How do I approach discussion with a friend who may be white nationalist?
December 4, 2017 1:46 PM   Subscribe

They just recently posted a meme that seems to show them as sympathetic to a pseudo-Germanic white nationalist group. How do I approach asking them about what this means, and (gently?) confront them about supporting a hate group? Are there techniques that I can learn for discussing difficult subjects like this?

To be fair, this is more an acquaintance than a friend. We were good friends in college, fell out for a while, got back in touch, but interact very little, aside from the occasional social media and holiday cards. I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, I could just remove myself from the situation, but that seems like ignoring the problem. I'm curious to know how to better approach this kind of discussion with racist relatives or anyone else I might know, not just in this one particular situation.

(I suspect this might have been covered to some degree on Ask, but I couldn't really find the answers I was looking for.)
posted by mboszko to Human Relations (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure why you want to "gently" inquire about something like this.

Why not get right to the point, and ask what he is trying to convey with this meme?

His response will tell you whether you want to unfriend him, or whether you want to pursue any further discussion.
posted by Hanuman1960 at 1:52 PM on December 4, 2017 [21 favorites]

Don't be gentle. Be brusque and terse. "Dude, what the hell is this shit?! Can't believe that someone like you would fall for this horrible crap. Do and be better."
posted by scantee at 1:55 PM on December 4, 2017 [18 favorites]

I disagree with the above. I'm 100% for aggressively calling out racists in most circumstances. But when it's someone who presumably trusts and respects you, you should take advantage of the fact that you might actually be in a position to change their mind.
posted by 256 at 2:02 PM on December 4, 2017 [33 favorites]

Ask for clarification and make sure he (and you) understands what the meaning of the meme is.

Once you're there, you need to be firm. Do not put forth the notion that the truth is somewhere between your idea and theirs. This isn't something to compromise on, and you need to send a strong and consistent signal to him that his white nationalist ideas will not be tolerated. He needs to learn that, not that, hey, my friends are cool with me no matter what I do.
posted by ignignokt at 2:03 PM on December 4, 2017 [7 favorites]

To respond to the first couple of comments:
…because I'm not real great at confrontations like this in the first place, and I don't think yelling at someone on the internet is a particularly productive way of going about it. This is why I am asking for techniques that I can use for a discussion about this. Not looking to get myself blocked on my first attempt to reach out to this old friend.

I have family that I'll have to have similar discussions with about racism in the near future too, so I'm trying to look ahead and learn how to handle this.
posted by mboszko at 2:09 PM on December 4, 2017 [4 favorites]

"that seems to show them as sympathetic"... So you don't know. Aggressively confronting them is probably a little too much. I know a lot of people that post stuff all the time because they aren't aware of how it fits in in the current cultural climate. Maybe they didn't read it correctly. Maybe they took the meme the wrong way. Maybe they posted it sarcastically for the people that know them well, and you didn't "get the joke" because y'all are just acquaintances.

There are a lot of "what ifs". Don't walk into this aggressively, guns blazing. That's basically acting the same way an extremist would act. Your best bet, and I've done this a few times, is call them (not text or some other way that context can be lost) and ask if they meant to post/share the meme, and what they thought about it. If they come at you defensively, you aren't going to change their mind, and that friendship isn't worth keeping if it violates your sensibilities. If it was an honest mistake, then you might actually build a stronger friendship or at least have a meaningful discussion about social issues.
posted by Master Gunner at 2:12 PM on December 4, 2017 [11 favorites]

I (mostly) don't unfriend people on fb because humans are social and social pressure is an effective way to address horrible crap like racism. (not the only way, best way, etc., just a useful item) So I have a former co-worker who is a Rand-Libertarian and racist. When he posts stuff that sounds racist, I reply Friend, that sounds racist. Racism is really harmful. You don't want to be that guy. or words to that effect, maybe an explanation of why it's racist. It launches conversations with his friends, some of whom also sound racist and my friends, who are anti-racist. He's not explicitly racist, just veers into sketchy memes. Just don't accept it. Accepting racism lets it live.
posted by theora55 at 2:18 PM on December 4, 2017 [6 favorites]

"Hi. You posted this and I don't really understand it. Can you please explain what it means?"

Then you LISTEN.

After that, you are not required to respond immediately, or at all. Think long and hard before offering your own perspective. Mostly, the exercise is to getthat person to state their position out loud.

Usually, that's enough to get them thinking on their own. Active listening is the key. No confrontation required.
posted by jbenben at 2:25 PM on December 4, 2017 [75 favorites]

Agree with jbenben. Start with "Could you explain this meme to me?" Keep asking follow up questions to hopefully draw them out to more clearly explaining (or admitting) their views. You may find that they are minimizing, or covering up or other things that suggest that they're not 100% comfortable stating those views out loud. That's great! Keep asking more questions. "I notice that you seem really unsure about that, could you talk about that a little more? I'm not sure I understand."

You can then challenge what they're saying with personal and hopefully shared experiences. "Wow, you know when you talk about [X group] it makes me think of our friend [YZ]. He's in that group and that's never been my experience with him. Did you have a different experience?" or "You know my grandparents are in [X group]. Do you think that of me? I'm confused." If you see some cracks in their thinking you can express relief and agreement "Oh, thank goodness you're saying that! People who wrote that meme believe X group should be removed from the country. I really strongly disagree with that and was so concerned you were agreeing with them."

So being clear, firm and straightforward in your communication. Let them clarify (or potentially hang themselves), look for cognitive dissonance and gently encourage it through your and his personal experience and make clear that it's a belief system that you find abhorrent. You don't need to shout to confront, but I do agree with the earlier posters, that it's also important to very clearly explain that it is not a shared belief and why.
posted by goggie at 3:45 PM on December 4, 2017 [9 favorites]

Someone once said to me, when I was an overly-opinionated teen, "I'm very sad to hear this from you." It was a gut punch, since I respected that person and hadn't imagined they'd disapprove.

It worked because of the respect, and also because I wasn't called out, so much as made aware of how my attitudes were affecting them.
posted by Caxton1476 at 3:47 PM on December 4, 2017 [19 favorites]

I've always found a "is this for real?" to work well. My brother posts a lot of political memes from across the spectrum (literally today he posted a quote from FDR about how tax cuts benefiting the rich are bad for the country immediately after posting a libertarian meme about taxation being theft), and occasionally he's shared some less-incindiary stuff from Milo and people like that. I also have a couple of wingnut friends who share some Limbaugh/Hannity garbage. Just comment "are you serious?", and if they say yes, just respond "ok..." (the ellipsis is key - it lets them keep digging if they're a true believer).
posted by kevinbelt at 4:03 PM on December 4, 2017 [4 favorites]

"Dude wtf?" is my default, and if they come back with any bullshit I unfriend and block them and don't bother with having them in my life any more.
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:24 PM on December 4, 2017 [3 favorites]

An acquaintance posts memes to a political FB group we're both in that are not good -- I think she doesn't understand how they can be read. I comment "I disagree with this; guns are nothing like vaginas," or "Huh, the first few points sound good but then it gets into paranoid anti-vaccination stuff." I don't know if she's a Scientologist gun-nut or just naive, but either way I hope it prevents other people from mindlessly sharing her posts. I don't think I'm going to change her mind on anything, but maybe I can limit the damage.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:31 PM on December 4, 2017

jbenben has it. Deray McKesson recently described this approach (I'm paraphrasing) as putting the cognitive burden on the other person. Ask questions, make them think through their beliefs by virtue of being made to explain it, and remain patient. Change is slow. It takes weeks, months, years.

For more on this approach, I urge you to read up on Daryl Davis. He is an African American jazz musician who has spent his life befriending members of the KKK and has consequently, over time, disabused many of them of their racist beliefs---abandoning the KKK and handing over to him their robes. The man is an inspiration. Not to mention likeable as all hell.

I have listened *three times now* to his original interview on the Love + Radio podcast. It was just that good: The Silver Dollar

His follow up Love + Radio interview, conducted shortly after the 2016 US election, is called How To Argue. It's even more relevant to your question, but it's essential that you listen to the original podcast interview first.

And, of course, there is the documentary about Daryl that was released in the last year: Accidental Courtesy. It is available for streaming on Netflix. (After you watch it, look up the Youtube video of him meeting again with one of the Black Lives Matter activists on the day of the film premiere. It's a not-unimportant addendum to the story.)
posted by nightrecordings at 8:27 PM on December 4, 2017 [16 favorites]

What jbenben and goggie are suggesting is part of the Socratic Method. Find out what they believe and why they believe it, then just ask questions and listen. Keep your questions genuine, your goal is not to trick him or direct him. Just ask things like "can you help me understand this better" or "why do you think this thing". Do not show anger or contempt. Occasionally, repeat what his position is in your own words, then say "do I have that right?" There is a youtuber named Anthony Magnabosco who is very good at this, even though his specialty is different the method is the same. I know this is easy to say, hard to do. I wish I was better at it, but we must just keep practicing or we won't get better
posted by ambulocetus at 8:27 PM on December 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

You may be interested in this incredible two-part episode of Love + Radio called "How to Argue" (jinx, as described by nightrecordings above) in which a black man makes a point of getting to know KKK leaders and becoming friends and talking about racism with them. He becomes so close with them that several of these KKK leaders attend his wedding to a white woman. And some of them, eventually, hang up their robes and very publicly leave the KKK.

He says the key is to listen with the intent to understand, rather than with the intent to judge. It's a conversation, not a debate, and the overall arc should be How did you come to feel the way you feel? But you also have to educate yourself and be able to talk using their vocabulary and be as familiar with their source material as they are.

From the transcript:

Well, a debate is “I’m gonna make my point, you’re gonna make your point and we’re gonna fight it out verbally.” That’s a debate, where you’re gonna argue something. That tends to have them get their guard up. If you say, “Hey, I wanna have a conversation with you. I wanna understand why you feel the way you feel. I want you to convince me that I need to change my way of thinking, and I appreciate your sharing your views with me. I’m interested in how you feel.” That’s what a lot of people want, they wanna be heard. They wanna be able to speak their mind freely, without fear of retaliation or somebody beating them over the head for their views or ramming their own views down this person’s throat. So give them that.


I would say, don’t explain somebody else’s movement initially. Let them explain it, and then address the points in particular that they have defined. You may know about their movement; you should know about their movement. As I said in point number one, do your homework, learn everything you can about their movement so that they will respect you, but don’t start off by defining their movement for them, tell them what it is and why it’s going to hell in a handbasket and why it’s wrong.

Let them define the movement, and as they define it, there will be key points that you know you can counter and shut down, but let them finish. Don’t just cut them off and jump right in and start going on the attack. Give them a little more rope. Say, “Look, I hear what you’re saying, but I’m not there yet. I need a little more clarification, a little more explanation from you. For example, you said “blah-blah-blah”. I’m not quite clear on that. Can you give me a little more as to why you really believe that or why you think I should accept that?” and let them elaborate some more.

And they’ll come up with these key points that you probably already know because you’ve done your homework, and then you can address those key points, and then go with the point that they made; don’t put words in their mouth. Quote them, and then attack those points, rather than shut them down with what you know about them. And they will respect you for that.

posted by danceswithlight at 8:42 PM on December 4, 2017 [7 favorites]

By all means, let him explain himself first. But keep in mind that he may not be in a place at which he can reason about this. Many people that post these memes are not, and are often downright hostile about this. If that's the case, NEVER LET GO OF THE FACT THAT WHITE NATIONALISM IS WRONG. You don't have to convince him it's wrong, but he has to know unequivocally that most people think it's wrong and that there are consequences for his belief. Be kind if you can, but prioritize telling the truth before kindness.

As much as I'd like everyone to be truly anti-racist in their hearts, that's often not possible, and we have to settle with curbing racist behavior. It's a lot like sexual harassment laws. Misogynists may snicker at them and believe that women actually enjoy sexual harassment, but they know they'll get fired if they do it. So, they don't do it as often as they would otherwise.

If you think Nazism (or white nationalism or white-ethnostatism) is just another ideology, I recommend you read Yonatan Zunger's explanation and please take it seriously. It is different from simply being "very right wing".
posted by ignignokt at 6:18 AM on December 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Socratic method is a fair way to think of it, but I like the idea of being a cultural anthropologist: ask questions to ascertain how they understand the words/symbols, why they're being used, what's intended -- as if you don't know anything much about it. Tease it out rather than shut them down. I'd decide how to react after that dialogue.
posted by lathrop at 10:39 AM on December 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thank you all for your insights. I fear I may have already pushed a little too hard in a negative way (they might be closing down a little in their responses), but the conversation is still ongoing, so this is all very useful. I will try to do better. I realize I probably won't be able to dissuade them of their views, but it seems worthwhile to try to hear them reason it out. Much, much appreciated.
posted by mboszko at 11:09 AM on December 5, 2017

If at all possible this, I'd want to have this conversation either on the phone or in person; not in text. Text (email, messaging, etc) is *really* bad for sensitive or confrontational discussions.

"Hey, can I buy you a cup of coffee?"

Face to face allows you to read their body language, alter your approach, allow them to see your physical reactions to what they are saying, etc.
posted by el io at 2:05 AM on December 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

We're in different cities, so face-to-face is hard, but noted for the future. Thanks.
posted by mboszko at 12:42 PM on December 7, 2017

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