As I engage with people on Twitter and Facebook, promoting everything from gun control to hope to Buddhism to anti-capitalism to anarchism, I am finding that virtually everyone has an opinion and they are overwhelmingly negative.
So many Twitter feeds are full only of confronting the other side. Expressing anger, pointing to facts that they imagine somehow will transform the entire discussion.
This kind of activism does need to happen, of course. People do need to be convinced. Sometimes someone is unaware that a problem exists. Other times, a partisan may be convinced to change their position to some degree by new data.
Still, you can enter these spaces online (and offline) and feel that you’re in a noise chamber. Everyone is yelling, no one is changing opinions, and you simply back away from the acrimony.
See, there’s two few basic assumptions at work here, all of which need to be challenged because they are not only inaccurate but so obviously inaccurate as to be clearly greatly flawed cognitions.
#1: People just don’t understand that there’s a problem. If they understood the problem to a greater level of granularity or just understood the magnitude, they’d act.
#2: If I just keep yelling about the problem, I’ll engage other people. I’ll totally change their mind. It just takes one factoid, one time we interact with them. And if their mind doesn’t change, they’re idiots or ideologues.
Anyone who has actually had to work with real human beings knows that these are both false assumptions. They are utterly misplaced and deeply dangerous.
I have never met a single person who has asked me, “Fred, you keep seeming to mention these bad things. I can’t think of something in this world that needs fixing; why don’t you direct me to them?”
Pick up a newspaper, read a blog, or just talk to your friends and you’ll perceive a dozen things to fix.
Maybe a conservative might see different problems from a liberal. Maybe someone with a political science background will approach an issue from a different paradigm than someone with a psychological background. But no one on the planet isn’t aware that there are serious problems in the world.
Here is one of those truths that is at once horrifying and liberating: There is no amount of granularity you can give a problem that will inspire action. There is no magnitude that will prompt a response.
If someone is about to face execution and there is nothing they can do, they are very likely to simply eat their last meal and try to enjoy their last days.
Getting social change to happen is not a matter of telling someone about some problem, whether it’s gun violence, homelessness, discrimination, racism, or war.
It’s a matter of lowering the psychological and practical barriers to action. Fear, anger, selfishness, apathy… they all have to be dealt with.
It’s a matter of inspiring people to have hope.
I have found that the same processes that I have used to encourage people suffering from serious pain to hope again, to try to seek out professional care and support groups, to acknowledge a problem and work on it, are the processes that will engage people to act.
As for the second assumption, there is a great sense of entitlement in just thinking that if someone hears some incredibly novel or witty characterization of the problem that they’ll come to your way of thinking.
It does happen. But if someone changes their opinion on a truly important issue because of one tweet or blog post of mine, I will get worried about their mental health.
People don’t just adopt their opinions because of FOX News, or because of bad high school education. They adopt perspectives because of entire lifetimes that make those perspectives resonate with experience.
That means it takes time, and trust, to transform the way that they think.
In an upcoming chapter of Skillful Means, I discuss the idea of finding the shortest route to psychological change. We have to have the humility and patience to operate from within someone else’s framework and convince them that, even within their framework, they should change their belief. If we want to make a Christian accept evolution as a hypothesis, it is simply not skillful or appropriate to begin with trying to make them hardcore atheists. Maybe we can just try to convince them that the Catholic Church accepts divinely guided evolution.
But here’s the upside to all of this.
If you have a great alternative, it doesn’t matter what side someone is on. They can embrace it.
I am a pareconist and anarchist. I don’t like capitalism. I look at the costs of capitalism, from ecological damage to the promotion of war to the way that the market tears down everything sacred to the way that people in markets are effectively bought and sold, and reject it.
But if there were no better alternative, if all I could do was have capitalism as it currently was or replace it for a Stalinist dungeon or feudalism, I would be forced to accept those flaws. As Michael Albert has pointed out, I’d have to accept it like someone has to accept gravity.
Conversely, someone can love capitalism. They can love the benefits that they perceive it has, rightly or wrongly.
But if I pitch them parecon, and they find that parecon has all the benefits they like and advantages in addition, it doesn’t matter anymore. Now they are compelled to accept parecon. And with a proper engagement, that moral and logical compulsion can become a psychological commitment.
I work on drawing someone a picture of the future they’d like to wake up in. When it comes to parecon, I try to make them think how nice it’d be to come to a workplace where everyone all participated as equals, where everyone had a fair mix of tasks, where no one was forced to do the “bitch work” as it is so often put. I try to make them imagine what it’d be like to be able to decide what happened at their office instead of passively waiting for misinformed memoranda from above that was not based in an understanding of what happened on the ground. I try to make this as concrete as possible.
What all this means is simple:
Always, always try to focus on the positive.
Ask yourself, “Would anyone who isn’t already on my side totally buy this argument? What aspects of their worldview might prevent them from engaging with this? What facts might I be assuming that they may honestly not know, and not have really gotten a chance to learn? Am I using any jargon that might turn them off?” (Yes, like parecon, which is why I tried to explain some above).
All of my favorite political activists did this. Dr. King, Noam Chomsky, Tim Wise, Barbara Ehrenreich, Peggy Mcintosh, Michael Albert, Howard Zinn… they all were (or are) positive people. They vary tremendously in terms of approach, style and belief, but they all try to give specifics that engage people.
Think of the people who truly inspire you. Are they really the angry polemicists? Or are they the people with a vision that made you think the world could be better?
Above all, have faith that tomorrow can be better than today. Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Dr. King, Barack Obama, and Gandhi, all incredibly different and even opposed people, all believed that it was the people who were crazy enough to see the world change who would actually see it do so.
True change requires the terrifying moment of having faith in someone else’s nobility, that they can transcend their prejudices and accept a better way. It even requires having our own humility to know that our own idea of the better way will change over time. I understand why so many people would prefer to snipe across party lines, ensconced in safe fortresses of ideology.
It just won’t lead to a sunrise over a better world.