How To Engage With The Other Side Better Than Bill Maher

How To Engage With The Other Side Better Than Bill Maher February 20, 2017

This past week, liberal comedian Bill Maher brought conservative provocateur (the politically correct term for troll) Milo Yiannopoulos onto his show, Real Time with Bill Maher. Left leaning outlets have been abuzz detailing and discussing the encounter. If you’re interested, here is the overtime segment with the panel.

Personally, I was greatly disappointed with the clip, and it wasn’t Milo’s fault. Well, it was, but his behavior was par for the course. He acted exactly how I would expect. I was more disappointed in Bill Maher’s behavior throughout the whole panel discussion, especially when he went so far as to validate Milo’s transphobia. I could fact-check the entire encounter to clear things up, but there are people who have done the work already. Instead, I thought I’d take this opportunity to critique this encounter and use it as a model for ways to not engage with the other side.

1. Don’t Engage With People Like Milo In The First Place

I know many readers here will tend to subscribe to the philosophy that exposing really bad ideas to the general public will make them wither away once everyone sees how terrible they are. I’ve already gone into detail why I don’t think that’s true. Basically, even if Milo’s arguments are horrendous and based on complete bullshit (which is true), many viewers don’t care to think critically about what he says or research his claims beyond what he says on the show. As anti-regressive left tirades and tearing down SJWs appears to be a popular source of entertainment these days, it won’t matter what Milo says specifically, as his overall message will resonate with those who already agree with him. I get that there are still plenty of those who agree with Milo’s message and we need to have critical conversations about the concepts behind them, but Milo doesn’t offer anything reasonable to the table. He’s a college dropout and works at a fringe alternative news site, and his writing offers little in the way of journalistic value. He’s a fringe figure, and has never gotten exposure on the level of Real Time before this, so all this has done has boosted his visibility. There are plenty of reasonable people Maher could have chosen in his place.

A friend of mine who is more conservative leaning than I am asked me what type of person would be a good replacement for Milo. I’d argue that there are plenty of plenty of conservatives with misconceptions about gender and sexuality who aren’t willing to deviate into completely fabricated information (see fact-checking above). There are plenty of conservatives who have concerns about safety and have taken their fears out on the transgender community. These fears are misplaced and misdirected, but that type of ignorance is worth discussing and correcting towards a broad audience. We don’t need false information that contributes to violence and discrimination that the trans community faces every year.

There are those who will say that this appearance actually led to Milo being discredited, as a video of him defending pedophilia has surfaced since the episode aired. If we’re being skeptical we can’t say that this appearance nor his invitation to CPAC caused this to surface, as these videos have been around for years. To be clear, Milo defending pedophilia is something that had been available for a long time and he has still gotten a platform from others despite that. Furthermore, this is entirely incidental to the regular type of garbage he spews regularly, which should have discredited him in the first place. I’m not sure that this will end his career, considering the ferocity of the alt-right and the profitability of anti-regressive left narratives. However, time will tell, and I aim to be completely fair and transparent, so this is something to chew on.

2. Listen To The Opponent And Validate Their Concerns (And You Can Do This Without Conceding To Them)

In my opinion, the absolute low point of the event was when Bill Maher placed his stamp of approval on Milo’s transphobic bigotry (33 seconds into the video above). Note that the inaccuracies about trans identity and misgendering of the student in question are not my own, and should be denounced wholesale.

Maher: So this is a man, a born man…

Yiannopolous: …who thinks he may be a girl.

Maher: And you have a problem with that.

Yiannopolous: No, I don’t have a problem with it, but I think that women and girls should be protected from men who are confused about their sexual identities in their bathrooms.

Maher: That’s not unreasonable

I shouldn’t have to explain all the inaccuracies in here, but just to be clear I’ll run through them. Trans women aren’t confused men, they are women. Their sexual identity is a completely separate topic from their gender identity, and Milo is wrong to conflate the two. And there’s no reason to think that trans people are any danger to women and children in bathrooms. Again, I refer to the fact-checking article above, as they explain this in far more detail.

What I find fascinating is buried underneath this rubble of bigotry and misinformation is a good lesson on how to go about appealing to those who disagree with us. As we all know, humans are not perfect logic machines. We not only make moral and ethical decisions through a filter of our own values and biases, but we even absorb facts selectively based on what we already know. People of different political persuasions tend to have varying core values upon which they place all their decision-making. Those on the left tend to base their decisions based on equality and harm, while those on the right value authority and in-group identity more than those on the left do (Alan Duval has been exploring and critiquing many of these ideas on this blog in detail, they are filled with plenty of useful information).

This is important for political conversations, because when we have discussions and arguments we tend to make arguments that appeal to our own inner values, and not the other person’s. This is often one of the reasons why conversations go downhill and it often feels like we are talking past each other, but when we appeal to someone else’s values they will be more likely to find an argument compelling. For example, in a study by Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg, they brought up the issue of same-sex marriage to both liberals and conservatives. Those on the left like me see no reason to discriminate against same-sex couples for any reason on the principle of equality, but that is not as much of a core value for conservatives. When the researchers tried to make the case to conservatives that we should have same-sex marriage based on equality, they were not so easily persuaded to change their mind. However, when they made the argument that gay citizens were also proud and patriotic American citizens who make contributions to the economy and society, conservatives were more likely to shift and accept gay marriage as a good thing.

It’s important to recognize that it’s not just our own opinions that differ politically from person to person, it’s our entire moral foundations. This makes for all the difference when engaging with the other side. We need to acknowledge their values, validate any concerns they may have, and then present our facts in a way that corresponds with the values they hold closely.*

Back to Real Time. While Maher does an absolutely terrible job of engaging with Milo and his values, there is a good way to acknowledge conservative fears without throwing trans people under the bus. I have done it before myself. Last year, I made a Facebook post that ended up going viral discussing why I felt that bathroom bills discriminating against trans people are nonsense. I did get a lot of messages as a result, mostly in support, but I had a small number of women who messaged me who were deeply concerned about being attacked in a bathroom. One was even a survivor of an assault. I am deeply sympathetic to that fear, and I recognize the insecurity that many women have regarding these issues, as these are real problems that need to be addressed. First and foremost, I validated their concerns and acknowledged that their fears of being attacked by someone were perfectly normal and understandable. I went on to discuss how there were no confirmed instances of trans people attacking anyone in the bathroom, and therefore we would be diverting our focus and resources on something that would not help them. Furthermore, trans people are actually at elevated risk of being attacked, so we are doing little more than elevating fear and risk for trans people to get attacked in response.

The result? The women who contacted me were surprised that I took the time out of my day to respond to them personally. They were grateful that I was so open to their concerns, and that I recognized their fears that they had. They understood my position more as a result and appreciated what I had to say, and recognized the risk that these policies would give trans women. I then directed them to my trans activist friend Callie who is far more informed than I am, who later told me that all the conversations she had with those women were incredibly productive.

Let’s be clear, it’s perfectly reasonable to be concerned about assault, and many people watching this episode likely have those concerns. Maher missed an opportunity to validate those concerns without throwing trans people under the bus. He could have recognized what Milo said, recognized that assault was a problem, and educated him on why banning trans people from their appropriate bathroom would not only not help, but make the assault problem worse. Instead, he put a verbal seal of approval all over what Milo said.

3. Be Willing To Call “Bullshit”

This seems to be something that skeptics are willing to do that the general population is less comfortable asserting. This is likely because when skeptics call something into question, we know that we are questioning a positive claim and not asserting that the opposite is true. They simply need to provide evidence, otherwise we won’t take them seriously. This is a separate statement from telling someone that they are flat-out incorrect, but people in general don’t see it that way. This distinction is important to keep in mind. When someone says something dubious, we may not know that something is false, and therefore we may hesitate to challenge that claim. However, we do not necessarily have to be informed to question an assertion if something is fishy.

The panel on the show should have been bolder in challenging everything that came out of Milo’s mouth. For as many falsehoods as he made, only a couple got challenged specifically. One particularly absurd claim Milo made was regarding the trans student he harassed onstage. He claimed that the student that he harassed had already left the university by the time he outed her onstage, and that the press completely misrepresented him (as if this somehow makes it ok to harass and deadname a trans woman onstage). This is so absurd that even his own website proves him wrong. At this point anyone on the panel (but especially Maher) should have had the capability to call him out, ask him where the hell he gets his information from. At this point it’s too late, what he said has been said, and there are uncritical viewers out there willing to believe that Milo was somehow in the right to do what he did.

It was particularly absurd to me, because I keep up on these issues closely. The idea that the UW student had left the school before Milo made his presentation was completely new information to me, largely because it was completely made up. It should have been trivial for anyone to call bullshit on his claims, but to someone informed on the issue, it should have been particularly easy.

Keeping this in mind, why wasn’t anyone informed about these issue on the panel? For example, why didn’t Maher invite an actual trans activist? I mean, I could understand why someone like that wouldn’t necessarily want to go on a show against Milo, considering that they would probably face a lot of heat on Twitter and harassment on the internet from the alt-right afterwards. Regardless of how the internet would treat them afterwards, anyone on the panel who was active in this area could have easily shut Milo down. Would he have had the gall to claim in the face of a trans activist or a therapist that transgender people were mentally ill? Probably, and then he would get the facts shoved in his face. But we know why that doesn’t happen. It’s because Milo doesn’t care for a free exchange of ideas. Long one-sided talks where the only rebuttal is a Q&A at the end inherently puts him at the advantage to say whatever he wants. Interviews where he is placed at the center of attention allows him just to make broad, sweeping generalizations of women and minorities and give his bigotry a front-and-center platform. When he is called out by the panel and skewered by Larry Wilmore, he’s able to gleefully dismiss the panel as stupid (4 minutes in) and metaphorically prance away from anything they say. Milo doesn’t want to be challenged. He wants to spout his nonsense, and dismiss anything contrary to what he says in a cavalier attitude. We should be dismissing him with the same courtesy.

If it’s not clear, I think this event shouldn’t have happened at all. Even if nine out of ten viewers who had never heard of Milo before thought he was a complete ass, that leaves ten percent who thought he had something valuable to say, emboldening the alt-right. This may be the first time that Milo has been on a platform with millions of viewers, so those numbers add up. While I can’t expect much out of him, Maher as the host could have acted far more responsibly, and he didn’t. As someone who supposedly supports equality and justice, he abandoned those values on this episode, and lent credibility to what this guy had to say. Maher even went so far to compare him to the late Christopher Hitchens, which is practically the highest praise one of the most famous atheists could offer someone. I hold Maher accountable to what I think amounts to a disaster (Larry Wilmore’s behavior notwithstanding). But hopefully I can use this as a teaching moment, so when we do engage with the other side we can do it better.

[Featured image via YouTube screengrab]



*Further listening: Gleb Tsipursky, part of the Rational Politics project, giving examples of how he appeals to someone else’s moral foundations. An example he gives is where he appeals to a conservative talk show host who supports banning Muslim immigrants due to fear of terrorism. Tsipursky discusses how he makes the case that doing so would make us less safe from terrorists and not more safe. He and I agree that we shouldn’t do so purely based on religious equality, but he sets that aside for a conversation with a conservative and has more effective results by doing so.

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