As we approach the holiest festival of family arguments (three years ago, one-fifth of us predicted a Christmas bust-up – think how many more things there are to argue about now!), many Novara Media readers will be asking themselves: how do I win?
Below are two stories of people who’ve taken near-opposing approaches to this task of persuading reactionary friends and family. To me, the moral of the story seems clear: people aren’t convinced by reason but by emotion. When it comes to talking down your rightwing relatives, your biggest leverage isn’t the Marx you’ve read, but your relationship with them. Remember that before going all guns blazing into Christmas dinner.
Deradicalising a Terf mum.
Will* grew up with Andrea Dworkin on the bookshelves; his mum Janet* considered herself a radical feminist. He didn’t question her politics further, but as he got older, it became increasingly obvious they were transphobic. Janet spent a lot of time on Twitter; Will found her locked account, which he noticed was followed by some “well-known Terfs”. Looking back, Will reckons she was undergoing “Mumsnet radicalisation”.
Without a clear sense of his own views, Will didn’t argue back, but something felt off: “It felt like she was punching down”. As he got older and became “more politically conscious […] I was able to articulate exactly why I thought this politics was wrong.”
One day, his brother Arthur* came to him with news that he knew would make both of their relationships with their Mum exponentially more complicated – he was trans.
It would be another five years of arguments, of Janet refusing to recognise Arthur’s identity, before the two young men, aged 22 and 20 respectively, decided to take drastic action. Realising they would never change their mother’s mind, they made a threat: accept Arthur or lose contact.
Will recalls what they said to her: “[This online community doesn’t] really care for you. If you’re sad, they’re not there to call [..] they’re not substantially your community. They don’t care for your wellbeing, they care for you insofar as you become an ally to them in the fight against trans people. […] Look, I will always love you, but being there for you, and being family with you, is conditional on you recognising my brother.”
He says he’s glad he didn’t attempt to continue to argue his Mum out of her transphobia: “Yeah, you don’t reach over the aisle to people all the time to ‘meet them where they’re at,’ sometimes you have to have a real threat as a form of leverage to say, ‘look, if you don’t fucking fix up, I’m not really interested in having an endless debate with you, I will just leave.’”
He remembers his mum’s anger and devastation. “She thought it was a dirty tactic.” Whether or not it was, it worked: “I think the fear of losing the people closest to her was a strong motivating force.” Broader social pressure may have multiplied the brothers’ impact. Will’s family is part of a small, close-knit group of families in south London, and when their children found out what was happening with Janet, they encouraged their parents to speak to her, too. “There was another community she would have been isolated from that she also valued”. Compared to the real, caring people Janet was surrounded with, her online community – built on common hatred – seemed less and less real.
Gradually, Janet started using Arthur’s correct pronouns (she now even corrects her own mother), and began to “talk to him about trans issues in a way that was much more generative of meaningful alliances […] as opposed to constructing ways to find new dunks to deny trans existence.” It isn’t that Janet has transitioned from being transphobic to “trans ally numero uno”, explains Will, but she’s certainly more responsive now. For him and Arthur, he says, “that’s enough”.
Detoxing a blackpilled friend.
Mark*, 28, met Dom* on a night out in Watford when they were both 15. Their friendship wasn’t super deep: they’d mostly just go out drinking together. “He wasn’t very political,” says Mark. About five years into their friendship and almost overnight, that changed. The catalyst wasn’t what you might expect: “I think [Dom] was radicalised more or less directly by […] Star Wars fandom.”
Mark explains that there’s a well-known reactionary streak amongst hardcore fans of the franchise, but that by 2014, it had reached a fever pitch. Disney had just announced that British actor John Boyega would star in The Force Awakens, making him the first Black stormtrooper and the only Black lead in the new trilogy. On the fandom Facebook pages where Dom was spending more and more of his time, “there was this perception,” says Mark, “that the franchise was becoming woke or whatever because there were women and people of colour in it.”
Mark found that Dom – always prone to anger, having experienced “a lot of trauma” in his childhood – was zeroing in on new targets. “He was really into men’s rights activism […] that Jordan Peterson thing of ‘oh, men can’t be responsible.’ […] He was going on about how he hates feminists and […] SJWs [social justice warriors].” To Mark, it was clear his friend “was being subtly blackpilled.”
Rather than ditch a years-long friendship, Mark decided to try to steer Dom back onto the straight and narrow. “I would sit there for hours sometimes with him ranting down […] the phone […]. I would try and encourage him [by] sourc[ing] some ideas and source links […] to counter what he was saying.”
Mark would also reflect Dom’s hypocrisy back to him. When Dom showed Mark a video of a trans woman kicking off after being misgendered, Mark told him: “Well, I’ve seen you kick off before over almost nothing. […] If that was you, knowing what your temper is like […] you probably would behave like that […] I mean most people would.” Often the persuasion would seem to work for a while – but soon, Dom would be back to his old views.
Eventually, Dom did shift – but Mark isn’t sure it was their conversations that did it. One day in 2018, Dom rang Mark to tell him that he was going to die – or at least, a doctor had told him he would if he kept drinking a bottle of vodka a day. This prompted Dom to get sober – and as he did, his politics detoxified, too. Nowadays, Dom identifies as a socialist and often comes to Mark wanting to better understand political issues.
What’s interesting about Mark is that despite the misogynistic, transphobic and racist diatribes Dom routinely subjected him to, he never lost empathy for his friend. “People in [Dom’s] community and his family have been let down a lot by the world that we live in,” says Mark. “I think a lot of his anger and abuse came from a place of low self-esteem. Now he’s cleaned himself up a bit […] he’s got better self-esteem.”
Looking back, Mark wonders whether it was his attitude to Dom that made him eventually listen. “I think part of it was the fact that I stood by him and I did my best.” Perhaps none of this was about politics at all, but about the need to feel heard.
*Names have been changed.