Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Your Sorry Ass,
A co-worker came up to me a few weeks ago and opened up about her politics. I guess she comes from a very conservative family, though she said she is “figuring out her own views.” She asked for my take on some issues she was wrestling with. I thought it would be an opportunity to slowly turn her into a complete Red, so I obliged. Or at least I wanted to practice speaking with someone I disagreed with—it’s a skill many of us lack.
We kind of bonded over bothering liberals. For example, she apparently saw some Facebook posts where I bashed Obama, and she decided to approach me, thinking maybe I was different than the other “meanie pants liberals” here in CA. In hindsight, she was putting on that conservative-as-victim act that amounts to veiled cowardice, a plot to keep one’s awful views secret.
Honestly, we had a good few conversations, although she wouldn’t really say anything committal or concrete. The impression I got? She was (at first) sweet and kind, and she viewed politics as a matter of “teams.” I knew people like that from my past, and they turned out to be ultimately wonderful and not right-wing at all—when I drilled down and got to know them.
Cut to last week, when I took her to see a talk by Marxist economist Richard Wolff. (She invited herself; otherwise I would not have brought her.) After the talk, I was excited and thought we could at least have a conversation about capitalism and its excesses—even if it was a standard debate—but she was hung up on two statements he made about immigrants. It turns out that she thinks undocumented workers are hypocrites for not becoming legal. And she thinks poor people are only poor because of their bad habits and personal mistakes. (“They should help themselves before ‘government’ helps them.”) I mean homegirl has Bill O’Reilly’s politics.
The rest of the trip she talked a bunch of vapid shit about her personal life. I was pissed because it ruined an otherwise great night for me—I had met some fellow DSA members, and I was hoping to feel inspired rather than . . . impotent, maybe?
But I cannot stop arguing with her in my head. I keep asking her (in hypothetical situations) if she’d be OK with X, Y or Z. I was quite naïve, I guess, to try pulling someone so far across the spectrum. We initially connected because of our shared desire to bash shitty centrist libs, but it turns out she is far more reactionary than I suspected. I just couldn’t locate an empathetic, human side to her.
This is merely one example; these looped, imaginary conversations happen with all sorts of people in my life. It’s not that I don’t actually talk about politics with people, it’s that the conversation grows frustrating and ends. That’s when the worm enters my head.
On the other hand, with my liberal, loyal Dem parents and my good friends I can at least have a heated argument—and everything is fine afterward.
So how does one deal with this? I know I am not alone. Should I just surround myself with people who share my values? Do I hone better arguments? Do I meditate? Get wasted? Get pissed for days?
Forever Rolling the Boulder up the Fucking Hill
Dear Rolling the Boulder,
Your instinct to talk to people who don’t share your political views is a good one. Face-to-face conversation is necessary for recruitment, and, honestly, surrounding yourself with nothing but comrades will warp your view of the world, which is not, it turns out, made up entirely of Marxists. These day-to-day conversations help you understand what we’re up against, and maybe—maybe—you’ll get a convert. That said, you probably won’t! So don’t sweat it!
In casual social settings, your best bet is usually the soft touch. Be open about what you believe, but don’t wedge your opinions into the conversation. Answer questions when they’re asked, and try not to take it personally. If things do get heated, learn how to end a conversation warmly: “Yeah, we just totally disagree on this,” is a useful closing sentence. Besides, allowing a disagreement to escalate into a fight basically never works. You have to remember that people come to their politics through a variety of experiences, and it’s unlikely you can reverse all of that in a few conversations.
The sense of futility you feel from ramming repeatedly into conversational walls, well, it’s a sign you need to disengage.
As for the stress, anxiety, and sense of futility you feel from ramming repeatedly into conversational walls, well, it’s a sign you need to disengage. Sometimes you need only withdraw from the task of reeducating reactionaries; in this case, taking time with comrades to refuel is important. At other times you’ll want to step back from politics in general.
I know, I know—everything is political—but too many leftists get lost in the mire of continuous discourse, and burnout, as I’ve said before, is a real problem. You do need to set aside time for yourself when you aren’t feeling the weight of the total responsibility of being a constant comrade. Too many leftists assume “socialist” as some kind of identity, but just like your co-worker, you’re a person with value independent of your politics. This means you’re free to check out sometimes: read a novel, watch a dumb TV show, spend time in nature, hang out with friends who don’t talk about politics all the time, make something—a painting, a shelf, a cake. You will come back refreshed and energized.
Socialism is slowly becoming less taboo, and the coming battles for a better world are going to require as many of us as we can woo. But reader, learn to take breaks! Remember, after all, the first act of the Paris Communards: they shot out the clocks.