How to Talk Politics without Dying Inside

I like to talk politics. Everything is political. Everything has always been political. If you think things have become unusually political lately, you are misunderstanding. The internet has attached you to other people in ways previously unimagined. Unless you isolate yourself from information technology, you will now hear what was always being said, what was always true. This is a gift and a privilege. This is why I find apathy dishonorable. The only ways to maintain democracy and progress as a species are participating in the political process and cooperating. This means listening, asking, studying, and voting.

I like to talk politics on the internet. I got started back in 2012 when Todd Starnes posted an article of transphobic asshattery about a transgender woman using the women’s locker room at Evergreen college. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I sailed into the comments in flair of self-righteousness to defend the trans community from a comment section of an article that purposely misgendered the trans woman while arguing she was a danger to children. My involvement lasted for days. I made a lot of mistakes, became very emotional, had comments deleted unfairly, and was even banned for a while, but I didn’t relent in my quest for… what exactly? It’s unlikely I changed any hearts and minds. So why did I continue on? To this day I get private messages from transgender people confiding, commiserating, or thanking me over that comment section. In that case, I realized there was another reason to talk politics online than to satisfy my vanity or change people’s views. It shows people out there who feel the same that they are not alone. People I’ve never met know that I love them.

So friends of mine have asked me for advice about how to participate in political discussions online (and less frequently in person) without taking things personally or otherwise suffering trauma. It is treacherous interacting with people who use various levels of anonymity to literally terrorize others. This is not a piece about how to somehow evade harassers or become immune to vitriol. Rather, it is an essay about how to engage others in productive ways so as to grow and improve personally and to help the discourse grow and improve, too. It is important to remember that such growth and improvement can be achieved in a variety of ways, including through experiencing and discussing terror.

There are many reasons for engaging in political discussion. It may be academic, it may be organizational, intervening, correcting, allying, supporting, comforting, persuading, refuting, or befriending. But in order to achieve your goals, you must first decide if you want to work hard. If you don’t want to work hard, then I implore you to abstain from the discussion. One of the reasons you may find the discourse upsetting is because there are a lot of people talking without listening, thinking critically, or exerting effort. It may be vanity, boredom, or as some other kind of coping mechanism. The least you can do is not add to that noise.

So, you have decided that you want to work hard. Now how do you talk politics without dying inside? Here are my primary suggestions. I may post something else with more specific tactics and strategy, but that’s too advanced for this introduction.

Update: January 25, 2017

Following the 2016 election, things changed. We’re in a serious situation now in which a lot of people are literally going to die, as well as suffer while they live. In that context, I and we must recognize that to engage in the following methods is in many ways an exercise in privilege.

People are angry, and justifiably so. People who fear for their lives need to have their feelings validated by people like me and probably you, people who have privilege, who aren’t fearing for our lives and the lives of our loved ones in the same way. So, do not chastise people for being angry or scared out loud. Ever. Never ever tell someone who experiences systemic oppression that they’re making things “negative” or “divisive” when they don’t deliver their criticisms in “polite” terms. That’s not empathetic. It’s destructive and cruel. I don’t care if they’re swearing and calling names. Do not deny them their space, the chance to express themselves. Give them love, not critique.

Things are going to get worse, not better, in the foreseeable future. Many of us are legitimately shell shocked by the reality of the total lack of empathy found in millions of Americans.

We must cast off yet one more cloak of naivete now. Like Bay Area fashion, we wear them in layers. Each time we peel one away, we increase our mobility. But disrobing also leaves us colder and more exposed. It makes us more vulnerable while also more hearty.

So, keep this in mind as you go through this beginners lesson in how to talk politics without killing your heart. These are guides, not strict rules, and they are a start, not an end. As I said, you’re going to have to work hard. People with privilege, like me and maybe you, need to put themselves at risk so as to keep the conversation going, keep the flame of change burning. We have to keep listening and engaging. That means when you finally get comfortable with the listening, then it’s time to engage. That means getting involved. You are needed. So, let’s get started.

This is a big-picture first step. I emphasize it because it is very difficult to live well, let alone speak knowledgeably and productively about politics, if you are ill and unable to effectively manage your emotions. You can employ the following suggestions without first “completing” this step, but your efforts will be maximized if you are at peak physical and mental condition.

Everyone has had traumatic experiences in their lives. Everyone has experienced fear, alienation, humiliation, anxiety, rage, and sorrow. You cannot be an effective citizen if you avoid addressing the consequences of these feelings by stigmatizing mental illness.

I am Bipolar. I had a traumatic and unstable early childhood which either caused or exacerbated my manic depression. I first learned about coping skills in a psychiatric hospital when I was sixteen. If you can learn about them proactively outside of an institution, you are doing better than I did. Though it should be noted that van Gogh painted A Starry Night in a sanitarium. Never discount the transformative power of suffering.

Begin treating your ailments and addressing your irregularities. If you have the resources (get cracking on this before you lose your insurance) and don’t know where to begin, pay a visit to your primary care physician. Talk honestly and extensively with them about what you’re feeling and have experienced. Your doctor may recommend you undergo bloodwork and see a psychiatrist, as mine did in 2009. Whether or not you are diagnosed and prescribed medication, you must put work into self reflection and analysis. You can achieve this by undergoing therapy. You can see professional individuals (I see a psychiatrist and psychologist), get into group therapy through various organizations, and participate in recovery programs.

There are also many ways in which a person can meditate. There are formal methods, such as those found in Zen Buddhism, and methods people personally invent or take from less traditional sources, like Vulcan techniques. I believe the overall goal, however, is to begin to feel the truth about gravity. It is not pushing you down. It is holding you close.

You cannot process your environment accurately if you are dishonest about your emotional condition and responses. You cannot engage others if you have exposed nerves that people can easily touch. You cannot learn if you do not know how to listen. You cannot know others if you do not know yourself.

We often imagine words like Opponent or Antagonist when it comes to political “debate.” There’s also challenger, competitor, adversary, enemy. Avoid these definitions of your interlocutor, comrade, colleague, relation, or collaborator. Those with whom you engage are all Human Beings. It is imperative that you empathize radically if you hope to be a force for good and change, let alone participate in political discourse to any result.

This is easier to do the better you know your interlocutor. If you have political disagreements with your parents or close friends, you have the benefit of your shared and commonly-known histories. You know many of the events which formed the person to whom you’re speaking. You know why your grandmother is very thrifty. She had to quit school during the Depression. You know your aunt is bitter about men because she was a second-wave feminist. You know your best friend is anxious around dogs because she was bitten by one when she was a child. You take this knowledge and use it to interpret and understand rather than judge and reject. You discuss issues with these three people differently because their experiences make their perspectives and responses unique. You vary your arguments and your questions based on the audience because your audience is made of people and you care about them.

This becomes more difficult the more foreign and anonymous your interlocutor is. A friend of a friend on Facebook still has a real name, photo, and semi-informative profile page to humanize them. DirtyDickBag on reddit provides you with neither hide nor hair of their personhood to blunt “sht up cunt.”

But, the fact remains, if they are not an advertisement, they are a person. They’re a human who was once a dumb baby with a squishy dumb face. They’re a human who once learned how to read cute books like the Berenstain Bears just as you did. And they’re a human who may or may not have learned coping skills or how to regulate their emotions.

When someone is outrageous in a political discussion, no matter where it takes place, they are in distress. Even someone who is being terrible with the sole intention of making you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, they are in distress. Well-adjusted, content, healthy people don’t hurt other people.

Accepting that others often unconsciously act out of their experiences rather than evil or inherent malice will help you not only converse with them effectively, but protect yourself from the outbursts associated with their condition. They are not about you as an individual human being. They are the cries of a sentient animal that has been tortured into cruelty. They, like us all, are suffering. Only empathy — love — can heal those incision-like wounds in a person’s humanity.

A friend and interlocutor of mine conveyed her consternation over not overtly political outbursts, but the impulse some people have to post cruel things on seemingly random media (though remember that everything political). For instance, she follows art magazines on instagram. And most often, whenever they post an artist’s work, there’s a barrage of negative feedback in the comments. “This artist sucks,” or overtly, “This artist is a faggot.”

It’s understandable to be confused by such an odd impulse. But here you must take into account how human beings relate to shame and humiliation and what evokes those feelings. Rejection, embarrassment, and other feelings related to shame and humiliation light up parts of the brain like physical stimuli, and even like physical pain. Shame and humiliation can make you blush or drain the blood from your face. Your heart rate and breathing increase. These can be overwhelming sensations for people who have no skills for regulating their emotions or self soothing, what I call “talking back” to the negative voice in your head that loves to remind you of your inferiority. So how does this relate to “This artist is a faggot?” David Milch, television auteur, summed up an essay by poet W.H. Auden about ideas posed by author Nathanael West:

It’s about people who for whatever reason are unable to turn wishes into passions in their lives and lacking that capacity, sit passively in mute outrage anticipating disasters. They go to fires. Any natural sort of disaster attracts them. And in the absence of a natural disaster they sometimes try and create disasters. And they hate the people whose lives, whether successful or not, are pursued with passion. First they idolize them and then they want to destroy them. They want to appropriate the vitality of those people.

(I encourage you to review what he’s talking about, but I think Milch summarized it beautifully, which is good because the actual essay by Auden is hard to find.) So, in essence, outraged interlocutors who barge into spaces celebrating passionate people are doing so because their inability to manifest their wishes leaves them feeling humiliated. They nurse this tight ball of envy, longing, helplessness, shame, and resentment. Related to what I said about autonomic oppression, the harassment of passionate people is another way for the interlocutor to cope with their ontological insecurity. We teach people that revenge is a great way to cope with humiliation. Individuals thus attempt to take revenge against those who represent all they long for but cannot actualize. And, since we know that intense emotions wash the brain in chemicals, lashing out in vengeance gives the interlocutor a load of endorphins that palliate their humiliation.

Practicing radical empathy in a political discussion will revolutionize your effectiveness and will also lead you to authentic, cathartic, visceral epiphanies. It is a painful, exhausting, and complicated venture that can literally invade your dreams. But, then again, if you weren’t willing to work hard, you would’ve given up when I advised you not to add to the noise.

Last year I had an extended online discussion with a white man in his early thirties about feminism. It was a familiar exchange with an individual male who had trouble regulating himself due to toxic masculinity, and he felt directed to oppose women’s suffrage in order to self soothe. It is very rare that I discover what they are in fact trying to soothe, what injury. At this point I often find myself asking outrageous commenters if they’re alright.

That man whom I spoke to about feminism; after nearly six hours messaging off and on, he revealed to me that he had been repeatedly physically and emotionally abused, as a child and a young man, by women. So any time he hears about the systemic oppression of women, what he hears is “women can’t victimize men.” To him, we’re saying he doesn’t exist. His ontological insecurity and PTSD interfere with his ability to correctly interpret statements made by interlocutors, accurately analyze his reactions, and regulate his emotional responses to triggering material. A powerful and blunt woman in a comment section would feel like a literal physical threat for this man. She would poke a finger right into his fight-or-flight response without ever intending to or being to blame for it.

Your interlocutors may say the most vile and hurtful things. They may spend lots of time honing their verbal weapons, perfecting ways to wound. Or they may dedicate themselves to planning out threats and acts of terrorism. These are unhealthy choices for which people must be held accountable in a civilized society. It’s why we have basic laws against stalking, murder, and rape. It is important, however, for the sake of civilization, that we remember the murderer, the rapist, the “troll,” is still a human being.

This is not to excuse bad behavior or acquit people of their offenses because of their history. This is to reconnect all of us with each other. If you refuse to empathize with your interlocutor, why should your interlocutor empathize with you? Or men? Or women? Or people of color? Or the transgender community? Or Muslims? Or sex workers? Or refugees? Why should anyone ally with those who spurn them?

This is very, very difficult to do in the moment. Commonly, we read articles voraciously and feel compelled to comment or engage by a strong emotional reaction to the subject, the source, or the tone of the discussion. Political discourse is usually inflammatory and, again, you are dealing with many human beings who have not learned how to self regulate. Thus, you need to pause and assess the situation before you engage. You must think tactically and honestly about your goals and what you’re willing to commit.

You must begin by reviewing the condition of the forum. It may not be appropriate to discuss evolutionary science at your evangelically-religious cousin’s wedding reception. It may not be safe to participate in a community frequented by users who regularly SWAT or DOX those whom they consider interlopers. It may not be respectful to participate in a comment section in which a demographic to which you do not belong is articulating their lived experiences with systemic oppression. You must be sensible about your reasons for joining a discussion. Never join a discussion to satisfy your own vanity or to self soothe. Take selfies or call your therapist instead.

If it is appropriate for you to engage in a discussion, decide beforehand if you wish to persuade, refute, inquire, commiserate, defend, or improve your skills. Then determine what you expect from your interlocutors. If you are not emotionally prepared for hostile responses, do not engage with hostile interlocutors or leave as soon as you begin to feel agitated.

Avoid replying more than once to a single statement. This is to ensure that the exchange is equitable and also to help you regulate your emotions. If you posted a reply that is incomplete, then you need to slow down. It is easy to slip into manic responses, where you fire quips at rapid speed en masse. In person, this often manifests as interruptions and elevated voices. Think through your reply and don’t rush. Getting into the habit of citing sources will assist you in regulating your anxiety and the speed of your responses in addition to improving your position and research skills.

Decide ahead of time where your exit sign will be. If there are things that trigger your PTSD, for instance, resolve to heed the red flags and bounce before the exchange gets too close. This isn’t limited to conversations in which you fear for your personal safety. Your emotional well-being is also important. If the forum is a post about systemic racism, you might decide that you want to bounce if your interlocutor uses a racist slur. Or maybe it’s a post on systemic misogyny and your interlocutor uses a sexist slur. It could be any number of trip wires: “Make me a sandwich,” “Die in a fire,” “Libtard,” “Sheeple,” “Tea baggers,” “Republicunt,” etc.

Just like in real life, people unroll clues to the trajectory of the conversation. Pay attention to those clues and respect your limitations. The quoted phrases and terms above are examples of a few of my trip wires. When an interlocutor tosses them out suddenly, I know that the conversation is likely to circle the drain.

Never announce your departure. Ever. I have found that every time I’ve felt as though I have “dropped the mic,” I have actually become agitated by the conversation and I am coping with pride. If you feel the need to dramatically storm out of the discussion, take a deep breath, self soothe, conclude your response as you would a rhetorical essay, and step away from the conversation. You may find that after a little while, you wish to rejoin.

As it is most common that people announce their departure in forums that have become hostile or antagonistic, failing to actually leave will greatly undermine your credibility. It’s an indication to the interlocutors that you have become agitated and may not be speaking rationally. If you hope to position yourself as a credible resource, then you must conduct yourself with dignity. Do not sacrifice your dignity out of agitation.

I’m a fiction author, so one method I use to siphon the anxiety and frustration of online discussion is to keep a Google document called “Mean Things.” In it I write all the really cruel and nasty things I want to say to my interlocutors. Then I can use it for creative writing instead of making someone feel bad and billowing miasma.

As the goal of political discourse is progressive change, our interlocutors and we will often be wrong. We, as human beings, are prone to mistakes. But, human beings are also prone to learning from mistakes. That’s a major component of the scientific method, right?

You will make mistakes in political discourse. You will not effectively regulate your emotions. You will fail to empathize with your interlocutor. You will self soothe by starting an argument just to release strain. You will join a conversation ill-prepared and unqualified to be there. You will invade a discussion between those whom you view as your inferiors in order to satisfy your vanity. You will discover your sources are wrong. You will discover that you are biased. You will find that you are ignorant of something important. You will make a mathematical error.

This is okay. Just admit it, resolve to evolve, and move on.

The dominant zeitgeist maintains that it is humiliating to be wrong, to lose, or to fail. We shame, taunt, and ostracize children and adults for making mistakes or failing to achieve. This must be changed. The most immediate way to deconstruct this abusive cultural tendency is to personally admit error. When your interlocutor makes a point or cites a source that refutes your position or source, interpret it as a gain and express gratitude for the lesson. This act of humility will help improve your ability to cope with shame, the effects of which I’ve discussed previously, and help you comprehend and integrate that new, useful information.

The benefit of being wrong in a political discussion is you have an opportunity to define the safety of the space. By graciously admitting an err, you express to your interlocutor that they need not fear being wrong, either. Even if they attack you for it, your unwillingness to be destroyed by an error will illustrate that such a thing is actually possible.

If your interlocutor has been shown to be acutely in the wrong, avoid taunting them. Be as magnanimous as you can to show them that you see they are human, prone to accidents, and that you respect them enough to wish them no ill. And defend your fellow mistake-makers from abusive “winners.” Standing up to a bully on behalf of someone else is very effective. Show your interlocutors that political discourse need not be a competition for dominance. Prevailing in accuracy is not a conquest. They who are wrong need not kneel before the victor. This is an exchange, not a battle. And an error is not a wound. It is productive. It is an accomplishment.

I would also like to suggest that humor and friendliness are very useful tools in political discussions. Occasionally we all become pompous and self-righteous, or myopic and stressed. And sometimes a good joke or gentle teasing can help us pull out of that repetitive state. If I see a Mansplanation that begins with “Actually” I often will simply comment: “ACTUALLY.” If I see a purposely inflammatory comment, replying with various relevant memes is amusing. If I see someone sucking on sour grapes, some variation on “No worries; that’s life,” can diffuse the negative energy.

To conclude, there are many other techniques and methods by which you can productively engage your fellow humans in political discourse. But they all kind of reveal themselves the more you practice these basics and continue your education. Processing your own problems and learning how to cope are the cornerstones of the process, however. You must take good care of yourself so that you can understand what people tell you and know how you respond to it in a healthy way. You cannot hope to hear or be heard if you have never interpreted your own reactions and choices. It is true that it is very, very easy to keep from making things worse by abstaining, but we really need your voice in the chorus and your boots on the ground. It takes a lot of work to participate in political discussion without dying inside. That’s just fact. So you’re going to have to ask yourself some hard questions before you can truly join the progressional.