Not as smart as we think.
Have you ever noticed how easy it is to get stuck in a pattern of thinking?
If you’re self-aware, you might find that you rationalize yourself into a corner.
We tend to turn beliefs and assumptions into logic, which gets us stuck.
In no place is this more evident than when we want to influence others. (See: Adam Grant’s work on assumptions.)
Try using logic to move someone off of their belief and see how poorly this works.
I’ve never heard of someone changing a fundamental belief because they were given some facts that changed their mind.
In fact, the opposite is actually true.
The 1956 book When Prophecy Fails is about a UFO cult that chose to rationalize the fact that their mothership didn’t come to get them at the pre-ordained time, rather than accept the possibility that their beliefs might be wrong.
Maybe you read that sentence and said to yourself, “Well, there’s no accounting for what stupid people will believe.”
Well, how about this?
In the mid 2000s two professors (one from Dartmouth and one from University of Exeter) performed a study that helped to reveal a psychological phenomenon called the “backfire effect.” This is an excerpt from the Scientific American article I linked above. (Scientific American, By Michael Shermer on )
For example, subjects were given fake newspaper articles that confirmed widespread misconceptions, such as that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When subjects were then given a corrective article that WMD were never found, liberals who opposed the war accepted the new article and rejected the old, whereas conservatives who supported the war did the opposite … and more: they reported being even more convinced there were WMD after the correction, arguing that this only proved that Saddam Hussein hid or destroyed them. In fact, Nyhan and Reifler note, among many conservatives “the belief that Iraq possessed WMD immediately before the U.S. invasion persisted long after the Bush administration itself concluded otherwise.”
Communication as war?
Let’s start with the understanding that nobody changes their way of thinking because someone called them stupid.
Or an asshole.
Or a fascist.
Most of the time, we like to think of these conversations/debates in the same way that we think of war.
“Crush the patriarchy,” or “Destroy racism” are both meant to be inspirational but use action verbs that are inherently war-like.
You force people to either reject their own assumptions or fight for their beliefs when you use these frames in an argument. We force people to choose whether they are on the side of good or evil, and no matter how many facts you show them, they hate to imagine themselves as being on the bad side of an issue.
Much like the UFO cult, most people would rather rationalize and justify than surrender their beliefs.
They tend to reject the whole concept, which only leads to confrontation.
If you are looking for a war, then yes, this language works.
If you want to influence the way people think, then this language fails.
It’s like trying to win an argument with someone by calling them stupid, or ugly.
You might win the crowd, but you will lose the opportunity to change a mind.
We could let go of the illusion that we can change someone’s thinking just with facts.
What if you stopped believing that you could shame someone into changing their beliefs?
What would be possible then?
We live in a moment in history where it seems like we’ve all lost our collective minds.
Kids, little kids, are being murdered in schools, and we as a society seem to be overwhelmed with rage, fear, and cynicism.
The first two often lead to terrible behaviors, and the third to an attitude of apathy or despair.
For a cynic, there are no possibilities for change, unless it’s about them getting worse.
What if we were willing to come together and talk about this from a shared perspective?
Imagine what would be possible if we didn’t try to force a solution on each other, rather we began from a place of shared sorrow and pain?
What might be possible?
The author Ian Leslie talks about the differences between task conflict and relationship conflict in his book Conflicted.
I don’t agree with his take on many things, but I like the way he lays this opportunity out in his book.
Task conflict is about fighting over the how to solve a problem, while relationship conflict is about fighting with the who.
As soon as we are in relationship conflict, we are incapable of dealing with the tasks as a collaborative group. We can’t focus on the task, no matter how badly we all might want to solve it.
When it becomes personal, those who take an oppositional position becomes the “other.”
And “othering” is a way to dehumanize and delegitimize the opposing person.
Human beings have used this tool to justify genocidal slaughter, slavery, and rejection of entire populations of people.
Rather than bring people along, it pushes people into a corner and forces them to either dig in or surrender their power.
Even if it worked, I doubt it would lead to better outcomes.
If we’re going to deconstruct hundreds of years of systemic racism, fundamentally change our relationship to guns and violence, and heal an artificial, media-infused rift between neighbors, then we’re going to have to start seeing each other as human beings.
We’re going to have to look for the human connection in all of us. That will take work, specifically work on ourselves.
Do your work.
As Resmaa Menakem constantly seems to be saying to White people who want to be seen as an ally, do your own darn work. Heal the trauma within you, rather than force that trauma on others.
Stop dehumanizing others and ourselves.
Find a shared goal of shared understanding, stop trying to punish and control, and open up the doorway to what might be possible for us all.
There’s light here, if we’re brave enough to walk towards it.