A Handy Guide For Dealing With Your QAanon Relatives This Thanksgiving
Ah, Thanksgiving! It's that special time of year when people all across America get together with their wacky relatives. For some of you, that may mean actually coming face to face not only with real live actual Trump supporters, but with the sort of people who actually believe that someone (possibly JFK Jr.!) or a team of someones from Donald Trump's administration is sending out messages on 4chan meant for them to "decode." And they may want to talk to you about this. Yikes!
But luckily, I have some tips for you, gleaned from my many years now of covering this stuff, reading and writing about other cults, not being invited into a sex cult that one time, and having a mother who routinely had to talk me out of things like my plan to be a vaudeville performer on the Orpheum Circuit at age 9, or my insistence that I didn't have to do my 7th grade algebra homework because I was going to live in a VW Bus and be a folk singer (a talk-down surprisingly hinged on Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed.)
Now, hypothetically, I could run this on one tip alone — run, don't talk, avoid at all costs! And if that is all you have the spoons to do, then by all means, do that. Lots of people have chosen to go this route, resulting in a number of (admittedly hilarious) social media postings from QAnon people about their Dorito-and-Bologna-sandwich-laden Thanksgiving dinners.
However! Maybe it's just not in you to do that. Maybe you're still holding out hope that you can get Uncle Larry to snap out of it. This is for you.
First, Understand That This Is Pretty Much A Cult
There's a charismatic "leader" taking advantage of lonely people who desperately want to believe that they are special, promising them that a glorious day is coming when all of their predictions will be proven true, and all of their enemies will be rounded up and killed and all non-believers will come to the believers begging for forgiveness, shocked to discover they were wrong all this time.
That is not too different from promising that the Hale-Bopp comet is coming to take them to the "The Evolutionary Level Above Human," or telling them that the world is going to end on a specific date. But what really seals the deal on it being a cult is the fact that it separates followers from anyone in their lives who might question the wisdom of dear leader.
As bad as it is that this Q person or persons has people convinced that Donald Trump's spelling errors hold secret meaning, that Hillary Clinton and friends eat babies to get high off of their adrenal glands, and that they will soon get to delight in watching everyone they've ever hated rounded up and killed in military tribunals ... the cruelest thing they've done is making these people so repulsive that no one else wants anything to do with them. Like, you know whoever is behind this is just some idiot internet troll who thinks it's hilarious to convince Aunt Barbara that she's basically Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code, and even if these people are already kind of terrible, that is a truly sadistic thing to do.
It's tempting to cut off all communication with these people and isolate them in hopes that they will miss you so much that they will abandon this ridiculous conspiracy theory. But the first thing anyone with any expertise on cults will tell you is that keeping lines of communication open is probably the most important way you can give people a fighting chance to get out.
Understand What Is So Appealing About It
One of my favorite sayings from my mom is "People will love you for the way you make them feel about themselves." This a great thing to remember when you are a teenager feeling like everyone else is constantly looking for things that are wrong with you, but it is also a thing that can be severely abused, and that is being abused by this QAnon person (and by Donald Trump himself).
This whole thing makes people feel extremely good — and it feels especially good to people who are lonely and who don't feel like other people think they are smart. Q tells these people they are intrepid, brilliant researchers doing something of incredible importance that is going to change the world, and the rest of the world thinks they are idiots. If you were them, who would you want to hang around with?
One of the big things for QAnon people is "Where We Go One We Go All." In fact, without that saying, it probably wouldn't be the phenomenon it is today. People love feeling included, they love feeling like they are part of a group, they love joining clubs, they love feeling like they know something other people don't know. They love going to YouTube videos mentioned in Q's missives and slyly writing "Q sent me" in the comments.
We can understand this impulse in our own ways. Anyone who was an outcast in school knows how tight the bonds are with "the only people who understand you." Any activist or idealist knows how awesome it feels to be part of a "movement" that wants to change things. People, basically, are not that different.
If They Don't Bring It Up, Don't Mention It Yourself
Yes, you could get some really good material this way, but it's important to remind someone in a cult that they are more than their weird ass beliefs. Try to have a conversation with them about something they are good at, ask them for advice on something, give them a reason to feel important and valued. Try to get them to laugh and enjoy themselves. Getting positive feedback for something other than positing theories on Satanic child molestation in non-existent pizza parlor basements also gives them a door out.
When people become involved with cults or obsessed with conspiracy theories, that becomes their whole identity — which is part of what makes people most afraid to leave them behind. You may even notice that the way your friend or relative talks, writes, or behaves has changed. This is what experts call a "cult personality." Think of the way Scientologists all seem to talk the same way, or the way Trump's most devoted fans have adopted his syntax and verbal tics. By talking to them normally, they're more likely to see that this doesn't have to be their life or their identity, and that they have value outside of that.
But If They Do Bring It Up...
So here's the thing about this whole QAnon deal — it's almost entirely online, which means that those involved almost never have to say the things they believe out loud, to people who do not believe in those things. That means they don't have to get specific, they can use shorthand. It's also excruciatingly complicated. I read about it all the time and I barely understand what they are on about. Most of them probably don't know either. They just know they like being "in" on something. You can use this to your advantage.
Sometimes, all you have to do to get someone to realize they are onto something stupid is to get them to keep talking. This is my mother's most evil trick, and as incredibly annoying as it was to grow up with when you are just trying to be a normal, overdramatic teenager, it works.
The number one rule of this trick, according to my mother, is that you can't just let them toss out some ridiculous statement and let it pass. You have to go all in and keep asking sincere-sounding questions, while appearing very genuinely interested. "I hadn't heard about that, tell me more!" or "Oh wow, and how do you know this?" or "Have you considered going to the police about all this baby eating?" or "So how do you figure out what things symbolize?"
For instance, if they try to toss out something like "We just trust the plan" — one of their favorite sayings — ask them what the plan is. But you can't be condescending and most of all, you cannot argue or get combative. That just makes them dig their feet in further and reaffirms their persecution complex. You just want them to explain, while you just keep eating your dinner. At some point, and you can hear it in their voice or see their eyes start to dart, they start to actually hear themselves talking and you can tell that they would give anything to stop talking. They may even look like they are about to crack up. It is at this point that you kindly let them off the hook and say "Wow, well, I'll have to look into that!" Or, if you are their parent, you can say "How much money will you give me to let you stop talking right now?"
It is both entertaining and extremely effective — and it works for practically any stupid shit anyone can come up with. It is, however, a lot of work that you may not feel like doing on Thanksgiving. The one thing you really, really don't want to do though, even if you can't do this, is argue with them or think you can talk them out of believing this crazy shit or change their mind with "facts" or "reason." Because you can't.
Anyway, I hope that was helpful and that, ideally, you all have delightful Thanksgivings free of of this bullshit!
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Previously, she was a Senior Staff Writer at Death & Taxes, and Assistant Editor at The Frisky (RIP). Currently, she writes for Wonkette, Friendly Atheist, Quartz and other sites. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse