Main point: Every now and then, our conversation partners make such strong assumptions about our beliefs or opinions that they cannot hear us speak. I haven’t yet figured out a way to salvage these conversations, but they puzzle me so I’m sharing.
Roger, a loyal Republican I used to work with, frequently told me “You liberals believe…” followed by some ridiculous notion I doubted anyone believed. He seemed to be conversing with an invisible third person. It was like talking to someone who won’t make eye contact.
I remember once literally waving my hands in front of Roger’s face, saying “Roger, I’m right here! Talk to me!”
I know how to avoid arguing with a phantom, but I haven’t figured out how to salvage the conversation if I’m the one being ignored in favor of an imaginary kook.
Recent example: A Facebook friend shared a link to video by the magicians Penn & Teller that made spiteful fun of people who are wary of vaccinations. Using only two facts—that vaccinations do not cause autism and are effective against many diseases—the video ridiculed mothers’ concerns as “bull***t” and “f**king idiocy.” (Yes, they specifically made fun of worried mothers, and did not use asterisks.)
My first response, like the video itself, was unwisely sarcastic and disrespectful, which likely doomed the exchange from the start.
“Funny video from the magicians,” I wrote. “Now post a link to the description of the testing and approval processes that pharmaceutical manufacturers are required to perform for the stuff they add to our vaccines.”
Missing my inarticulate point about weak regulation of additives, my Facebook friend reiterated that vaccines do not cause autism.
In my next response, I dropped the sarcasm and explained my objections. First, I hate political speech that tries to shame fellow citizens.
Second, it’s true that medical consensus sees no link between autism and vaccinations, and that regulations say that the antigens (active ingredients) should be well-tested. However, another relevant fact is that the additives in our vaccinations (preservatives, fillers, and adjuvants) receive less testing or none at all. We need to encourage consumers to exercise the same caution with pharmaceuticals that we exercise with every other medical intervention, rather than bully them into mindlessly accepting every drug offered. Consumers need to ask their doctors. I do, and I haven’t yet encountered a medical professional who knows anything about the additives in any vaccination I’ve been offered.
My Facebook friend responded by telling me I needed to start thinking scientifically about the issue and posted a link to the results of a Google search she had made on the phrase “People who think vaccines cause autism are idiots.”
My next attempt to explain my point evoked this blast:
“I’m not bothering to read your comments. You compared science to magic while following a con man. You are welcome to keep posting in case someone else decides to ignore logic, and science, and reason, and goes ahead and listens to this. You have as much credibility as saying the world began 6,000 years ago and evolution doesn’t exist.”
Your guess is as good as mine about where she got some of those references. Perhaps if we had been talking face to face, I might have been able to make myself heard over the anti-science tin-foil-hat-wearing phantom who had so completely captured her attention.
But maybe not. The conversation—if you can call it that—petered out. I made one more comment, reiterating my agreement with the consensus on the vaccination-autism link, my main points about additives, and my belief that we all need to be informed consumers. She did not respond.
You would think that my explicit acknowledgement of our points of agreement might have helped, but it did not. My friend’s candid admission—“I’m not bothering to read your comments”—makes one problem obvious. In other instances, I’ve encountered prickly people who perceive every expression of agreement as an insincere debate tactic.
Whenever I’ve successfully made myself understood after someone tried to relegate me to kookdom, the conversation has simply ended. Perhaps they wanted only to debate a straw man, perhaps they decided they didn’t know enough about the topic at hand to carry on an actual discussion. Hard to say.
I do know this: I never want to be the one shouting at an imaginary kook when I could be having an interesting discussion with a flesh-and-blood fellow citizen standing right in front of me.
That’s why I always try to listen, clarify, and listen some more before contradicting a point that someone else is trying to make.
Update: Another similar interaction gave me more insight later. Perhaps arguing with a phantom kook is a way to control panic when you realize the ‘other side’ has a point that you’re not quite ready to concede.