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Conversations with people who hate me – Knox County VillageSoup

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I read a great book recently by online content creator Dylan Marron called “Conversations with People Who Hate Me.” The book details the author’s social experiment in tracking down his most outspoken internet haters and inviting them to a conversation about why they make vitriolic comments.

In a world where it is so easy to appeal to bias, resort to lies, and respond in kind, the central message of the book is that we are getting worse at disagreement as a society and that part of the reason is that we’ve given up trying. We are allowing platforms that were originally meant to connect us, to divide us instead.

I enjoyed it greatly and definitely related to some of the philosophical somersaults the author goes through in order to find empathy, compassion, and common ground with people who have said and done very hurtful things.

The book centers around the premise that “hurt people hurt people” — A phrase he learns from a coworker waiting tables at restaurant where the servers are often subjected to rude customers. The first hurt is an adjective and the second a verb. When someone lashes out in a hurtful way toward others, you can almost always find that the same has happened to them. And in that simple truth lies a pathway to compassion.

The other mantra the author settles on is “empathy is not endorsement.” Here, he grapples with a framework where we can still seek to understand another person’s perspective even though we don’t condone their behavior.

I finished the book with a renewed commitment to keep looking for the high road, assume the best about people whenever possible, and be open and proactive about engaging with those who disagree with me.

Overall, when someone says something unkind to or about me, I have an easier time forgiving them than many people do. Even when they don’t make excuses for themselves, I will sometimes take it upon myself to invent a justification on their behalf. Like the author, I find it so unpleasant to harbor negative feelings about someone, that I will do mental gymnastics to move beyond that. Most of the time, that works out well for me.

If I know the individual, I sometimes have all the information I need to make the leap. A tough childhood. Abusive husband. Economic hardship. Tragedy.

But, like the author recounts from his time as a server, we don’t always have enough information about people to place their behavior into any kind of redeeming context.

In these cases, I chuckled as Marron described the detailed biographical sketches he would create for people who were belittling to the wait staff or who let their children destroy things and make big messes without intervention.

What kind of life trauma could make the apparent selfishness more understandable?

Maybe the father letting his kids ransack the place was a recently single father dealing with the death of his wife and just barely keeping it together, so grief stricken he was unable to discipline his children.

These fantasy backstories he makes up about people were what allowed him to get through a job where he was frequently mistreated by customers, but he also ends up seeing occasional windows into the real stories that are just as powerful.

Hurt people hurt people. Pain begets more pain.

He then gets an idea for the podcast that inspired the book. He would call up his biggest detractors and talk to them. People who had written terrible, hateful things about his sexuality and how he should kill himself. Things like that. He wanted to understand where the hate came from in order to move past it and he found that one on one conversations de-escalated things. He was often able to find common ground.

The experience was deeply rewarding and it reinforced his belief that conversation between two people is the way forward for our society.

But when he took his idea to the next level and started trying to bring other people together for the same exercise, he was surprised to learn that many who he reached out to did not feel emotionally strong enough to have a conversation with the people who had harassed them on the internet.

He comes to understand that this path isn’t right for everyone and that empathy — in a way — is a luxury. For some, the hateful comments and vitriol on the internet take the form of very real threats, usually designed to keep someone silent and it works.

Many people, the majority even, avoid conflict. I see it all the time in town government. Some of the most intelligent, experienced, and thoughtful people will never serve on committees or boards and they hardly even raise concerns to the Town Office. The idea of upsetting their neighbors or getting into an argument or possibly taking up too much town staff time is enough to not push an issue. They are exceptionally concerned with following the rules and getting their facts right.

Unfortunately, there are also a number of people who feel no such reservations. They exploit the anonymity they are usually afforded when they launch unfounded allegations or make legal threats. What’s that saying? A lie can get half way around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on? Something like that.

Unfortunately, this happens quite a bit in Camden and the issue is compounded when money is brought into the equation. For those who want something from the town but don’t want to go to the trouble of having conversations and talking it through, they hire someone to do the fighting for them. Often, just the threat of a lawsuit is enough to have a chilling effect on how town staff will spend their time and what issues elected officials are willing to take on.

Lately, anonymous letters making accusations and threats have been circulating. To me it’s a sign that the people doing it know that these tactics would not be well received by the vast majority of Camden residents who value civil discourse and science-based decision making.

Climate change and habitat loss on the planet is going to require us to have difficult conversations and to ask hard questions. The same is true with the affordable housing crisis and many other issues. I worry not so much about my own feelings getting hurt by the threats and untrue statements, but about the chilling effect it has on all elected officials now and in the future.

I don’t know the answer, but I do wonder if I’ve failed to recognize that some people aren’t acting badly because they’ve been hurt themselves. Some are simply employing a tactic that they’ve found to be effective in the past.

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and member of the Select Board. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board.  

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