Dylan Marron likes to talk to his enemies, until they’re not quite enemies. On his podcast Conversations With People Who Hate Me, Dylan gets on the phone with people who have sent him hate mail, left angry comments, or tweeted nasty things about him.
He also moderates conversations between others who have insulted each other online, such as Yo! Is This Racist host Andrew Ti and an embarrassed caller, or Amanda Palmer and a Twitter critic.
Dylan’s charm and thoughtfulness make the conversations surprisingly pleasant, and he and his guests inevitably find some common ground — without anyone sacrificing their dignity or excusing crappy behaviour. Dylan gave Lifehacker some advice on how to cope with hate and criticism on the internet — and what separates useful criticism, incivility and abuse.
Empathise without endorsing
The tagline of Conversations is “Remember there’s a human on the other side of the screen.” (Dylan doesn’t like to call people “trolls”.) That’s a good lesson for people who talk crap, but it’s also useful to those getting talked about.
As Dylan explains in his TED talk, you can develop empathy for the person who said something nasty about you, without justifying what they said. If you think of them as a specific person and not the grand disembodied voice of the world, you take away some of their power over you.
“Empathy is just the acknowledgement that someone is human,” Dylan says. “But it can feel really weird to empathise with someone who you really disagree with or who very much disagrees with a very core part of you and who you are. We are scared to empathise with people because we’re scared that empathising with them props up their point.”
But he’s talked to people with wildly different political beliefs or approaches to life, and it hasn’t changed his beliefs or made him less vocal in fighting for what’s right. It’s actually made it easier for him to hold onto his beliefs and his work, because the criticism doesn’t feel so scary.
You can empathise without engaging — and most of the time, you should. Dylan originally started the show after digging into the online profiles of people who insulted him and his political videos.
“I would click on the profile of the person who sent it to me, and I would humanise them.” You can quietly research, or you can merely imagine this person’s personal life.
Do not — and trust me, I’ve made this mistake — do not use your research to attack the other person online. They might deserve it! But if you escalate online, they’re likely to dig in escalate too, and their momentary crappiness will turn into an extended fight.
Take it offline
If you do have a reason to respond to someone — such as if you know them personally — get on the phone or face-to-face.
At some level, humans are hard-wired to get along with the people around us, or at least to try. But talking on the internet, even texting with someone you know, can put enough distance between us to ignore that hard-wiring. If you had the option of starting this conversation offline in the first place, that’s where you should take it.
It sucks that you might have to jumpstart someone’s empathy to make them stop yelling at you, but it’s an effective method. “We more casually co-exist in physical spaces than we do in digital ones,” Dylan says.
Realise your haters aren’t thinking straight
A specific, helpful way to make the other person less scary is to realise that they probably don’t even mean to sound like such an arsehole. This doesn’t excuse what they said, it just makes it feel less true about you.
“The internet enables us to use pretty intense language, sometimes to convey non-intense feelings at all,” Dylan says. “We’re prone to exaggeration, even when there isn’t a negative bent to it. The structure of a comment section has us jockeying for likes and upvotes.”
The same goes for most social media. People are shouting to be heard, and they can forget that the person they’re talking about might read their message. A lot of people on Conversations have literally written that they “hate” something or someone, and a lot of those people walk it back as soon as they hear their words out loud.
Dylan’s first guest, Chris, left a nasty comment on one of Dylan’s videos calling Dylan a "piece of shit". On the phone, Chris said that Dylan had “caught him at a bad time”. As Dylan kindly pointed out (and Chris immediately accepted), Chris was the one who chose to engage; Dylan hadn’t “caught him” at all.
So when you read someone saying something horrible about you, you can mentally ratchet it down a few notches. You, like Dylan, can recognise that the person insulting you online might be having “a bad time” without excusing them. Hell, you don’t even have to forgive them. This is about mitigating the damage they can do to you.
Don’t engage with abuse
Engaging with criticism does not mean engaging with abuse. “I’ve also gotten death threats, and I’m not speaking to those people,” Dylan says. “I’m speaking to people who I feel safe talking to.” He doesn’t invite people on who threaten him or use bigoted language to attack fundamental things about him.
Whatever level you deal with criticism or mid-level hate, do not feel obligated to give any such consideration to abuse. And recognise that your personal limitations aren’t the same as someone else’s. While Dylan is willing to get on the phone with someone who called him a “piece of shit”, he doesn’t expect anyone else to: “We [each] have to figure out what we want to engage with.”
Social media is great for connecting people, sharing news and information, and giving your grandmother the opportunity to air her political opinions unfettered. Unfortunately, its anonymity and widespread reach makes it an easy way for people to spread hate, and since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, social media users have noticed a worrisome increase in online hate speech.
Don’t write off all criticism
A subtler effect of undeserved hate is that it erodes our ability to deal with deserved criticism. And most of us eventually get some unsolicited criticism that could actually help us.
Think about all the times you’ve agreed with a negative tweet or comment, and wished the subject would pay attention and stop, say, being such an arsehole. What if… you’re the arsehole? Sometimes — without saying it — that’s what Dylan is kindly pointing out to his guests. And it’s not a quick fix.
“I don’t know of any human who hears criticism for the first time and it immediately changes everything about them. I don’t do that! When my friends say something I’ve done hurts them, I’m not like ‘I’m done! I’m changed!’ Take your time to sit with criticism. You don’t have to respond immediately.”
Look at hate directed toward wonderful people
As an online writer and video maker, I get a lot of hate mail. And hate tweets, and hate comments. Listening to Conversations helps me remember that this happens to anyone who does something interesting in public.
If you want to feel better about your hate mail, look for the hate mail directed at something wildly popular and respected. I like to look up my favourite literary classics on Amazon and Goodreads, and read the one-star reviews.
Now, this can be a bit depressing, in that you’ll see just how terrible some people’s taste can be. You will see a lot of people writing bad and stupid things about great people and great works of art.
But think about how well those people and their work did anyway. It doesn’t mean that these people were never hurt by criticism. It means that they did not give into it. It also means that no matter how great you are, there’s always someone ready to hate you — or think, momentarily, that they hate you.
Put your haters to use
This part is weird for me — I’m not one of those people who keeps a scrapbook of my hate mail. I’ve been to a live reading of other people’s hate mail and found it petty. And I didn’t listen to Conversations until very recently. But I do screencap and tweet the occasional angry email, and it does make me feel better.
So you could turn people’s hate into a big project, a small one, or just something you text to your friends to have a laugh.
Thank you pic.twitter.com/XG9H6XbwxQ
— Nick Douglas (@toomuchnick) January 31, 2019
One journalist’s wife cross-stitched some particularly illiterate hate mail. (It’s always easier to cope with a hater who can’t spell.)
And Jimmy Kimmel has celebrities read people’s mean tweets — which may encourage these people a little too much, but it at least tells everyone who’s really in charge. The hater gets their screen name on TV for a few seconds — and their target gets to carry on being actually successful.
And remember to cherish the positive feedback. Print out a stranger’s praise or a nice email from someone you respect. Spend some time with people who like you. Let the haters fade into the background.