What can I say?

What's the best way to respond civilly to right-wingers I socialize with but whose opinions I don't share?

Published June 30, 2004 7:22PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have many right-wing relatives and friends. And I belong to a colonial reenacting group where we regularly dress up and handle guns, march in parades and reenact history.

Here's the problem: the opinions of right-wing assholes (RWAs). Now, when socializing with family or in our little club, the rule to observe is "Don't talk about sex, religion or politics." RWAs would be the first to assert these family values, but of course can't help getting in little digs. Or big digs. No matter what activity you pursue, RWAs must express their opinions. "That's one for Hillary." "'They' don't like us handling guns." "There's this one guy at work who's a Muslim, but he won't be around long if I can help it." And "the liberals did this, did that, did this other thing." Gay marriage, women's rights, gun control, our eternal wars -- you name it, a right-wing asshole can sneak it into any conversation and slam it.

And, oh man, can they talk! Many RWAs are blue-collar and listen to Hate Radio for eight hours a day, and can (and will) gladly blather for eight hours at the drop of a hat. None of their opinions are their own, of course. They're just parroting the talk-show hosts. And because they're "talking sense" they assume everyone listening agrees with them.

Which leads to my problem. Politically, I'm a radical. I never agree with talk-show dittoheads. But I'm also one of these rare individuals who actually listens when people talk to me. (Even talk at me, which is more common.) And as these RWAs go on (and on and on) I occasionally grunt "Uh-huh" to show I'm still listening.

But muttering "Uh-huh" during these verbal barrages seems like a betrayal of my beliefs. It's simply the wrong response. Because in English, "Uh-huh" has two meanings. One is "I'm still listening." The other is "I agree."

I do not agree with these bigoted, hateful, reactionary, simplistic, unthinking morons, but I can't think of any other response to make. The Japanese have a word, "hai," which only indicates, "I'm listening." Further, I do not want to spark an argument with fools because it's a waste of time. I believe in the old adage, "If you're going to engage in a battle of wits, first make sure your opponent is armed."

What word can we Westerners adopt that indicates, "I'm listening, but may or may not agree"?


Dear Listening,

Unfortunately, we don't have a single word that says "I'm listening but I may or may not agree." But we do have several ways of saying "Kindly take your head out of your ass," and it seems to me we ought to start saying it.

America is in political crisis. This is no time to sit quietly by. You simply have to register your dissent. We are living in one of those historic moments where you either respond authentically or you lose your soul. If your friends and relatives do not realize the depth of our peril, you owe it to them to try to make them aware of it.

So how do you register your disagreement in a way that is principled, respectful and historically conscious? Maybe you start by saying something simple and straightforward such as "I respectfully disagree."

What happens next? Maybe somebody says, "You respectfully disagree with what?"

Then maybe you say, "I respectfully disagree with what was just said."

"And what was that?" someone might ask, having noticed an interesting change in the noise level.

Try to avoid repeating what you disagree with. Instead, ask the person who said it to please repeat it, so you can make sure you heard it correctly. If he repeats it, just the repetition may make it obvious how stupid it was. But it might be a sentiment the whole room agrees with except you.

Very quickly, before things go any further, you need to lighten up a little; make it clear that you don't want to ruin the convivial atmosphere but you genuinely believe that America is facing a political crisis, that urgent matters of history are at stake, and that it is our duty as citizens to debate the issues and be well informed.

Don't try to win them over. Just stand your ground and say you're a liberal and you don't agree and that's how you see it. If you're challenged to rebut what was said, offer instead to do some research and present your case to the group at a later date, saying that even if you don't persuade anyone, that way you'll all end up a little better informed.

Then go home and study. Go over every detail. Learn the history of the subject. Listen to all the pundits you can stand and get to know what their arguments are. Find the factual holes in their arguments. Then, next time you meet, present your case, and ask for campaign contributions.

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