Is there a polite way to let someone much younger in years know that they’re wrong? Especially in a heated political argument, where you want to avoid insulting the person’s lack of historical knowledge and perspective while encouraging his or her enthusiasm and passion? As you might gather, this has become quite the inter-generational predicament on popular social media forums during this election year, but it also crops up beyond politics and into areas like art, social issues, and pop culture. I never quite know what to say in these situations, having myself at one time been the snarky whippersnapper who “knew it all.”
—Boomer in Millennialville
Aren’t there times when you’d just like to grab some know-it-all kid by the shoulders, give them a good shake, and scream: “You are wrong, wrong, wrong! Feminism did too exist before Emma Watson! And Mozart was at least as talented as Kanye West! I know because I used to play Mozart trios with Gloria Steinem and Florynce Kennedy! And Al Gore would too have won in 2000 if Nader hadn’t run, and it would have made a difference! I know that because I read and thought about it all the time while living through eight godawful years! So just believe me and we can move on!”
However, as you imply, it is best to be polite when trying to convince people that they are wrong, not just because it is good manners (Hey! I just begged the question! See last week’s letter!) but also because being impolite in an argument rarely convinces anybody, young or old. In fact, I would go further and say that being direct almost never works, either, no matter how polite you are. You have to argue one-step-removed, or second-hand, or crabwise, or by a thousand cuts, if you actually want a shot at convincing your opponent. And even then it is usually a long shot, although your arguments may have a cumulative effect if lots of boomers and other right-minded people weigh in over time.
One effective approach is to talk about your knowledge and lived experience—but matter-of-factly, and as context. “That’s surprising, because I remember when Warren Burger said that a private right to guns was a fraud and that was back in 1992 or 1993, I think.” Or: “My old friend Yutaka used to tell me about being a kid in an internment camp. I’d hate to think of that happening again.” Or: “Hillary worked for the Children’ s Defense before she started pushing for universal health care. I remember because I used to litigate with those people.”
A really good tactic is to refer to an authority smart young people actually trust, or find hip, like some of the late-night comedians or Rachel Maddow. This has worked for me several times. At the very least, it’s worth it to watch John Oliver every week. He can be counted on to back you up.
Asking the young people to elaborate on their views can also bear fruit. “What makes you say the acoustic piano is dead?” “Hmm, I see. So where does that leave Martha Argerich and Lang Lang, or are you just talking about jazz pianists like Benny Green and Aaron Parks?” Or: “What are the ways Hillary is like Trump?” “Ahh. When you say that Hillary is no different from Trump, do you mean aside from the whole three-to-five-Supreme-Court-appointments issue?”
Repetition can also work. Whether it’s “Just the place for a Snark!” or “Obama is a Muslim,” familiarity with a proposition can make it seem, if not true, at least reasonable enough to be worth considering. Of course, I assume (and hope!) that the whippersnappers with whom you are debating would not accept your proposition blindly; but hearing it many times, with factual support, from you and from other knowledgeable people, might make them start looking into it.
One last approach, which may not work often but can be very effective when it does work, is to recommend some wonky article or book that will tell the whippersnappers exactly what you could have told them. You could send them a link. You could even exchange links with them, as if you were actually going to read their recommended article.
By the way, I am impressed that you are looking for polite ways to say anything, to anybody, on “popular social media forums during this election year.” I was beginning to think nobody cared about civil discourse. I am equally impressed that you have the stamina and fervor to keep debating. In my darker moments, I wonder whether it is possible to possess both energy and wisdom.
I am a single thirty-two-year-old woman with a fairly good job who has moved three hundred miles away from my hometown because I really needed to get away from my parents. If you met them you’d know what I mean. They are both English professors at selective colleges, and they have this terrible habit of returning my letters and emails all edited up with red marks. They have been oppressing me all my life. By the way I had a B- average in college, and my professor in an evening writing course at the university says I have savoir faire and real talent. No, I have not told my parents about that until I publish something.
They just told me that they have a conference near here next month, and they are coming to stay with me. My mother also said that she hopes I have finally put up some curtains in my living room because she says that I am too old to be living like a grad student, especially since I never actually was one. Can you give me some advice on how to handle the visit and how to cope with them?
—Redacted in Rensselaer
First, please note that I did not change a word of your email text. I did substitute a fake name and town for you, though, since you sent your real ones, and it would be just our luck if your folks or one of their selective-college cronies found this letter on line and tried to rebut it. Or edit it!
Now on to substance: I think that putting 300 miles between you and your parents was an excellent first step in handling these people. Back in the days before routine air travel to distant academic conferences, I might have opted for 3000. But now they are crossing those 300 miles, and I assume it is too late to claim a prior work commitment or nonrefundable vacation package and just skip town.
So, given that they are coming, are you willing to accept that they will be staying at your place, or do you want to keep them out of your apartment and see as little of them as possible? If the latter, you could try the tactical approach. Remind them that they would get better, and certainly better-curtained, accommodations at the conference hotel. If you don’t have a guest room, you could add that your back is bothering you and they will have to sleep on the sofa bed this time. I’ll bet they won’t bite, though. They sound as if they are looking forward to inspecting and judging your place.
Or you might just throw down the gauntlet and either refuse outright to have them stay with you, or tell them that you are happy to accommodate them but that they have to promise not to criticize your décor, your life choices, or your syntax during the visit. Your weight, too, probably, since a mother like yours tends to allow her daughters no more than about six ounces one way or the other before telling them they are either obese or anorexic.
But I don’t see you openly challenging them in this way. You still seem cowed by them, which is not good. And you still seem to love them, or at least need them: why else would you keep sending them emails, much less real letters, despite their appalling habit of editing them?
Unlike being cowed by them, which you MUST start working on, loving even oppressive parents like yours is probably better than indifference or hate, and keeping up some sort of relationship with them is probably better than the isolation and regret that comes with total estrangement. The tricky part, of course, is figuring out how to maintain basic family ties without letting your folks demean, stifle, or even regularly infuriate you.
One of the best ways to deflect demanding, judgmental relatives is to get support from outside the relationship. Do you have siblings who share your feelings? Friends — preferably old friends who know your folks, but anyone will do – who can commiserate with you? If so, keep in close touch with them when your parents come on their visit, as well as whenever they snipe at you from a distance. Your parents will not loom so large when you feel surrounded by supporters. With any luck, Mom and Dad will be reduced to figures of fun after you trade tales of their various antics, and you may be better able to laugh off your parents’ foibles and focus on their good qualities. Not that you have mentioned any good qualities, except English-language proficiency, which billions of parents around the world do fine without.
So…let’s assume that your parents are coming, and staying chez vous. Be prepared! Know your areas of vulnerability. Your living situation seems to be one. If I were you I would clean the hell out of your place—this is well within the limits of normal neurotic parent-visit behavior, and almost everybody does it. But don’t overdo it or try to be somebody you’re not. Unless you really want them and have been meaning to get some all year, do NOT run out and buy curtains. Practice good-humored but firm responses so you will be ready for the moment when your mother expresses her disappointment and disdain at the sight of your underdressed window.
I don’t know what other parts of your everyday life they pick at. But my advice is the same for clothes, food, books left out on the table, and toiletries in your bathroom. Be on your good behavior, but be comfortable and be yourself. (But feel free to hide anything they have no business seeing, like your papers and accounts and medications.) Show no fear, and they may behave, who knows?
It is clear from your letter that one aspect of your life where they pick at you a great deal, and where they have already seriously messed up your ego, is your writing. It is perfectly natural, although very sad, that you care so much what they think of you as a writer. They are your parents, after all, and to make matters worse they are BOTH English professors. But they are totally dreadful writing guides, at least for you. As far as your creative writing goes, you must do everything you can to rid yourself of all thoughts of them hovering over you while you write, like some red-pencil-wielding Maurice Sendak monsters. (This will be hard: hell, they were hovering over me as that last sentence started running on.) And I think the only way to get rid of them is to supplant them with new advisors, colleagues, and role models. Your evening-class teacher was a great start. If you continue with your writing, make sure to involve plenty of other people, preferably live or at least interactive. Join workshops, take more classes, find a writing buddy, maybe go to a conference.
As for their editing your letters: you must put an end to this. I am not sure why you write them at all – how about just sending texts, heavy on the emoticons? But I will assume that sometimes you have to write a longer message. The next time you do, tell them not to edit the letter, or any future communications from you. Tell them that the next letter they edit will be the last one they get. You can soften the tone if you must, but make sure the message is clear.
While your parents are visiting, keep some of whatever helps – chocolate, wine, Words With Friends, a half-read novel you’re eager to finish – nearby. Get friends to phone you, maybe even drop by at designated times to remind you of a larger, kinder world. I hope it’s a short conference.
P.S. A friend whose wisdom I trust says he would get the curtains. He may have a point, if you think that your mother has made them into two red flags. You have to pick your battles. Then again, he has never bought curtains in his life and has no idea what a drag it can be.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.