Unpacking the Sausage: Tricks for diffusing tiresome political debates

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I (still) don’t think anyone is really doing okay.

I know that I’ve already written in these pages how everyone is tired and I’m far too young and hot to start replaying my greatest hits. But with ambient tensions high and spring holidays gearing up, I want to discuss some language swaps useful for dealing with politically discordant family members and the insurmountable amount of horseshit coming out of both political parties. 

Bre KidmanThis is as much a note-to-self as it is a column. But if you find yourself needing to defuse a family holiday showdown, group text gone awry, or social media comment flamefest, these tips might mitigate collateral damage. (No guarantees.)

First, remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If someone throws out bait and you have no option but to respond, everyone will likely walk away from the interaction happier if you offer something to the effect of, “That’s an interesting take. I would never have thought of it that way.” It doesn’t engage or validate their opinion — and it’s also technically true, which can be a nice self-soothing move.

If this initial soft-redirect is not successful, I recommend something like, “it might be better for the vibe and/or our relationship if we don’t talk about this,” or simply, “I’d rather not have this conversation.” If it’s a real-time interaction, I find it’s best to have a YouTube clip featuring something of universal appeal — like clumsy baby animals or Paul Rudd — pre-loaded for the awkward silence that usually follows.

This too won’t always work, for various reasons. Sometimes the other person insists on starting a riot. Or, more likely, they’re conditioned to substitute conflict for connection. Sometimes you can’t resist the juicy, juicy bait. Or, more likely, you’re hurt and defensive about what they said. But it’s important to remember that you don’t have to make it worse. Seek an exit ASAP, but when all else fails, focus on the problems with the ideas over the problems with the person and you might be able to maintain some semblance of a relationship. As a former criminal defense attorney with a cop for a dad, I promise you it can be done.

For example, instead of insulting a person’s intelligence when you disagree with them, try getting specific about what’s bugging you. If the premise of their argument is absurd, tell them which premise doesn’t make sense to you and why. You might also try descriptors, like “overly optimistic,” “overly pessimistic,” “anti-worker,” “not supported by data,” or “not responsive to real-world concerns.” These are less likely to start a shouting match than calling someone or something “stupid.”

If the conversation goes way off the rails and starts spewing toxic waste, avoid saying “you’re an asshole” or “you’re being an asshole right now” — which, I recently learned the hard way, is not much better. Instead try, “I know you’re not an asshole, but I’m having trouble reconciling that with the way I feel in this conversation.” Remember there’s a reason you’re spending time having this conversation with this person. (And if there’s not? You need to go take a breather real bad, bub.)

Be honest about your feelings, but also remember that not everyone has the capacity to be graceful right now. Our individual experiences are all valid, but no one’s perceptions are universal. We can’t know another person’s life. Recognizing this in ourselves and others reminds us that we’re all doing the best we can, which tends to shrink a lot of interpersonal gaps.

Nobody really knows what’s at the bottom of the rabbit hole we’re in. We humans are acclimating to a scarcity of kindness imposed by the inevitable corruption of concentrated power. All but the most fortunate among us are walking the earth exhausted, broke and overstimulated by the fallout of technology intentionally designed to stoke interpersonal conflict for the sake of increasing advertising revenues. We’re perched on a razor’s edge, braced for impact every time we open our mouths or type a response. I want to believe we can choose to do things differently, but I also know hurt people hurt people.

Maybe if we start from a place of agreeing that we want everyone to be okay, we can save our energy for better battles.

Bre Kidman is an artist, activist, and attorney (in that order), and the first openly non-binary person in history to run for the U.S. Senate. They would be delighted to hear your thoughts on the political industrial complex at [email protected].

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