How not to talk to idiots

Feb 11, 2014 at 9:49 pm


My husband Hal and I and were hanging out in an Atlantic City bar, chatting with a clean-cut 20-something about Hillary Clinton, not long before her failed bid for the Democratic nomination. "I'd never vote for a woman president," said the guy, who described himself as some sort of political operative. "She'd be on her period and go crazy. No telling what would happen."

He did not appear to be joking.

Choose your own adventure, ladyfriends: What's the best move here?

The counter-arguments are too obvious to bother enumerating. The problem is: I didn't make any of them, because I was just too damn mad. (That, and I'm conditioned to avoid conflict at all cost.)

Instead of employing, say, logic, I fumed and muttered nasty asides into my beer, while Hal cheerfully redirected the conversation. Even stupider: Instead of yelling at the jerk in the bar, I wound up yelling at Hal, because he didn't ... I don't know, beat up the guy on behalf of all womankind or something.

"Why bother?" was his perfectly sensible explanation. "The guy's an idiot."

I've engaged often enough in situations like these to know that I'm no good at engaging in situations like these. I always intend to calmly list the logical fallacies and take the fool apart, point by point. Instead, my hands shake and my mind spirals into rage-chaos, while the person who's lobbed the idiot grenade in the first place wins the argument by default, just by staying unruffled in the face of my frustration.

"Rape doesn't exist," a young man named Lindell hissed at me at a party in Atlanta one night, many years ago. "Women are liars."

I failed to avoid conflict in this instance. I never landed a punch, but it took the full strength of two of my friends to prevent it and drag me out of the room. Lindell just watched, composed, a tiny sneer on his face.

To the casual onlooker, who looked crazier? Who was crazier? (I still don't know.)

After a few minutes, Lindell's boyfriend Floyd came outside, where I was crying out the ugly-mad tears and smoking a cigarette, sobering up. "I'm so sorry about that," said Floyd, who'd invited me to the party. "There's a lot Lindell doesn't know."

One thing Lindell didn't know, apparently, was that Floyd himself had been a sexual assault victim. And one thing I didn't know about Lindell — which Floyd explained — was that a female co-worker had falsely accused him of sexual harassment. Lindell had lost his job as a result.

A few weeks later, Lindell left a message on my answering machine. "I know you must think I'm an asshole," he said. "I want to apologize. Please call me back." I never did.

In retrospect, maybe I should have. I suspect that he and Floyd had a heart-to-heart after everybody sobered up that night. I realize now that Lindell probably didn't really believe the horrible thing he'd said. He'd said it to punish somebody, anybody, for what had happened to him, and I was available.

It's not always possible to climb into the minds of assholes and find out what's fueling the assholery. But it's usually harder to dismiss them as full-time assholes when you know more of the story.

I'll never know the full story behind the Atlantic City guy's idiotic views on female leadership. What's likely is that he didn't actually know or care whether he believed what he was saying — he just thought it might be fun to watch me lose the plot and prove his point about irrational females over a frosty ale. That day, I opted out of the game (sort of, and without much grace).

There are occasions when crack-brained bullshit needs to be publicly called out — Todd Akin's comments about "legitimate rape" come to mind. But some ways of answering the criminally misinformed work better than others. Throwing punches rarely helps win any converts. Nor does calling someone a bigot, an idiot or a misogynist, even if the name fits.

If I could go back to the Atlantic City bar or the Atlanta party now, I'm not sure how I would handle things. Maybe I'd just keep quiet; or perhaps I'd answer with a series of quiet, uninflected questions:

Why do you think women are too irrational to be president? Are men ever irrational?

Why do you think rape victims are liars? What about when the victim is a male?

Questions are like mirrors — they reflect idiocy onto itself.

Next time I'm faced with a hater, I hope I can be a little more Socratic, a little less Muhammad Ali. I'm less of a hothead than I was 20, or even five years ago. Besides, adding my own rage into the mix isn't going to win any hearts and minds.

I want to be the kind of graceful, logical person who smiles at bullies and asks them wise questions with practiced emotional distance, like some kind of Zen monk. Maybe I'll occasionally succeed in that. Maybe we'll all learn something from the encounter.

But sometimes, when idiots bait me, I still want to punch. Those days, the best I can manage is to move a little bit further down the bar.