Ask Pajiba (Almost) Anything: You Can't Talk To People That Won't Listen
Talking to people is TOUGH. Even if you can get someone to really, truly listen to you, it might not make any difference. Maybe they already have their minds made up, or they just can’t handle the truth you’re dishing out. Whatever the case — we’ve all found ourselves in that conversational battlefield before. In fact, this week we’ve got two dispatches from readers who have found themselves fighting in this war of words while dodging mansplain missiles and whatabout-ism bullets. So strap in, because frankly I’ve exhausted this metaphor.
[Remember, you can send us your questions at [email protected] and we’ll listen to them seriously. Then we might tell you why you’re wrong! Or that the other person is wrong! Point is, we’ll definitely tell you that someone or something is WRONG. But it won’t be us. Nope. Not us!]
Here’s our first question, about answering a hard question and winding up in an impossible spot:
I am not the type of person to write to a website about my problems, but I am seriously at a loss when it comes to the dilemma I’m now faced with. And there’s no other site I’d rather write to than Pajiba, so here goes.
I live in a country that’s even more behind than most when it comes to feminism and equality. Recently, a local police department released some signs about how women could avoid getting raped. It included the gems like “don’t wear short skirts” and “don’t get drunk”, you know, the victim-blaming classics. A very close friend of mine asked me to explain to him why people were all up in arms about the sign. I tried to explain, saying that it put the onus on potential victims to avoid being raped, that the subtext is it’s a woman’s fault if she does get raped. He argued that the police did it as a crime prevention measure, that it’s the same as telling people to take care of the valuables in a crowded place. I told him I didn’t want to discuss it via text, it was too complex a subject to discuss in that medium and I wasn’t too bothered by the sign anyway. But he kept pushing, saying that if he had a daughter, he would tell her the same things, since he can control her actions, but not other people’s; that it’s not like it would work if the signs told rapists not to rape.
At this point, as you can imagine, I got caps-y. I told him in caps that I SAID I DIDN’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT. And then… I kind of opened the floodgates. I went off about (in proper lower case, I was not caps-y) how ingrained rape culture is, that even the most well-intentioned parents and teachers don’t know that they are implying to their daughters and students that their bodies are not their own. That women already know to be careful about walking alone at night and drinking and yet we still get raped.
And then, silence from him. He didn’t reply to all that, or any of my follow-up messages, until after maybe two weeks. He said that in his condition (he’s in remission from a rare cancer that was caught very very very early, he was diagnosed at stage 0.5), he would rather keep away from people who don’t treat him the way he’d like to be treated, who he talks to politely but replies in a “toxic” and bitchy manner, who he feels demean and belittle him. He said he wanted to reduce stress and negativity in his life.
This guy and I were/are close. I read a reading at his wedding, I’m godmother to his son. We were very close in college. One part of me is all “fork this, I don’t need a friend who thinks like this” but another feels sad about losing a friend. Do I make an effort to revive the friendship? Or should I just let things go?
- Toxic Tara
Dear Toxic Tara,
I’m gonna cut straight to the answer: Let this one go. Once your friend dropped that cancer card, there was nothing you could do but respect his wishes or come off looking like an asshole. Didn’t you realize that by answering his question honestly, the way he forced you to, you might impact his health?! OK, that last bit was sarcasm, but seriously — you did what he wanted, he didn’t like it, and now your hands are tied. It sucks. If you were wedding-and-godmother close, then hopefully he’ll seek you out once he’s had time to reflect. And if not, then that’s his choice. You can’t force him.
But just because the answer to your question was fairly simple, it doesn’t mean the situation you were in was. Honestly, you were put in an impossible position from the moment he asked YOU to explain why OTHER PEOPLE were upset by those signs. That’s not your job! You’re not other people! Furthermore, it sounds like your friend wasn’t really interested in hearing what you had to say on this topic in the first place — or rather, he wasn’t interested if your opinions didn’t line up precisely with his own. He probably wanted to hear you say that his instincts as a parent were spot on. Or worse, he EXPECTED you would have differing opinions on the topic and he wanted to convince you that his view was right. There’s this thing that happens where suddenly asking an opinion turns into an implied invitation to open a debate, and that’s dangerous. Because the perception is that “debates” have “winners” — but conversations DON’T. And they SHOULDN’T. The biggest clue was when you said you didn’t want to unpack this via text and he didn’t respect YOUR wishes. By continuing to push the conversation, it meant he wasn’t listening to what you were saying.
So I am not surprised you went all-caps on his ass after that. And I imagine it was effective! His ultimate withdrawal was likely because you touched a nerve. It sounds like his entire argument was coming from the point of view of a father, and when you dropped that “rape culture is ingrained” truth bomb, well — maybe that got a little too real for him.
As Genevieve put it: “I think there’s a very scary lesson most girls and young women learn at some point when the boys get bigger that if a guy wants something from you/wants you to do something, you can’t actually stop them. It has nothing to do with what you’re wearing, what time of day it is, or how sober you are, it comes down to strength and most men are stronger than most women. I think dads have an even harder time with this.”
So not only did your friend not win, but he may have finally realized that the topic is so much larger and more insidious than he thought — and in fact there is nothing that dads or signs can teach girls to avoid it. It may be comforting to think that there are easy answers out there, but this isn’t a problem that will be eliminated if women would just stay sober and wear pants or something. And worse, he had to face the fact that he fundamentally never understood the nature of the issue.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that while a topic might seem theoretical to one person, it can be deeply personal and emotional to someone else. And that naturally colors the conversation. He was probably surprised by the strength of your feelings about rape culture (I mean, he shouldn’t have been, but regardless — he probably was), and that leads to another frustrating conversational trick I’ve noticed: when the discussion doesn’t go the way they want, they’ll shift the focus to the manner the information is delivered rather than the content. Essentially reframing the rules and policing your tone, because it’s easy to maintain the upper hand if you can discredit any hint of feeling as illogical. He can’t argue your point of view, but he can reject you for being too emotional — and then punish you for it by removing himself from the friendship.
He probably doesn’t even realize he’s doing it. You weren’t belittling him or being bitchy — you were honestly responding to HIS request to explain a difficult subject, and it was his fault that he didn’t realize just how personal and emotional that subject was to you. But I also believe he probably felt demeaned, and it’s likely less about your conduct and more about him realizing just how inadequate his POV is. But his emotions remain. And look, maybe this situation could have been avoided if you stuck to your guns and didn’t engage him further via text in the first place. Maybe you could have argued it more calmly. But he set you up to fail, then got upset when you didn’t. He’s manipulating the situation to try and eke out any sense of moral victory he can by making this not about your opinions but the strength and passion of your conviction. And that’s not fair.
It’s not fair, and it ain’t your problem. The emotional heavy lifting in your friendship shouldn’t be entirely on you. So let him sulk. And if he gets over it and comes back to you, then let it go… and let remember this moment. You now know that your friendship is less important to him than his pride, and your opinions aren’t valued unless you say them the right way. Maybe he wasn’t on top of his game, and maybe his reactions were hasty due to his recovery. Maybe we can give him the benefit of the doubt, given the circumstances. But it’s entirely possible that even without the cancer, this might just be him. And now you know.
Oh boy! I’m feeling ALL fired up! Let’s see who else is having a hard time talking to assholes!
Help a lady out, would you please? I’m tired of being Whatabout-ed during arguments. Especially political ones. Almost.Every.Single.Time I post something relating to the dumpster fire that is the Trumplestiltskin presidency, I get whatabout-ed with every perceived sin from administrations past. And they don’t stop whatabout-ing me. I post articles, I get laughed at. I try to counter their point, and get whatabouted again and again and again. Sometimes it gets to gaslighting. But it doesn’t stop. I’m a favorite punching bag, and I don’t know how to stop it besides just to stop posting.
What would you all do to curb this? I’m at a loss.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. Any help you can give would be appreciated.
I FEEL THIS SO HARRRRRD. This has been a constant conundrum for the past two years or so. And sadly, I’m not sure what the answer is. So instead, let me ask you something:
What’s your goal?
Do you want to change minds, or do you just want fuckwads to stop trolling your posts?
The fact is, it’s practically impossible to argue with people who have already made their minds up. They aren’t really looking for a debate, because they aren’t listening to what you say. They are treating politics like a team sport, and they just want their side to win at all costs. Your words are nothing more than cues in a whatabout script of their own devising — set ups for their dumbass mic drops. They don’t even see how the points they are raising have nothing to do with what you’re saying, or how focusing on the wrongs of the past doesn’t help us deal with the very real problems of the present. They don’t care that they’re comparing apples with terrible, treasonous oranges. And if they don’t care — if they can’t even acknowledge the reality that’s right in front of them — then it’s pointless to engage with them. You can’t fight willful ignorance.
Instead, engage with people who are listening, or who might be persuaded. And how can you tell the difference? Try responding to their comment ONCE, in good faith (provided their comment seemed to be in good faith as well). Then see what happens. If they continue to engage with you productively, then great! And if they’re just trolling, ignore that shit because it’s a non-starter.
Or better yet? Block ‘em. Curating your online friends and followers can be an immense relief. Even if you thought you were careful all along, there’s something about the current administration that has brought a lot of problematic behaviors to light from unsuspecting corners. So the key is to cut out the people who are hellbent on antagonizing you for your opinions. It doesn’t mean you’re proactively removing anyone who doesn’t agree with you at all, because that’s the way we end up in social media echo chambers where we’re all just saying the same thing and learning nothing. Differing points of view are good! Being abused by childish trolls isn’t!
Of course, maybe some of the worst offenders on your feed are family members or colleagues or people you may feel you can’t eliminate. Then you’ll just have to learn to ignore them and let their words go. They can try and provoke you all they want, but YOU are in control of whether or not you get provoked. But even then, seriously consider whether these people are truly important enough to warrant that amount of toxicity in your (online) life.
But if engaging, ignoring, or blocking aren’t enough, there’s one final nuclear options: SARCASTIC .GIFS! Is this childish? Yes. But oh man, is it satisfying. And the best part is it’s satisfying while letting the offender know that you’re putting zero effort or thought into refuting them. You’re not even using your own words to dismiss them! I recommend stockpiling a bunch of .gifs that accurately express your common reactions, so you’ll always have them ready to deploy. Here are some nifty options to get you started!
And if you can find a way to incorporate a bear trap .gif, then do it — but NEVER explain.
Header Image Source: Getty Images
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