“It is a pity that youth is wasted on the young.” — anonymous quote, often erroneously credited to George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde
This week noted SJW Dylan Marron launched what might well be the summer’s single most anticipated podcast gimmick, Conversations With People Who Hate Me. 1 I have had a lot of emails over the past week asking if had listened to it, so I thought I’d share my thoughts here.
First, however, I should probably begin with the caveat that I am letting the podcast stand on its own merits. Although I have been told be a few people that I should have heard of Dylan Marron before now, I had not. There well may be a book or essay Marron has written previously that would, were I to read it, provide needed context regarding what he is trying to accomplish with Conversations. If so, know that I have not read it. 2
Here’s the pitch-gimmick for Conversations With People Who Hate Me: In each episode, Marron records a phone conversation with someone he does not know who has left a particularly mean-spirited comment about him on his own social media. As Marron notes in the show’s introduction, this conversation is not intended to be a debate, nor an attempt to find common ground. Rather, he says, the point of the podcast is to see if greater understanding can be fostered even among those who disagree on issues important to them.
If all of that sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Although Marron does not appear to ever give credit, Conversations With People Who Hate Me is clearly a vehicle meant to capitalize on the success and popularity of Lindy West’s classic This American Life segment, Ask Not For Whom The Bell Trolls; It Trolls for Thee. In that classic TAL segment, West confronts via telephone a particularly vile troll who managed to inflict serious emotional damage after the death of West’s father. The resulting conversation between the two is nothing short of incredible — which is why it has become such a talked-about fan favorite. It’s packed with moments of vileness and hate, yes, but it’s packed as well with moments of humanity, grace, and perhaps redemption. It achieves, in its mere 22 minutes, a level of raw, unscripted, human drama that even the best reality television programs can only hint at delivering.
This, then, is the real pitch-gimmick behind Conversations With People Who Hate Me: Repeated rides on Lindy West’s internet-troll roller coaster, sans West, delivered fresh to your iPhone each week. It’s easy to see why it created so much buzz. I will confess that when I first heard about it, I myself was among those most anticipating its arrival.
Sadly, as it turns out, Dylan Marron is no Lindy West. Although Conversations With People Who Hate Me claims to be all about understanding those who stand across the divide, the degree to which no understanding is even attempted becomes painful by the first episode’s end.
That episode, entitled You’re A Piece of S**t, centers around a troll named Chris, an angry man who wrote on Marron’s YouTube page,
You’re a piece of shit. Good thing nobody watches your shit. You’re so dumb, you regularly say things that 100% makes the situation worse and you do it to signal how virtuous you are. Again, good thing nobody watches your shit, but hey, you’re probably getting $10 a video so whatever.
In the conversation with Marron, Chris is much nicer and more polite. At one point early on he begins to explain that he was having some things going on the day he wrote his screed, and one would think, in the spirit of understanding, Marron would listen to what those things might have been. But Marron doesn’t really seem to care, and instead he and Chris just sort of rifle through various cultural litmus-test issues — BLM, undocumented workers, people who are transgender in bathrooms, etc. — to establish one another as the one-dimensional characters of people on the right/left that they want to continue seeing one another as being.
In Chris, Marron has chosen to “understand” someone who seems ill-informed and incurious. For example, although Chris acknowledges that Native Americans were treated poorly in the past, he also believes that all Native Americans today are incredibly wealthy because they all own casinos and they are constantly checking www.PokieGuide.nz to get better everyday. This makes Chris an easy and disposable foil, obviously, but he might still be interesting as a case study were Marron to be even be slightly curious as to why Chris thinks the way he does. Indeed, the show might be interesting were Marron to dig into his own life or thought process. Instead, Marron seems concerned only with making sure his (not-at-all-in-question) stances on cultural litmus-test issues are stated. The one time I heard Chris say something I knew was factually correct, it was that he thought the KKK today was a small and powerless joke we probably didn’t have to worry about. Marron scoffed and dismissed this point casually, apparently without ever wondering if it might be correct, proving that although he’s far more intelligent and well-read than Chris, Marron can match his troll’s incuriosity about things outside of himself step for step.
Perhaps the best illustration of just how lazy an attempt at “understanding one another” Conversations With People Who Hate Me is comes around the show’s 22-minute mark. Chris, who actually supports same-sex marriage as well as gay men’s right to hold hands in public without being harassed, says this:
And far as gay men being able to hold hands in society, the government can’t dictate how that happens. Society has to change.
Marron, who is gay, takes issue with Chris’s opinion, and speaking with the authority of one who has actually traveled in those shoes, counters with this rebuttal:
I am a gay man, and I understand that laws protect against crime, but my husband and I don’t hold hands in the street because of the shit we get for it.
That exchange, to me, is Conversations With People Who Hate Me in a nutshell: A podcast supposedly about fostering understanding, where the host is so busy carving out his bona fides for his audience that he never once picks up on the fact that the person he is disagreeing with is actually saying the same thing he is. This is why the first episode of Conversations With People Who Hate Me is, to me anyway, what a Tweet would be if it were magically brought to life. Trite, incurious, under the false illusion that it was somehow deep and profound, and existing for no reason other than signal to it’s own kind. But the way it most resembles a tweet is that it is simply lazy, which is a damn shame.
I hope that, before all of his episodes are in the can, Marron goes back and re-listens to the Lindy West piece from which he has borrowed so heavily, and pays closer attention. The West piece achieved what it did because West herself was willing to open up and be entirely and uncomfortably vulnerable in front of her audience. Similarly, even though I am sure West hated her own troll, she genuinely cared about learning who he was, and what inspired him to do what he had done.
The process Lindy West went through to confront her troll was, I can only imagine, painful and difficult. But what she produced through all of that was something that was truly capital-g Great. I don’t think anyone who has heard West’s Ask Not For Whom The Bell Trolls; It Trolls for Thee will ever forget it.
I’m not sure I’ll remember Marron’s poor copy of Lindy West next month.
- Please note that I do not use “gimmicky” here in a negatory sense. Most fledgling podcasts, looking to grab those Blue Apron and Casper Mattress promotional dollars, couch whatever they are planning on doing in a gimmick that makes it easier to pitch than, say, simply saying “I think I can talk about a lot of interesting things for ten hours.” Thus are fantastic podcasts such as Revisionist History, Call Your Girlfriend, and The Read greenlighted. [↩]
- As best I can tell, prior to Conversations Marron has presented himself to the world as a kind of playful but pointed SJW imp via various Youtube series, each itself couched in an elevator-pitch-ready gimmick. These gimmicks range from truly brilliant, to the truly clever idea that seems unlikely to remain interesting over time, to the not at all clever, sophomoric, and cringe-worthy. [↩]