Sean MacEntee / CC BY 2.0

Now is the winter of our political discontent. Republicans, Democrats and Facebook trolls are all hurling barbs like there’s no tomorrow — as if the day after we elect a president we won’t have to face one another.

I know political rhetoric always gets nasty before elections, but this time it’s especially contentious, if not threatening, and social media have helped make it worse. Posting allows us to reactively demonize one another instantly and without a second thought.

We need help.

The moment we open our laptops we’re smacked with ultimatums involving “us” versus “them!” And yes, we can singularly blame Donald Trump for rousing this primitive strategy of dehumanizing anyone who challenges us, but we can blame only ourselves for allowing it to flourish. When we succumb to finger-pointing (and penis contests), we establish what psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin calls “doer/done-to relations.” Which basically means that rather than creating neutral space among us to discuss our individual and collective concerns thoughtfully and reflectively, we split our thinking into binaries of good/bad, victim/attacker, boy/girl, white/black, straight/gay, big dick/little dick, populist/elitist, Christian/Muslim, truther/liar, worker/moocher, citizen/immigrant, capitalist/communist, gun-owner/communist, pro-lifer/communist, American/communist, and on and on. This approach precludes any possibility of moving toward empathy and understanding, or what Benjamin calls mutual recognition, either in life or on social media, where it’s obviously much easier to dehumanize people than it is in person.

America needs therapy. And as I say to couples and families who enter my office with angry, red faces, begging me to take one side over the other: If winning is the only way out, we’re all locked in.

The only way to move forward is to find mutual recognition. And to achieve that we need to learn to talk — or at least to post — better.

Here’s how I suggest we do that:

Safety first. There’s nowhere to go in a relationship unless everyone feels safe — physically, emotionally and mentally. Yes, it’s usually ideal to have a dialogue before cutting people out of our lives (or blocking them, as it were), but if you are threatened or harmed by hateful language, extricate yourself from the situation right away, whatever the perceived ramifications — loss of friendship, loss of love, loss of financial opportunity, etc. It’s just not worth getting hurt. You might even report those who write hateful things in your feed to Facebook, Twitter, Reddit or whatever the site may be. But if you do feel safe enough and inspired to share a piece of your mind, and do not intend to harm someone else in doing so, then try the following.

Step away, breathe and think. Do not pass “Go,” do not post, do not do anything before you look away from your screen, take a breath — a real one that you actually enjoy — and think. Wait, I see you typing — stop that! I mean it. Step away from the device. Breathe. And think.

Now listen. No, really, listen. Carefully, but carefully, read over the information to which you want to respond and make sure you understand it. So much wasted time and needless vitriol can be avoided if you review a news story, post or provocative statement several times until you are certain of its meaning. For example: A simple post about how Bernie Sanders gets a free pass on his appearance at campaign events while Hillary Clinton must always be aware of her hair does not necessarily imply that the poster has an agenda to give Clinton a free pass on everything she’s ever done. Right? So after rereading the post and thinking it through, you would be wise to refrain from typing superfluous references to Benghazi or Clinton’s email server or America going to hell in a handbasket because of elitist, corporate greed and instead stick to the poster’s point — which in that case would be hair.

Now, repeat this as a mantra: “Politics are personal.” There is a point of view hidden within every volatile and/or categorical political post. Stop and reflect on what that point of view might be before choosing to respond. Take for example statements like: “Lock her up!” “Keep them out!” “The socialists are coming!” These battle cries are never without at least a tinge of misogyny, racism, ethnocentrism and/or xenophobia, none of which is a good look for anyone. But that does not mean that somewhere underneath those nasty layers there isn’t a naked emotional perspective that you can understand, if not empathize with. Consider that the users of such statements are actually speaking from a place of extreme disempowerment, isolation, fear and paranoia, rather than a position of power. Think of them as betas instead of alphas, as toddlers having tantrums as opposed to adults having thoughts. That isn’t by any means to say you should condone their incendiary remarks, but that by addressing only their apparent prejudices you will effectively get locked in a standoff, an endless debate, a cycle of doer/done-to relations. And you will overlook the point of entry from which the conversation can move forward: their personal feelings of being disempowered.One for them, one for you. Prepare to share one of the points you believe the person who got your attention was trying to make and reflect it back to her or him with a tone of understanding. For example: “It sounds as if you’re saying that you are overtaxed and feeling left behind financially while it seems other people are getting economic breaks. Is that right?” or “I hear you saying that college was prohibitively expensive for you and you’ve been working hard for little reward and that feels unfair. I can see why you’d feel that way.” Now, once you’ve established a moment of reflection and recognition, you can move on to prepare one clear point of your own. For example: “By blaming minorities for your own financial struggles, you are encouraging people to harm one another based on a prejudice. Can you appreciate that?” or “Have you considered how exactly taking rights away from women and queer people and immigrants would help you to make more money?”

Rehearse. Type out the two thoughts on a screen where oopsy-posting isn’t possible — for example, a blank Word document, a memo app or an email draft with no addresses entered. Read over your statements. Again and again. Consider if they accurately reflect what you want to say. Edit accordingly. And if you have the opportunity to first speak these thoughts aloud to another person to get some feedback, do it.

Post. Now, finally, you can post your two statements: one that attempts to “hear” the original poster and another that makes a clear point of your own. This way you have offered a mode of discussion that can be a neutral exchange of thoughts and reflections instead of just endlessly combative reactions. Your potential interlocutor now has the opportunity to respond in kind, and, if he or she does, feel free to see where that can take you, following and repeating the steps above.

Disengage and/or block. If, however, the other person does not respond in kind and instead continues to blow hot offensive air at you, stinking up your wall with arbitrary hate speech as if from the mouth of a spambot with logorrhea, then disengage, and block if you feel it necessary.

At the end of the day — as in any time of relational turmoil — you may have to accept the sad truth that you can’t reach someone who refuses to be reached. But at least you will know that you tried.


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