Aug 15, 2023

My insufferable friend Jared (repost)

What if you are Jared?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 8 minutes.

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Originally published October 29, 2021


The question I get the most often in my inbox is some variation of this: “How do you talk to someone whose political views are so obviously wrong? How do you talk to someone who believes conspiracy theories?”

I’ve been ruminating on that question for two years. A few times I even tried to answer it, though I look back on my answers now and find them a tad embarrassing. A lot of them included advice like “listen more” or “try to avoid tangents" and "stay on topic."

It’s no secret that America is in the midst of serious polarization, so much so that most of us are afraid to share our political views publicly. Politics are destroying friendships and families, and nearly 80% of Americans now have "just a few" or no friends at all across the political aisle.

And I’ll be honest: I don’t have any great news for you. I’m not going to tell you that our differences aren’t really differences, or that we all share tons of common ground, or that we’re just misunderstanding each other. Many of our differences are real — cultural, ideological, environmental. Many of them are deeply embedded. It's true, yes, we do often misunderstand each other. That's part of why I created Tangle — because I realized so many people never actually hear reasonable arguments outside their own social and political bubbles.

But I also firmly believe that the problem is often not with the people we are talking to, but with ourselves. With you.


I want to tell you about a friend I have named Jared.

Jared is brilliant. He’s read a little bit about a lot and he is genuinely very smart. Over time, from engaging him on many issues, prodding him about many things, I’ve learned that Jared is right about everything.

Whenever Jared and I talk politics — it doesn’t matter whether it’s economics, abortion, police reform, health care, immigration, whatever — Jared is always right and he always has the answer. He’s really just that smart. I’ve seen him debate other people in bars and over dinner, and I’ve never seen him come out on the wrong side. It doesn’t matter what the topic is: He just has an answer.

The best part about Jared is that he is confident he is right. He knows he has read enough, heard enough, and spent enough time thinking about an issue to understand it and put together his well-formed opinion. So when I see him getting challenged, I know in my heart that he is going to find a way to explain to the other person why they are wrong. Jared seems to enjoy this: He likes being right, he likes digging in and proving other people wrong, and he enjoys not changing his mind because it makes him feel assured about the world around him.


So far, what are your impressions of Jared?

If I had to guess, here’s what I’d say you’re thinking: First, you probably don’t believe Jared exists. Jared sounds like he is a made up person, because nobody is right about everything. He also sounds pretty insufferable to be around.

On both accounts, you’d be right. Jared isn’t a real person. Jared is also insufferable, because everyone knows that people who are sure of themselves to the point of being right about everything are usually extremely difficult to spend any time with.


Now here’s the kicker: You are Jared.

At least when it comes to politics, you are.

When was the last time you heard someone say, “I think the police should be defunded, but I’m probably wrong.” Or, “I voted for Trump, but I don’t know why.” When was the last time you said, “You know what, I was actually wrong about that. Thanks for explaining it to me.” And guess what? The idea that you're right about everything is just as absurd as the idea Jared is.

You don’t hear those things very often because humility in one’s beliefs is extraordinarily rare. Most people come to believe things not because they have spent a great deal of time thinking about them, researching them, massaging them, challenging their own priors or pushing the limits of their comfort zones, but for other, simpler reasons: Their parents believed them. Or they are informed by a singular defining experience, something that strongly impacted their life or the life of someone close to them. Maybe they even spent two minutes on the first page of Google search results. Or they saw a tweet.

In more encouraging examples, some people come to the views they hold because they read past the headlines, or they watched a whole documentary, or they sat down for an actual political debate, or they lived long enough and saw enough to make up their minds about what they knew to be true.

Very few of us, though, come to believe the things we believe after having done the requisite amount of research or thinking about an issue to actually have an informed, holistic, firm opinion. Even fewer of us expose those views to an audience who might not see them favorably, lest we open ourselves to criticism, critique, or the potentially crushing realization we were just plain wrong about something.

The question I get the most in my inbox is some variation of this: “How do you talk to someone whose political views are so obviously wrong? How do you talk to someone who believes conspiracy theories?”

I think I have an answer now, and it’d go something like this: Maybe you’re the conspiracy theorist!

Maybe you’re Jared.

The reason this character is so unbelievable and such a caricature is because anyone with a brain knows that nobody knows everything. Nobody is right about everything. Yet we tell ourselves, constantly, that we are right. We all have that voice in our heads that says “taxing rich people is good” because we’ve learned that through some combination of Google searches and environmental bias, maybe even what we think is common sense. Have we ever really challenged ourselves on the idea, though?


I think I have an answer for the question now, and it goes something like this:

Politics is environmental. I used to use really gross language when I was a teenager, and now hearing other people talk that way makes my skin crawl. I spoke that way because my friends did and I learned from them that it must be okay, or even cool, to say those things. Politics are the same way. Most of us have a huge chunk of our political lives defined for us before we graduate from high school. And the ones who don’t usually attach themselves to an identity that is all about not being their parents, not being the people around them when they were younger.

The way to talk to someone about politics is to first stop trying to persuade them of something. The next thing to do is to probably stop talking about the politics of an issue but discuss the actual experience of it. I’m just talking about life. If you want to convey to someone that universal health care is a good idea, you’re better off sharing a story about breaking your arm without health insurance than you are citing statistics from about how many people would benefit. Then try to hear them out about why your experience may not be representative or the rule.

You also don’t need to listen to someone drone on, being incessantly wrong, nor should you avoid challenging a view someone expresses that you think is wrong. But you should start by stopping that thing you are doing where you act like a car salesman or a lawyer or a teacher or a wannabe thunderdome pundit on cable TV. Instead, be open-minded about what you’re hearing. And if you can’t, try to imagine someone who is open-minded and then pretend to act as they might act. When I want to talk politics with someone I do my best impression of a therapist: What makes you think that? Have you ever lived on $10 an hour? Do you have experience running a business? Was this a commonly held view you heard growing up? Have you ever doubted that?

And when they answer, I try to actually hear them.


One of the biggest strategic flaws in the progressive movement today is that they are pathologically obsessed with high-minded language and political purity.

Talk to a progressive activist and — as a general rule — they will view very few people on planet earth as "good." I can count the number of celebrities or politicians on one hand who pass the purity tests of most progressives I know, and they are probably going to crash and burn soon, too. The rest have already made a gross joke or donated to the wrong cause or tweeted an ignorant question at the wrong time. I’m not talking about “cancel culture,” either, which is a practice Americans from all political walks of life seem to engage in these days. I’m talking about the way people on the left tend to celebrate ostracizing someone socially for not habitually speaking in the language of progressivism, even those people who are trying to.

An example: I remember one time I tweeted something to the effect of, “Trump seems to be going off the rails, but man, nobody works the media better than he does.” The tweet got a smattering of interaction from liberals, but I was bombarded with love from Trump supporters. He is a master of the media, they agreed. Yes, they said, you see it now! They didn’t care that I just said their guy was going off the rails, they wanted me to come join them with open arms because I had said one nice thing about Trump. If I were less informed or less engaged in politics, I could see how this invitation would have been pretty enticing.

I remember another time I tweeted something about Senator Elizabeth Warren. It was in support of one of her economic proposals during the Democratic primary — something quintessentially Warren-esque and very much part of her brand that I was acknowledging as solid policy. But I didn’t refer to her as “Senator” Warren, just “Elizabeth Warren.” Some progressive Twitter account with a lot of followers noticed, and pointed it out, as well as the fact that I had used "Senator" to describe a male politician earlier that day.

Her response quickly attracted like-minded condemnation of the arrogance and blind spots of straight white male reporters like me. The judgment was swift and harsh and I was, for a few hours, one of the Bad Guys on Twitter. People seemed genuinely upset, so I deleted the tweet and sent out an edited version, but it got very little interaction or interest, even though the whole thing started because I was complimenting a policy proposal of Warren's. If I were less informed or less engaged in politics or took Twitter more seriously, I could see how this reaction would have made me think very negatively about all people on the left.


One of the biggest strategic flaws in the conservative movement is that they are pathologically obsessed with “owning the libs.”

Today’s right-wing political culture is too often about embarrassing your opponent for having empathy, feelings, or subscribing to anything modern or forward-thinking or out of the ordinary. Announce online that your wife isn’t taking your last name and it won’t take long for some right wing pundit to assure you that she is probably keeping her own space or sleeping with other men. Part of this is a reaction to the exclusionary politics of the left, the "look at how crazy all these libs are" canard, and part of it is the “facts don’t care about your feelings” mantra that people on the right pretend to subscribe to until their own feelings get hurt.

While the purity tests on the left often lead to intra-party spats and the destruction of once great progressive icons, the obsession with owning the libs makes the right seem increasingly cruel and childish. As a result, even as their institutional strength remains in place, their pack gets smaller — they’re becoming increasingly outnumbered and will continue to be, as a younger, more empathetic, show-your-feelings, overwhelmingly progressive generation becomes the dominant voting bloc. All the love bombing of potential new allies in the world can’t make up for being an asshole for the sake of being an asshole. And if you don’t believe me, just take a look at the 2020 election results.

The thing the left and right's major flaws have in common, among other things, is that they each try to re-define others in ways that make them feel how they want to feel about themselves. Dunking on someone for not posting a black box on their Instagram account is more about saying "I support the black community" than it is about saying "you should look into this cause." Telling someone their wife doesn't actually love them because she won't take their last name is more about saying "my wife loves me" than it is about having any understanding of the other person's relationships.


I want you to imagine someone who voted for Trump because of his immigration stances.

Hold the person in your mind for a moment. What are their world views? Why do they like Trump’s restrictive policies so much? Why do they support a border wall?

If you’re on the left, I imagine you are thinking of someone who does not like Mexicans. This is the kind of person who gets pissed off when they hear “press 2 for Spanish”, or demands that the Chinese couple behind them in line at Starbucks speak English. This person views immigrants as a threat to society because when they think of criminals, they imagine non-white, non-English speaking foreigners.

If you’re on the right, I imagine you are thinking of someone who believes in the law. This is the kind of person whose parents taught them about order, respect and authority, the kind of person who sees hard work as a virtue and doesn’t want law-breaking people sneaking into our country and stealing jobs. This person is just fine with immigrants, but also believes in preserving a certain way of life, protecting blue collar jobs, holding onto the beauty of our country and the cultural cohesion that keeps us together.

There’s no point to this exercise except to say that whomever you are imagining, you’re probably a little bit wrong.


Nobody believes something because they think it’s untrue. Sometimes we tell ourselves things that we know might not be true, just to make us feel a little bit better, but if you really believe something you, by definition, take it as fact.

The difficult thing about politics is that it is a set of beliefs as well as an identity. That means when we talk to each other about politics, we are literally exposing our own personal identities to criticism, criticisms that we have strong incentives not to hear or believe. For all the political debates I've witnessed in my life — the ones among pundits or politicians — I've literally never seen one end with one person conceding to the other that it turned out they were wrong. A few times in my life I've seen regular folks over a beer move their positions slightly or concede they may have gotten something wrong. It's kind of a bizarre thing if you stop to consider it for a moment.

There seems to be an obvious solution for this but it is perhaps one of the hardest things for a human being to do.


The question I get the most in my inbox is some variation of this: “How do you talk to someone whose political views are so obviously wrong? How do you talk to someone who believes conspiracy theories?”

I think my answer is that just for a moment, you should recognize that you can't be right about everything, and then you should try suspending your own beliefs — even if only for a moment, an exchange, or a brief conversation.

My brother indulges in a bit of conspiracy theorizing. It's one of those things he does sort of half-heartedly, with a smile and a laugh, but sometimes it's hard to tell whether he's serious or not. He'll make an off-handed comment about the "Lizard People" living among us and then chuckle, but I know that he actually spent a few hours down a YouTube rabbit hole and might believe some of what he's saying — or at least enjoys pretending to believe it.

One of the most liberating things I've learned from doing this work is that there is usually no harm in trying on a belief for a few minutes or an hour or even a week. Why not hear my brother out and hear the case for Lizard People? What's the big deal? It'll probably be an interesting five minutes, and it doesn't mean I just made a commitment. Nothing is written in stone, and the odds of him realizing his idea is a little bit absurd probably go up the more he discusses it with people who are willing to explore the thought.

I've recently taken to trying to build out cases against my most strongly held political views just to see where they take me. Sometimes, I realize that I can't actually defend my position as well as I thought I could. Other times I learn to articulate it more artfully or convincingly. Other times I realize I have no position at all. And every now and then, I become more firm in what I thought beforehand.

The biggest issue in today's politically polarized world is that people's political beliefs are now tied so deeply to their identities, that changing a belief somehow means destroying something about a person that most of us aren't willing to let go of.

If you're interested in talking to someone with whom you disagree, you might start by telling yourself that you don't know everything. Then you could ask them some questions and actually listen to their response. And then, for a moment, you should try to suspend your own beliefs — recognizing you can come back to them whenever you want — and see where it takes you.

It's possible you might realize you're not right about everything after all.

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