After my father died my mother slipped into a chaotic state of dementia. Over time and after countless conversations we concluded she was very attached to her anger. It was if she was raising up her problems as her new children. She preferred her alternative view of the world and it would become her undoing.
We tried several interventions with different experts and agencies. The psychiatrist told us we could not get her committed for her own protection under the Oregon laws. He said there were no more medicines he could prescribe, especially since she often refused to take them or they did not seem to slow down her manias. “Go home” he advised, “there is little else you can do here.” That night, back home in Washington, my phone rang a bit after midnight. She was in the hospital for attempted suicide.
How do you respond when the inmates are allowed to run the asylum? How do we talk to people where a shared community has been replaced by echo chambers of alternative facts that only reinforce the anger and fearful individual’s world view? People cling to their identity of being forgotten, angry, entitled. It is the triumph sub-culture identity over communities where we share facts, conversations, and try to find common ground. Now these kinds of problems are spreading across society at large.
Alternative realities built around social-media bubbles and alternative facts have corrupted our conversations, robbed us of a shared identity and ruined our ability to problem solve. Our interactions have radically changed and not for the better in a world where books and newspapers have succumbed to FacebookFakeNews and Nasty tweets. Now exchanges are built out of drive-by rants or postings, followed by blocking, unfriending, and unfollowing. And how do you debate someone who uses alternative facts? What are we to do now that the inmates have overtaken the asylum in Europe and America? My initial response was to retreat from these heated, crushing debates.
For whatever it is worth, I predicted this massive shift in our public discourse a bit early. After Trump descended the elevator my liberal pundit friends laughed when he blamed the problems of America on bad guys from Mexico, threatening a wall, and a Muslim ban. I cringed and predicted he would be nominated and ascend to the white house. I made several bets of expensive scotch on my prediction. Disbelief set in after the nomination but after the third bottle of Balvenie 12-year old scotch I lost the taste for the liquor and called off the remaining bets.
How had I come to this prediction? I realized that I had been taking in “silent” trump-alt-right language percolating in conversations about me. FoxAltNews/Facebook/Altright had made this language acceptable, even in my blue state. My only response was to tell a few of these long-time acquaintances that racism was not acceptable now any more than it was 9 months earlier. I told them I could no longer share BBQ recipes, chat about trends and news because it was so sad and frustrating. Eventually I deleted my Facebook account and stopped responding to trolls online. I became concerned about my health. I saw this retreat as an act of self-preservation in an era where fascism was gaining a foothold in Europe and America.
It has taken me several months to get beyond the shock and awe of this moment, to heal. I had to go through my own dark wanderings before I was ready to problem-solve. My recent move has been to develop a template for re-engaging in civic discourse, a method for responding when I think of the person is potentially respectful and possibly reasonable. Of course, one never knows how the other person will act until towards the end of the conversation. That is when I assess whether I am hearing my mother’s voice clinging to the fears, hatred, self-loathing and alternative facts. That is when I choose to either walk away without further words or thank the person for disagreeing agreeably
I began to wonder how I could respond to others I disagree in an era when the Trump-Bannon madmen are running the asylum. I began to develop the following template. It is still not completely tested, so I make no claims as to the worthiness of my MUSE method. But at least I now feel I have a routine I can follow when a neighbor, relative or friend makes a truly disturbing statement in my presence. I feel more prepared and more in control. Let me demonstrate the steps and possible replies when the other person makes a disturbing intolerant statement supporting the Muslim ban which will probably accelerate after the next terrorist event.
My MUSE Method
1) Make a statement you both can agree on.
I borrowed this technique from Karl Rove, who re-used progressive language against us.
Me—Yes every country has to worry about security in today’s dangerous world.
2) Use a single fact.
Don’t complicate things by repeating all the dazzling array of facts you’ve collected online. Stating more than one idea at a time is a form of bullying and you won’t be heard.
Me—We’ve had scores of deaths in this country by homegrown Klansmen and alt-right shooters, but none have been connected to refugees.
3) State they have changed topics or provided alternative facts.
They will now jump around, changing topics or using alternative facts.
Me—Do you think we’ve discussed this enough is that why you’re changing topics?
When they quote FoxNews/Limbaugh/Trump try this…
Me—I’m sorry but I cannot verify your alternative fact.
4) Exit with dignity by re-stating your point and choosing your type of ending.
Me—I want us to be safe from both domestic and foreign terrorists based on actual threats and intelligence not race or religion.
Assess the person’s intent and degree of mental health and respond accordingly. If you think the person is stable or respectful thank them for disagreeing agreeably.
If they remain heated and scattered, just smile and walk away. Provide no more words, no more ammunition. Let them think they have won, while you remain in control.