Column, Opinions

Stop Listening the Demagogues in Your Life

Conversation. It’s so much fun. 

I have always found conversation—both the meaningful and mundane—fascinating. I think there is beauty in it and an art form to it, even in small talk. For example, I personally love hearing how many Res geese you think you can take in a fight.  

At times, small talk even hints at something more meaningful. Let’s say you argue in a casual chat that you can take an infinite number of geese in a fight because once you kill one, the others will run in fear. To me, that reveals something about you—a deeper truth that could expand into a longer conversation, allowing talk to turn into understanding and friendship.

And then there is another form of conversation, and it’s the only type I find shallow. I call it the modern demagogue’s approach—when your answer depends only on how others answer the question.  

In ancient Greece, the term demagogue described a political leader whose stance was whatever the Hoi Polloi, or commoners, believed. These leaders seemed to hold no beliefs of their own, instead expressing the beliefs that appeased the people who kept them in office. Strategic? Maybe. But also lackluster. I too can read a room. I just don’t feel the need to prove it. And this takes us back to the modern-day demagogue. Often waiting to speak, this person has no real answer other than, “oh my gosh, same!” 

With that being said, there is nothing wrong with agreement. But, in keeping with the ancient Greek tradition, it’s in the spaces between agreement and disagreement that conversation can lead to the truest friendships. Hearing, “Oh, I would have done the same thing,” for the 11th time should be a sign that two people just aren’t clicking. 

On the other side of these repetitive, concurring responses, there is the controlling demagogue—a person who will disagree with you 100 percent of the time. This is the person who believes they are always right. This demagogue often forms their opinions from popular contrarians, and their clockwork responses after a disagreement include something along the lines of, “Nah. You’re wrong.” Sometimes, they might even bother to add a follow-up and explain why you’re entirely, fundamentally wrong. And this is where I often find myself biting my tongue—because I just want to scream that there is beauty in respectful disagreement. 

In high school, my friends and I participated in a now infamous debate: Would you rather fight a lion or a Tasmanian devil? I said I would take the former whereas they all insisted on fighting the latter. Their response, “Connell, what is wrong with you?” I explained that Tasmanian devils are both too quick and too ruthless for me to square up against one of them. They said I could just kick it, to which I fired back with facts on how lions can be compassionate animals. 

After much, much debate, my friends never told me I was wrong. Crazy? Maybe. But not wrong. We agreed to disagree, and it was in this agreement that I saw not only the beauty of conversation, but also my true friends. Norty, Matt, and Will ultimately respected my beliefs, even though it was a decision they could not see themselves ever making. 

Similar to the demagogues of ancient Greece, today’s demagogues aren’t so original. The modern demagogue either forcefully shuts you down at every turn or agrees with you to an exhausting degree. They don’t challenge those around them enough, and they don’t push anyone to be their truest selves. Not only does the combination of disagreement and agreement make conversation so much more meaningful, but it also pushes us to respect one another. So, be your best self, speak up, and stop letting the demagogues in your life silence you or worthwhile conversations.

October 1, 2023