A tutorial for reaching across the aisle

Published by marco on

In response to a link to the article and video Why Trump supporters stand by debunked claim (CNN) and the ensuing comments, I posted the following discussion.

Initial remarks

The citations below are from the aforementioned comments.

  • “Ill-informed” <> Stupid
  • “Their feeling that they are getting screwed”: It’s not just a feeling, though, is it? Isn’t it more accurate to say that they *have noticed* that things are going from bad to worse. They understandably want to make things better. They grasp at straws; they believe things that are not true. Don’t we all?
  • “Truth is liberals are terrible at marketing”: I think there are more than a few liberals in the ad game. And then there’s the propaganda on liberal TV, like MSNBC or CNN. We may think that those aren’t marketing anything because they tell only the unvarnished truth. Or are they *so good that we don’t even notice it’s marketing?*. Mind blown. Obama is ostenisbly a liberal. He won not only the presidency but also “Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008”
  • “It may be that we have to let it run its course.” That’s the spirit! Vive la Revolution! I note also that you wrote “when people lose their health care” because we all implicitly know that *other people* will be affected, at least in the short term. We are, for the most part, safe. That’s why status quo is so appealing. Because it’s working pretty well…for us.
  • I found the interviewer from CNN to be so patronizing that I couldn’t watch more than a quarter of the segment. That kind of stuff is counter-productive for helping people learn to make more informed decisions. It’s just elite onanism.

Request for clarification

To this, I received an insightful response that concluded with the following request.

“I’m interested in what you think could be done to convey facts to people without being or seeming elitist. Correcting someone when they’re just straight up wrong is never popular even when the stakes are low.”

I obliged with the following response.

Explaining the Unknown Other

Attention: failure to “condense complex information into soundbites that people can repeat.”[1]

I know it’s obvious, but I have to start with this: you won’t convince anyone they’re wrong by just telling them that they’re wrong.

If your viewpoints are really that divergent, you won’t be able to prove to them that they’re mistaken. Not without a lot of work.

You have to present information and help them find a way of assimilating it while saving face. In effect, you have to help them find a way to believe that they were never wrong in the first place while at the same time now believing the thing that you want them to believe, which is also the exact opposite of what they believed yesterday.

Not a mean feat.

Making a face that screams “I can’t believe you believe something so stupid and wrongheaded” (like the CNN interviewer) is obviously wrong. Condescension in general only helps you feel better about yourself. With it, you signal that you think the other person is a lost cause.

It’s about empathy, I think. Start with assuming that the person functions rationally. They may not behave rationally because they’re really, really bad at chaining together data, but their opinions came from *somewhere*. They might be misinformed—perhaps drastically so—but they are probably reacting to something real, some real problem in their lives. Their problem-solving is atrocious, but that is an opportunity to get them on your side. (Which is hopefully the side of logic and “reality”, whatever that is.)

On that note, another important tool is self-doubt. Doubt your information as much as you doubt theirs. Doubt your information *with* them. This is not to say that everything is up in the air. But sometimes you’ve worked years to build up opinions and a storehouse of information. It took you a lot of soul-searching and flip-flopping to get where you are. And then you present your current knowledge as a finished package and expect others to just accept it.

Why? Because you’re so smart? Sometimes that works, if they know you and know how damned smart you are. In my experience, even that is rarely enough. You have to convince them. That means that you have to take the time to show them how you got where you are. You can’t seriously just expect them to adopt your beliefs just … because… (You’re smarter? Your sources aren’t full of lies? Would that sound convincing to you were the situation reversed?)

You will have completely differently sources of information than they do. Show them that you know that your sources are also not 100% unvarnished, unbiased truth. You have to work to find common ground. You can guide them, but you have to let them lead the way. And if you see that they’re going somewhere interesting that you haven’t been before, roll with it. You might learn something. They’re not 100% wrong. Hell, there are more than enough real grievances in America that you can use as a common platform on which to build a solution.

If you let them see that you’re also in doubt, that can help. If you have no doubts about what you know, then you’re just as hopeless as they are.

So, the lady in the video (that I only watched for 15 seconds). She was yelling about 3 million illegal immigrants voting Democrat in California. First off, recognize that this discussion is an utter distraction for everyone involved. California was going Democrat anyway. It doesn’t matter. The only reason this is on TV is to show smug liberals how much smarter they are than the flyover-state folks. That kind of stuff sells like hotcakes and you can smash a bunch of ads for overpriced smartphones in there. Contributing to a reasonable conversation isn’t part of the plan. Distracting everyone from such conversations *is*.

The first step in talking to that lady—hell, in talking to anyone—is to empathize. You have to walk them back down the road of their opinions until you get to a place where you have common ground, where you can see where she might be coming from.

Why would she be up in arms about illegals? Because they’re taking jobs. This is true. They are terrible jobs, but jobs nonetheless. Are they also getting health care? Yes, some of them, some form of health care. Because we are not a nation of monsters. (Let’s let that assumption stand despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary.)

Why are those things a problem? Because, despite the protestations of the “real” media, the economy never recovered from 2008 for most people. Hell, most people never benefited from the “boom” leading up to 2008 since the last crash in 2000, the dotcom boom from which only a select few benefited … and so on.

At any rate, in 2016, there are not enough good jobs around. The jobs that are available are terrible and don’t pay well. And there aren’t even enough of those. Nor does it seem like anyone has a plan for creating the kind of jobs anyone wants to do for an extended period. There is no plan for long-term security, just dog-eat-dog struggle and let the market pick winners. That’s worked out for me, but I recognize that it doesn’t scale.

This is a real, legitimate problem. Well, what’s the liberal response? Educate yourself to a better job! Go to college! Everybody can be white-collar and above-average! Engage in the political process and make a change!

This rings hollow when you can’t keep your head above water, when you know these exhortations to improve don’t apply to you. You don’t want to go to college, you just want a job that doesn’t kill you and lets you feed your kids. How can you “engage” in local politics when you’re working two shift-jobs? Or when you’re hustling the whole time to find a job or make ends meet? When the only jobs are at check-cashing places or prisons? It’s not an insurmountable dilemma, but a solution is neither obvious nor easy. Making it sound like it is is condescending and unproductive.

Or we liberals want to provide entitlements and support programs—all great ideas, in my opinion—but without providing a way of letting people accept this kind of help without the associated stigma. Our society strongly associates worth and personal value with work, with labor. If you don’t have a job, you’re nothing. You don’t earn your keep. We’re now already deep into a world in which it’s no longer feasible to talk about full employment but the stigma of freeloading is still paramount. Those most affected see others taking entitlements and hate them. But they can’t then take the same benefits without sacrificing their entire world-view. People are hypocrites, but there are limits.

This is intractable. The solutions offered by liberals are pie-in-the-sky bullshit and flimflam (partially true)[2], so people lash out against others, against anyone that they’ve been told is the cause of their misery.

This deep problem can’t be fixed without serious restructuring and soul-searching by everyone involved. It’s going to take a lot of work.


[1] This refers to the same commenter having noted that “[Obama] has not been good at promoting the positive things that have been accomplished during his presidency and he is not good at condensing complex information into sound bites that people can repeat.”
[2]

It’s not just liberals who can be condescending. To draw an example at random, here’s one from the article Highlights from the comments thread on school choice by Scott Alexander (Slate Star Codex) discusses food deserts below.

“There’s a defensible version of the term [food deserts], which is that in very poorly planned car-centered zoning-regulated cities without good public transportation it’s not always possible for someone without a car to easily get to the stores they want, but just posing the problem that way makes the solution pretty obvious.”

Yes, the solution is obvious: rebuild American society in a completely different way than it is currently structured. No more suburbs and don’t require people to have to provide themselves with a transportation infrastructure in order to feed their families. Done. Easy-peasy.

You’re not helping.