I spent my first year away from home adrift with my younger sister, who had chosen to leave with me. We walked into an abyss, but we were shocked to find the light and a way forward in the same communities we’d targeted for so long. David, my “Jewlicious” friend from Twitter, invited us to spend time among a Jewish community in Los Angeles. We slept on couches in the home of a Hasidic rabbi and his wife and their four kids — the same rabbi that I’d protested three years earlier with a sign that said, “Your rabbi is a whore”. We spent long hours talking about theology and Judaism and life while we washed dishes in their kosher kitchen and chopped vegetables for dinner.
They treated us like family. They held nothing against us, and again I was astonished. That period was full of turmoil, but one part I’ve returned to often is a surprising realization I had during that time — that it was a relief and a privilege to let go of the harsh judgments that instinctively ran through my mind about nearly every person I saw. I realized that now I needed to learn I needed to listen.
This has been at the front of my mind lately, because I can’t help but see in our public discourse so many of the same destructive impulses that ruled my former church. We celebrate tolerance and diversity more than at any other time in memory, and still we grow more and more divided. We want good things — justice, equality, freedom, dignity, prosperity — but the path we’ve chosen looks so much like the one I walked away from four years ago. We’ve broken the world into us and them, only emerging from our bunkers long enough to lob rhetorical grenades at the other camp. We write off half the country as out-of-touch liberal elites or racist misogynist bullies.
No nuance, no complexity, no humanity. Even when someone does call for empathy and understanding for the other side, the conversation nearly always devolves into a debate about who deserves more empathy. And just as I learned to do, we routinely refuse to acknowledge the flaws in our positions or the merits in our opponent’s. Compromise is anathema. We even target people on our own side when they dare to question the party line.
This path has brought us cruel, sniping, deepening polarization, and even outbreaks of violence. I remember this path. It will not take us where we want to go. What gives me hope is that we can do something about this. The good news is that it’s simple, and the bad news is that it’s hard.
We have to talk and listen to people we disagree with. It’s hard because we often can’t fathom how the other side came to their positions. It’s hard because righteous indignation, that sense of certainty that ours is the right side, is so seductive. It’s hard because it means extending empathy and compassion to people who show us hostility and contempt. The impulse to respond in kind is so tempting, but that isn’t who we want to be.
We can resist. And I will always be inspired to do so by those people I encountered on Twitter, apparent enemies who became my beloved friends. And in the case of one particularly understanding and generous guy, my husband. There was nothing special about the way I responded to him. What was special was their approach.
I thought about it a lot over the past few years and I found four things they did differently that made real conversation possible. These four steps were small but powerful, and I do everything I can to employ them in difficult conversations today.
The first is don’t assume bad intent. My friends on Twitter realized that even when my words were aggressive and offensive, I sincerely believed I was doing the right thing. Assuming ill motives almost instantly cuts us off from truly understanding why someone does and believes as they do. We forget that they’re a human being with a lifetime of experience that shaped their mind, and we get stuck on that first wave of anger, and the conversation has a very hard time ever moving beyond it. But when we assume good or neutral intent, we give our minds a much stronger framework for dialogue.
The second is ask questions. When we engage people across ideological divides, asking questions helps us map the disconnect between our differing points of view. That’s important because we can’t present effective arguments if we don’t understand where the other side is actually coming from and because it gives them an opportunity to point out flaws in our positions.
But asking questions serves another purpose; it signals to someone that they’re being heard. When my friends on Twitter stopped accusing and started asking questions, I almost automatically mirrored them. Their questions gave me room to speak, but they also gave me permission to ask them questions and to truly hear their responses. It fundamentally changed the dynamic of our conversation.
The third is stay calm. This takes practice and patience, but it’s powerful. At Westboro, I learned not to care how my manner of speaking affected others. I thought my rightness justified my rudeness — harsh tones, raised voices, insults, interruptions — but that strategy is ultimately counterproductive. Dialing up the volume and the snark is natural in stressful situations, but it tends to bring the conversation to an unsatisfactory, explosive end.
When my husband was still just an anonymous Twitter acquaintance, our discussions frequently became hard and pointed, but we always refused to escalate. Instead, he would change the subject. He would tell a joke or recommend a book or gently excuse himself from the conversation. We knew the discussion wasn’t over, just paused for a time to bring us back to an even keel. People often lament that digital communication makes us less civil, but this is one advantage that online conversations have over in-person ones. We have a buffer of time and space between us and the people whose ideas we find so frustrating.