist Church: 

"Being right is never enough," DeRay Mckesson, a prominent activist in the Black Lives Matter movement and founder of the Resistance Manual, told me. "The left sometimes faultily believes that the best idea wins, but what we know to be true is that the idea that is repeated over and over, that is able to be said at the dinner table, that uses imagery and shared stories—these are the ideas that win." (Social science bears out this idea that facts aren't sufficient for persuasion.)

If evidence-based arguments won't help, what will? 

Phelps-Roper, who says she is a political independent, blames the increase in intolerance and anger on a lack of "interaction—especially positive interaction—between Trump's supporters and his detractors."

From her vantage point, "People on both sides reduce the other to hopelessly simplistic caricatures of human beings. In the absence of a reasonable person to calmly offer alternative perspectives, the cycle of rage and escalation continues."

But when right-wing congressmen talk openly about how "Western civilization" must be protected from somebody else's babies and some left-wing campus protesters are willing to use violence to shut down what they see as hate speech, who's to say who is calm or reasonable? And is dispassion even a virtue in these times?

"I do not know what civility looks like when some people show up to the table not believing that you are worthy of existing," Mckesson said.

For those who study diversity/sensitivity training, this cultural moment—in which progressives are reduced to snowflakes who preach fascism in the name of political correctness and conservatives are concordantly summed up as rednecks who preach fascism in the name of racial purity—is nightmarish.

Blair Causey, a black 22-year-old about to begin a master's program in human rights and organizational dynamics, repeatedly faced casual racism during her undergraduate years in Arkansas. But she objects to the politically uninvolved getting "condemnation for affiliation" just for associating with a certain supposed tribe.  

"It is the collection of individuals in between, straddling the fence of indifference, who often determine whether we go forward or backward," she told me.

The dilemma for the resistance is how do you talk to a group of people who you believe supported a racist demagogue? Progressives often argue that the marginalized should not have to take on the emotional labor of explaining their oppression to the oppressor, that the racist or the homophobe primarily carry the burden of discovering their faults and changing. Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian immigrant, wrote a powerful defense of the sentiment in her essay "Now Is the Time to Talk About What We Are Really Talking About."  

Phelps-Roper expressed sympathy for the dilemma but worries about progress becoming too dependent on the unenlightened experiencing epiphanies.

"I don't believe there is any obligation on the part of the oppressed—but I don't know how the communication will happen if more and more people choose to opt out of the discussion," she said. "Listening is not agreeing. Empathy is not a betrayal of one's cause. These are tools of effective persuasion."

She cited her own conversion as evidence. "When I was at Westboro it was people from groups I had spent my life demonizing—gays, Jews, atheists, other Christians—who had the greatest impact on me. They didn't have to spend their precious time and energy trying to teach me anything about their lives—but the fact that they did resulted in one less oppressor and one more ally in the world. I am so grateful for them."

*Update: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Fred Phelps, Megan Phelps-Roper's grandfather, as her father.

Follow Talmon Joseph Smith on Twitter.