Friday August 04, 2017

'Conversations with People Who Hate Me': the podcast that engages with online haters

Dylan Marron is the host of the new podcast "Conversations with People Who Hate Me," produced by Night Vale Presents.

Dylan Marron is the host of the new podcast "Conversations with People Who Hate Me," produced by Night Vale Presents. (Dylan Marron / Facebook, Rob Wilson)

Listen 9:20

Dylan Marron has plenty of haters.

Marron is the self-described far-left activist behind such viral YouTube hits as "Sitting in Bathrooms with Trans People." And not everyone is impressed with his political message — or his sarcastic sense of humour.

"You're a moron," reads one online comment. "You're the reason this country is dividing itself. All of your videos are merely opinion, and an awful opinion, I must say. Plus, being gay is a sin."

In the past, Marron paid little attention to the angry and profane messages in his inbox. But lately, he's been trying out a different tactic. 

Instead of ignoring his trolls, he decided to try to get to know them better — by phoning them up for a friendly conversation.

Those conversations are featured in Marron's brand-new podcast, Conversations with People Who Hate Me.


As he tells Day 6 guest host Rachel Giese, he's learned a lot from the calls, including rethinking the way he and others on the left use labels like 'racist' or 'homophobic.'

"I think before I started this project, I would have laughed it off," Marron says. "I would have been like, 'people need to embrace those terms and they're just embarrassed about being called out for what they really are'."

"Since having these conversations, I feel like I'm changing my tune a little."

"To be super clear, I'm not changing my views. But I think in the age of the internet, with the tools of the internet, we are so adept at dragging people … for messing up."


Talking to the trolls

It wasn't originally Marron's idea to talk to his haters on the phone.

That notion actually came from one of his commenters — the same one who'd written to call him a "moron" and tell him being gay was a sin.

"It all happened when I said something publicly about a message I got … from a guy named Josh," Marron says. "And he actually got in touch with me and suggested that we have a phone call together."

"What I'm asking with this podcast is: 'Is it possible to peacefully have a conversation with someone you so wholeheartedly disagree with?'" - Dylan Marron, host of Conversations with People Who Hate Me

The two agreed to set aside 20 minutes to chat on the phone. They ended up speaking for an hour.

"What I experienced with him on the phone was so different from what I experienced in the message that he sent me," Marron says. "I was hearing this vulnerable person who was opening up to me about bullying."

That dialogue planted the seed for Conversations with People Who Hate Me.

"The real thing that I felt throughout this whole conversation was, one, 'this feels incredible,' and two, 'I want to put this conversation out into the universe'."

Dylan Marron

Dylan Marron's new podcast aims to foster civil dialogue between people who disagree. (Night Vale Presents)


Conversation, plain and simple

In his first episode, Marron insists that the podcast is "not a debate, nor is it an attempt to epically shut down the people who have agreed to speak with me."

"This episode is also not a search for common ground," he continues. "On the contrary, some of my guests and I have no common ground, other than the fact that we're humans who have agreed to talk to each other."

So what's he trying to accomplish?

"I want to promote conversation," he tells Giese. "I think so many people are so scared of, like, having those so-called 'uncomfortable' discussions."

"I guess what I'm asking with this podcast is: 'Is it possible to peacefully have a conversation with someone you so wholeheartedly disagree with?' And I think that is really crucial in terms of moving forward collectively as a society."

In today's polarized political climate, that's an important challenge, Marron says.

"I think the barbs you see being traded back and forth in comments sections is a microcosm of what we see happening on the larger scale in the political sphere."


Out of the echo chamber

All told, about half the people Marron has asked to speak with have agreed to a conversation with him.

"A lot of them are just blown away that I would be willing to do this," he says. "They're surprised that someone so publicly left-leaning is willing to include conversation as part of their work now, specifically with people who disagree with me."

Marron concedes that fans of his work to date tend to be people who share his political views. But Conversations with People Who Hate Me has cast a wider net.

"I do think we're at a dire place right now where actually what we need is conversation and empathy." - Dylan Marron, host of Conversations with People Who Hate Me

"While this podcast definitely has a big audience of folks on the left, I've been really impressed with the growing number of people from the right who find their way into my email inbox, telling me how much they appreciate that someone who they agree with on all the issues was being listened with by someone like me."

Not everyone who takes issue with Marron's work is from the right, he says — he has plenty of detractors on the left as well.

But no matter where people may fall on the political spectrum, Marron believes there's a lot at stake if people can't talk to each other about their views.

"I do think we're at a dire place right now where actually what we need is conversation and empathy — and not the insatiable desire to shut down [others'] point of view of seeing the world," he says.

"Because it kind of only divides us further."

To hear the full interview with Dylan Marron, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

Annie Bender

This story was written and produced by Annie Bender, an associate producer at Day 6. She's also worked with q, As it Happens, Cross-Country Checkup, CBC Arts and CBC KW's The Morning Edition.