How should I respond to a classmate who makes racially and socioeconomically charged comments?
December 2, 2010 8:02 PM   Subscribe

How should I respond to a classmate who makes racially and socioeconomically charged comments?

I have a classmate who is a quickwitted, jovial and affable guy. One of my friends and study partners has become fast friends with him and we occasionally study together.

The problem is that he frequently says things which I find offensive. He recently spent a 15 minutes explaining to me that Muslims are inherently fundamentalist, that >99% of the world's Muslim population wish to kill all non-Muslims, and that most nations in the Middle East now want to destroy the US because they perceive President Obama as an "infidel". I could have changed the subject, but I was curious about how he came to have these views, and thought I might be able to make a convincing case to the contrary based on my own experiences. He told me that all this information is available in "scholarly publications on the internet", but couldn't really remember the specifics, and wasn't terribly impressed that to the best of my knowledge, the people I've known from the middle east have not been keen on killing anybody.

He's also commented (or rather, stated as fact) that people with more money are smarter than those with less money, and that any form of financial assistance, support or charity is reprehensible because it allows the less fit to survive. He once raised his hand and said something similar in class. It was incredibly awkward.

He says a lot of things that make me angry and/or are simply false. I don't know what to do. I don't want to snap at him, and I sometimes find myself biting my tongue and gritting my teeth. I feel like the best thing to do would be to gently explain why I find the things he says offensive, and try to help him open up his views, but I don't really know how to do this.

I especially don't know what to do when he says something I find offensive in the company of my friends. I feel very trapped. My brain is yelling "WHAT THE FUCK?!" and then spinning it's wheels trying to come up with a clever joke that will be simultaneously illuminating and diffuse the awkwardness of the situation. Usually I come up with bupkis.

I also realize that people are entitled to their own political and economic views, and I don't want to be a political bigot. Most importantly I don't want to be mad at this guy, but I feel so tense about this. How can I come to terms with my own anger and what would be a productive and socially graceful way to handle these situations?
posted by ladypants to Human Relations (33 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Why not just engage him on the facts? If you know his pronouncements are wrong, then you know enough to gently or not-so-gently disabuse him of the offending views.

The fact that his views "offend" you is not the point. The opinions offend you because they are based on wrong facts

Correct him on the facts and the offensive views should go away. In theory.
posted by jayder at 8:08 PM on December 2, 2010

This person just fancies themselves a gadfly: he says ridiculous things to get a rise out of people. Try not taking the bait.
posted by downing street memo at 8:11 PM on December 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Head butt - they rarely see it coming.
More seriously, and agreeing with downing street memo as to what their game is, I tend to just make equally bold statements from my, by conventional standards, extremely radical point of view - careful explanations of the sin of private property, disquisitions on the essential parasitism of the wealthy, fond tributes to the Mujeres Libres or the Cubans in Angola. If you have to sit through his tirades, he can sit through a few of yours.
posted by Abiezer at 8:13 PM on December 2, 2010 [8 favorites]

If this guy is otherwise an outstanding contributor to your study sessions, I'd say minimize the off-topic banter, get to the studying, and don't extend any social overtures that might make him think you're friends.

If this guy is not a vital asset to your performance in the class, I'd stop asking him to study with you.

I've been in this situation before via growing up in the Bible Belt, especially on facebook. While, to use your phrasing, I don't want to be a political bigot, I also don't feel like subjecting myself to that crap all day, every day, just because I used to sit behind you in 8th grade algebra and now you're a mouth-breathing fascist. So anytime anybody says something that crosses my personal line, I drop them. No. Just no. And I refuse to feel bad about it, too.
posted by Sara C. at 8:13 PM on December 2, 2010 [9 favorites]

People like that are impervious to reason.

If you have to study with him, just change the subject. Anything other than that will simply cause your blood pressure to spike, and encourage him.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:18 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

You're not going to change his mind regardless of how witty, fact-based, provocative or insightful your comments are. I would just call him out (e.g., "I believe most of the present company would agree with me – that was ignorant thing to say.") and proceed to change the subject.
posted by halogen at 8:19 PM on December 2, 2010

Don't feed the trolls.
posted by BobbyVan at 8:19 PM on December 2, 2010 [5 favorites]

I hung out and even shared a house with a very similar person in college and now consider it time wasted.
posted by Nomyte at 8:24 PM on December 2, 2010

"You're wrong."

That's it. Don't gently correct him, he can read. And he is the bigot,not you--he thinks poor children should starve to death. It's an abhorrent point of view.

Likewise, he's responsible for everyone feeling awkward. I imagine anyone poor or Muslim who hears him might feel more than just "awkward".
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:27 PM on December 2, 2010

"Don't feed the trolls."

Indeed. I think all you can do in this case is to say something like—politely but firmly—"I disagree with you, and I'm not interested in hearing about it or having a conversation about it. If you continue talking about it I will leave." Repeat as necessary, but then be prepared to leave after, say three times or whatever you've decided your threshold is. Actions speak louder than words.

And it strikes me that you are of two minds about this guy: either he's jovial and affable or he's a tiresome asshole. Which is it? I like hanging out with the former, and I quickly try to distance myself from the latter, including avoiding all social engagements that involve that person as much as possible. You can, in fact, choose your friends.
posted by dubitable at 8:28 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I feel like the best thing to do would be to gently explain why I find the things he says offensive, and try to help him open up his views, but I don't really know how to do this.

Nope. You can pretty much never change anybody's mind via logic. People are social animals and build up elaborate defense systems. Imagine his dad and uncle spent every weekend while he was growing up ranting about this and also about Crazy Liberals. He's not going to throw over his entire family's beliefs for you. And when you start trying to convince him, you're a Crazy Liberal that he can dismiss out of hand.

Really, you guys don't have to agree here. Just take the high road. Relax. Really, it's rudeness of him to throw out these divisive views (do you really need to be discussing global demographics?). That's why they say not to discuss politics in polite company, because of discomfort that others can feel. So just write it off like other acts of rudeness and move on. If you're the kind of person who would say "awk-ward!" or otherwise diss him and then move on, I suppose you could do that, but that's actually less mature than just enjoying whatever you enjoy about him, being respectful of him for whatever you do respect about him as a person, and silently writing off anything he says that you completely disagree with.

If it helps, you could assume that everyone else there agrees with you and that it's embarrassing that he's revealed his ignorance. It might not be true, but it could keep you feeling like you have the high ground rather than like you have to persuade him on this point.
posted by salvia at 8:28 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

If anything, just laugh that off. It's nonsense, and arguing with it makes you seem just as foolish. It's sort of like wresting a pig; you both get dirty, and the pig enjoys it.
posted by Gilbert at 8:29 PM on December 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

Meet for your study dates at a mosque.
posted by anildash at 8:33 PM on December 2, 2010 [5 favorites]

By the way, just to talk about being a "political bigot:" I've met a few conservatives in my lifetime who sincerely want to have a conversation about politics where they aren't trying to shove some shit down your throat. And frankly, I think lefties are just as bad about this, when they are of the dogmatic sort; it's not really about your political bent in my opinion, but how and where and when you express it.

In friendly contexts, unless you've initiated the engagement based on some sort of political agenda or unless you really know the crowd well, it's often the case that bringing up politics at all—unless you are REALLY fucking sensitive, skillful, and willing to be wrong and acknowledge it (and even then, meh...)—is kind of in bad taste, in my personal opinion. That is, if you want to make friends.
posted by dubitable at 8:37 PM on December 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

He recently spent a 15 minutes explaining to me

It's tough when someone just makes a random, one-sentence racist comment ("That's typical for a [minority]..."), but when someone is literally going on for 15 minutes, you need to speak up. When he starts one of his lectures, cut him off:

"Let's agree to disagree. Now, where are you in the Iliad?"

"I'm not interested in talking about that. Now, where are you in the Iliad?"

"We're not here to talk about that. Now, where are you in the Iliad?"

You're never--never--going to convince him he's wrong. He's not talking because he really wants you to know the amazing facts he's learned about Muslims. He's talking because he likes the sound of his own voice. Don't try to convince him he's wrong: that just tells him you're paying attention to him, that he's getting a reaction from you. The best thing you can do to stop him from talking is to stop being an audience for this nonsense. Tell him directly that you're not interested in that topic of conversation. He may be an arrogant ass and still respect you (stop talking when you ask him to), or he may be an arrogant ass and not respect you (keep talking despite your asking him to stop). If he won't stop, you should stop studying with him.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:47 PM on December 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

People are entitled to hold their opinions, but you are not obligated to politely endure listening to his.

If you gently explain why he's offensive, he'll take it as an opportunity to debate, and your reason will not outlast his zeal. If you quip to try to show him up, it'll probably be taken as a chicken PC move to avoid facing his brilliant rhetorical acumen.

But I think that your honest gut response of "WHAT THE FUCK" is actually the best. Just say it something like this instead, "Uh? That's the craziest thing I've ever heard."

Preferably with some combination of a furrowed brow, quizzical head-tilt, and a hasty muttering retreat afterward as if he has emitted an incredibly foul odor.
posted by desuetude at 8:48 PM on December 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Because I'm an okay arguer, I'd probably play "first one to solipsism wins" with him. Refuse to accept any premise he tries to worm out of you, no matter how innocuous you might think it is. If he says the sky is blue, ask him to prove it. If he tries to bring it back to the original subject, insist that it's an entirely pointless discussion until he establishes this "sky is blue" thing first.

Your mileage may vary.
posted by RobotHero at 9:28 PM on December 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

I believe Miss Manners suggests something like saying, icily, "That's never been my experience."
If that fails, give the ol' two "IGs"... Call them IGnorant, and IGnore them.
posted by Fuzzyness at 9:28 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thank you guys. This has been very illuminating.

dubitable, you are right that I am of two minds. When I first met him, he seemed like a nice friendly guy, but now I find being around him incredibly irritating.

I would rather not study with him, but one of my best study buddies, a study rockstar, apparently LOVES studying with him. Lets call her Red. I would study with her all the time if I could, but she prefers to study solo at home on the other side of town until just before exam time. In the past I would meet with her and two other friends, Blue and Green, and I found that to be an ideal situation, but now it seems that this guy has become part of the equation. Actually, now that I think about it, Green hasn't been around much since this guy joined.

So there's a possible solution: study with Green, and also study with the larger group, ignore the annoying guy's ignorant comments and ask him to table all political talk until after the exam. I realize now that attempting to engage with him is a waste of energy. If he keeps at it, walk out, and go find other people to study with.
posted by ladypants at 9:36 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

ask him to table all political talk until after the exam.

Unless you actually enjoy the political arguments but simply find them to be a waste of time during the study sessions, I would not phrase it this way. Because this sounds like a friendship overture, to me. And even worse - a friendship overture where you're agreeing that his ideas have merit and you would like to talk more about them in the future.

If you phrase it that way, you will go from "this guy in my study group is ignorant and offensive" to "this friend of mine is ignorant and offensive." Which is definitely a worse situation to be in.
posted by Sara C. at 9:43 PM on December 2, 2010

RobotHero, I love this! I'm not going to have time to try this before the exam, but after the exam, it may make everything more fun.
posted by ladypants at 9:49 PM on December 2, 2010

Sara, I see your point, but we are in a small program where we may be partnered or put in a group together in the near future. I would like to stay on friendly terms if at all possible.

I can anticipate that during a study break he may say something ignorant and offensive. Then I can test drive "That hasn't been my experience." Or even "No, that's not true." Followed by "Okay, we should finish up chapter 10..."

If he objects, or wants to argue the point I can say "look, the exam is coming up, lets get back to work." We're all there to study, and everybody pretty much respects that.
posted by ladypants at 10:05 PM on December 2, 2010

I'm not so much saying you should actively be rude. But if you say, "let's talk about this later", you're going to be on the hook to talk about it later.
posted by Sara C. at 10:11 PM on December 2, 2010

dubitable, you are right that I am of two minds. When I first met him, he seemed like a nice friendly guy, but now I find being around him incredibly irritating.

Yeah. I totally know what you mean. I've put up with a lot of people in my life who have or continue to have some great qualities, but have some equally bad qualities that I had to learn the hard way to not tolerate by cutting them off. And sometimes there is "collateral damage" like your bud Red.

I will also ditto what Sara C. said re: sounds like you'd be making him into a's okay to give people second (nth?) chances, but it's okay not to as well.
posted by dubitable at 10:20 PM on December 2, 2010

I'd stick with the old standby: "I don't know how to respond to that."

And then move on.

It's honest, it doesn't make it look like you agree, and it doesn't engage in the silliness or escalate things.
posted by vitabellosi at 12:28 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

"You know, friend, I've noticed that you have a lot of strong opinions about various topics, and these opinions seem to be most vocalized whenever we're in the throws of studying. I enjoy working with you, but I am having a hard time focusing because I am distracted by a lot of the views you've expressed lately and since we've got so much material to get through, I'm gonna have to ask you to stick to te topics at hand so we can be effective study partners. Can we do that?"

And then when he slips up, a jocular "Dude, shut the he'll up and get back to studying with me already. Commentary track off." Repeat ad nauseum until you have to a) leave or b) drop some of your heaviest textbooks on his head and manage to knock him out for a round or two. :P
posted by patronuscharms at 2:51 AM on December 3, 2010

*hell, not he'll. Damn iPhone autocorrect feature.
posted by patronuscharms at 2:52 AM on December 3, 2010

If you need to maintain a superficially cordial relationship with this person "I have not experienced that, personally. Going back to the question...". Do try to find some point of agreement, no matter how trivial: nobody can be that much of an idiot 100% of the time. (Or can they?)
posted by francesca too at 5:49 AM on December 3, 2010

I knew a guy like this in law school who was always spouting off like this at me. I don't know why me. At first I argued with him. Then one day I just handed him a reading list and told him he wasn't allowed to talk to me anymore about anything but the weather until he finished it.

The crazy part is, HE ACTUALLY READ IT. And then he THANKED me.

I assigned him both books that fit with his philosophy (objectivism, more or less, but he'd never read Ayn Rand, so it was even more painful than your typical objectivist) and books that refuted his BATSHIT INSANE assumptions about the world.

I suggest this. And then whenever he starts say, "Did you finish the reading list? No? Sorry, we can't discuss it."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:05 AM on December 3, 2010 [11 favorites]

If you have a defined task like studying, a "dude, can we focus?" is all you need. For everything else, make it clear that you're not willing to engage. So put me on the side of ignore the troll.
posted by advicepig at 7:13 AM on December 3, 2010

I like Abiezer, Meg_Murry and Eyebrows McGee's suggestions. I have had acquaintances who do things like this and I tend to take one of those approaches.

I've had great success with "Well, in my benevolent dictatorship... [private property will be abolished/you'll be first against the wall/none of your opinions will matter]."

(Probably best to go with Meg_Murry's plan though if you want to spend the least time engaging with the fool)
posted by knapah at 7:14 AM on December 3, 2010

I have been on both sides of this problem in the past. Here is my opinion:

1) He probably does not intend to offend you, and he probably would rather make you happy than make you upset.
2)The reason he says what he says is because of the attention he gets. I'm sure he wouldn't talk about these things around people who interrupted him or ignored him completely whenever he said something like this. Even simple acknowledgement: eye roll, etc is enough attention to encourage him.
3) His "radical" views are as much of a habit as a perspective - changing his mind isn't going to change his habits.

Based on these three things, I recommend the following:
1) (this is probably the most difficult thing to do.) Tell him that sometimes his opinions upset you, and you want to find a way that you can get along with him.
2) Show him (by giving him attention) that he doesn't need to make "radical" statements to get attention. This is tough especially if he is boring. Maybe he really does need to make "radical" statements to get attention. Do you think that's true? If so, that's a whole nother can of worms.
3) If he agrees with you on the first two, realize that his habits will take time to change, and go easy on him. Remember, just because he is good at making attention-grabbing radical statements, doesn't mean that he's a bad person. Give him feedback ("I noticed that you wanted to say something radical, but didn't. Thank you very much!" or "What you just said is the type of thing that you decided you didn't want to say any more.").

If you and he are able to do this, he will become less annoying. At the same time, you will become less annoyed, and you two will eventually meet an equilibrium that makes you both satisfied with your relationship.
posted by rebent at 7:16 AM on December 3, 2010

I could have changed the subject, but I was curious about how he came to have these views, and thought I might be able to make a convincing case to the contrary based on my own experiences.

Never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and the pig likes it.
posted by xenophile at 12:18 PM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

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