Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Persuade the Bystanders

This post has to do with social justice – you know, topics like privilege, racism, sexism, classism, ablism, and all the other ignorant and/or hatey "isms" worth railing against. I'll get to those in a second.

In the early 90s, while arguing politics on BBS message boards, I realized an important truth that I've carried with me always:

When people argue in public, they will almost never convince one another. But they do influence the lurkers. 

WWIV message boards
My view of the world when I
learned this important life lesson 
Sometimes the persuasion is instant. Now and then a lurker will timidly post and reveal that their minds have been changed. But most keep this fact to themselves. More often, the change is slow. These lurkers continue to follow similar arguments, until eventually, they are swayed by whichever side has collectively made the best case. I myself have drastically changed my mind on deeply held beliefs in this way, both by debating and merely watching debates. I've also seen it happen to other people. But it's rarely instant.

It's hard to know that these neutral and persuadable lurkers exist. They are, by their nature, quiet. Very often, though not always, the more vocal a person is, the less likely they are to be convinced. So we tend to think everyone who doesn't use a megaphone is just like everyone who does. This is not true.

I think about the topic of persuasion alot. I'm a writer. It's my job to persuade. I also love debate, a casual pastime since childhood. Roland makes a wonderful and challenging debate partner to help me better understand what works and what doesn't. On top of all that, I've studied mind control, otherwise known as "coercive persuasion" – the ability of manipulators to convince people against their will.

I've learned about why people believe things, and what factors make people change their minds, and why people sometimes never will, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Cognitive Dissonance is the mechanism we all employ to either accept or reject new ideas. It can be a very powerful barrier to persuading others that our position is correct. Cognitive dissonance is the source of all closed minds. There are ways around it – both ethical and unethical. I am more concerned with ethical persuasion.

I consider myself an activist. Anyone who publicly advocates for social justice, is, in my opinion, an activist. I am a woman and I have what some might call an invisible disability. In all other areas, I am privileged, but I consider myself an ally against racism and other hateful thought systems. I firmly believe that everyone has a different life experience, and it is generally best to never dismiss anyone's position out of hand until I've done my utmost to understand – even if I don't agree.

Social media has opened a new door for activists. It allows the voices of oppressed individuals and classes be heard by all kinds of people who were previously isolated. The internet democratizes the population by giving everyone a printing press and a megaphone. It's a beautiful thing. And every activist, whether they know it or not, is in a position to persuade.

This guy is just like you. Everyone is listening.
Choose well what you will say.
Presumably, our goal is to make society better. To reduce hate. To eliminate ignorance. To eliminate unfairness. To prevent harm and prosecute those who hurt others. To pass laws that create the most equal playing fields for all people. Everyone should have the same opportunities for success, regardless of outward differences that so many in our society tend to get hung up on. I want everyone to be treated with respect, even if they're a different color, or gender, or disabled, or attracted to the same gender, or all the other things I've failed to list here.

In a democracy, the best way to accomplish all of those goals is to be persuasive. Activism, when done right, is persuasive. Anything else is just preaching to the choir – it feels good, but nothing gets done.

Given that, there are certain trends I see among activists that disturb me for two reasons:

  1. I don't consider these methods ethical. 
  2. These methods are not persuasive.

The Outrage Machine is constantly producing new horrors to raise outrage. Sometimes I believe this machine is persuasive, and other times I don't. Sometimes I think it is counter-persuasive. And that concerns me. Because I'd like to see society improve. I'd like to employ the best tactics.

So when I apply my mind to social justice activism, the question often is, "How could this message be more convincing? How can it reach more people and change minds?" Sometimes, I speak up about tactics. And when I do, my views are controversial, often because they're mistaken for taking up the other side's position, or being an apologetic, or dismissing someone's views, or perhaps not being enough of a cheerleader for our side, nor supportive enough of the cheerleaders we have.

None of those are my goals. I'm not dismissing anyone. I am not being an apologist for the other side. I am not defending horrible behavior. I am merely goal-oriented and thinking about the best ways to achieve the goals that all online social justice activists share – more fairness and equality and tolerance for all.

So here's my controversial statement of the day, and I hope you'll hear me out. Allow me to persuade you before immediately dismissing my argument. Please know I understand the counter-arguments and have given this alot of thought.

I've seen a certain sentiment echoed via Twitter and the blogosphere, usually coming from an underprivileged person directed at a privileged person (i.e. woman or POC or disabled or trans* directed at a man or white person or cis), and it goes something like: "It's not my job to educate you!" It is often delivered in an angry or dismissive or antagonistic tone.

In terms of accomplishing the above goals, it is entirely counterproductive.

Yes, I do understand where this sentiment comes from. Especially when, say, a feminist of color has been asked 50,000 times by hostile racist misogynists to explain why she's so upset, and she's given the answer 49,999 times, and she's being asked to speak for her entire race and sex to flaming assholes who aren't listening anyway. Her anger is entirely justified. As is her weariness in the face of this seemingly Sisyphean task. It is true, in fact, that Google is just a fingertip away, and all ignorance about any topic can be quickly dissolved like salt in water.

The endless questions themselves can be a rhetoric tool used to dismiss, belittle, and aggravate. So why waste even two seconds talking to those jerks?

I get all that, I really do. 

And I understand the double-bind. As a woman, I can choose to be labeled a bitch, or let people walk all over me. I am not allowed a middle ground. Similar thought-terminating cliches are employed to double-bind people of all other oppressed classes. I am not suggesting the answer is passivity and eternal politeness, bowing and scraping. Far from it.

And most especially, I understand that most oppressed people have no interest in activism and just want to live their lives without being bothered. They just want to be accepted as average and normal and don't want to go around thinking about their orientation, disability, or skin color. They just want to live. In this latter case, I think the "It's not my job" answer is most appropriate – it isn't your job.

But as activists and advocates, you actually have taken on the job. Maybe you only want it to be part time, but it's your job. By speaking up, you volunteered. It's a tough job, but worth doing.

No, it's not your job to educate the hostile instigator of controversy or the timeline troll who is just trying to raise everyone's hackles. That guy will never be convinced by anything you have to say. It's true. He is so enmired in his beliefs and has made public declarations of it, so his cognitive dissonance is nearly impenetrable. It is likely that when the world changes completely into a social utopia dreamworld, he will go to his grave willfully ignorant and hating.

Alas, educational and persuasive words are not meant for him. Your efforts are meant for the bystanders, the dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands of quiet lurkers. They're out there, neutral, or ignorant, or perhaps a bit racist or a bit sexist or any other *ist, but they don't feel too strongly about it. Not enough to join the argument. But they're curious, and they're watching each player make a case.

Pretend today the Outrage Machine has identified a new controversy and brought it to the rapt attention of the information-obsessed internet. Someone gets wrongly fired from a job, or groped at a con, or catcalled, or outed, or harassed, or murdered. Some person in power says something stupid, and advocates reply, and anti-advocates reply back and everyone's in an uproar for a few days. This is the chance to convince that silent neutral ignorant majority. They are all near the fence. They think sexism is over, or transwomen are just confused, or bisexuals don't exist, or Muslims are more protected than Christians, or any black kid has it coming because no one gets shot unless they deserve it, or whatever ignorant thing they believe. This is the chance of advocates to convince those bystanders.

I believed many of those things once. And over time, effective arguments finally got to me. Advocates finally educated me. And not usually because I sought the information out on my own. Usually because people kept pointing me in the right direction.

That's the point of publicity. You hold a megaphone, just for a few minutes. You've gotten someone's attention. In this age of the information firehose, that's the hard part. Now how are you going to most effectively use it?

Even the small-time advocate who doesn't have a big platform, who rarely says much of anything, has a huge opportunity to convince these silent types, because their followers are their friends and family. We are much more influential to those who know us and like us personally. Yes, those Facebook debates are frustrating, because no one seems to listen, but the silent readers are paying attention.

This is how the most recent victories in marriage equality were won. A majority of the mainstream public was swayed, not through anger and righteous indignation, but through family members who came out of the closet and stood gentle yet firm on their rights to be gay and to love and commit to who they wanted. Eventually, few loving family members could imagine a world where government would bar their happy union.

Injustices happen every moment of every day. Outrage can spark quite an inflagration of justifiable anger that sadly, too often, turns to hostility, or ostracism, or shaming, or personal attacks, or blatant logical fallacies. And when this happens, you've lost the moral high-ground. You have ceased being persuasive to that silent, neutral, convincible audience. And then it doesn't matter how right you are. Because anyone who might have been listening will turn against your position. The opponent wins an easy victory. Score one for the trolls.

Even more tragic and destructive is when misdirected anger scares away fellow advocates and allies – even those in the same category as you (fellow women, POCs, LGBTs, etc). These are people who are already convinced of your position and want to help. They observe this open hostility and feel judged or lumped in with the haters because of a slight variance in opinion. They may already be marginalized by being themselves in the oppressed class, and now they feel marginalized further by activists who claim to be advocating on their behalf. They may become terrified to say anything, lest it be the wrong thing, lest your irate gaze turn instead on them. Intersectional individuals are even more at risk for this type of dismissal and marginalization.

I myself have been in this position amongst my fellow feminists, sometimes for defending intersectional classes (like advocating trans rights to rad fems), and sometimes because my opinion on tactics differed. (I'm generally against boycotts, for instance.) I'm fine with people disagreeing with me, but I've also been actively shamed for holding these and other stances. Shaming, threatened ostracization, and personal attacks go too far.

This type of hostility makes it frightening for fellow advocates to contribute to the discussion. For instance, it made me hesitant to write this post. Thankfully, I'm the type of person who doesn't like to be silenced in the face of fear. Others are understandably more timid.

We need more diversity among our voices, not less. And more tolerance. Don't we believe that both diversity and tolerance lead to a better world? We need all the allies and advocates we can get, waving the banner, even if some choose to wave it differently than you. Punch upward, at the system, at the oppressors, at the powerful, at the bad guys. Don't punch sideways at the ally standing next to you just because she's easier to hit.

Oppressed people have much to be angry about, and I would never rob them of their anger. Anger is a valuable emotion. It motivates and feeds energy into individuals and groups and causes. I am not advocating for less anger – I am suggesting that those energies be channeled persuasively to produce the most positive outcomes.

(And in the moment of offense, especially when there is no audience, untamed anger very much has its place in defending individuals against in-progress assault or insult. I am not suggesting passivity or politeness when rights need to be asserted to a hostile *ist who insults and then demands to know why it was insulting. Since you likely will never convince him, that's the time to growl and spit, to say it's not your job, and to gently or not-so-gently direct him to Google. Or not. Depends on you and the situation.)

Updated to add: Sally Kohn puts it another way in her TED talk, "Let's Try Emotional Correctness".

And Mattie Brice recently wrote about anger in protesting the video games industry, suggesting we put behind us the demeaning hostility in 2013.

It's true that maintaining the moral high-ground can be exhausting. We can't do it all the time. Sometimes I tweet or blog my opinions. Sometimes I advocate. Sometimes I give the long answer.

And other times, I'm busy, I just direct people to others who have written more eloquently than I. Think about it: If, instead of saying, "Correcting your ignorance is not my responsibility," you suggest a well-known educational website or blog post on the topic, like Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. You not only give that hostile person a chance at graceful, face-saving redemption, but more importantly, it's another opportunity to distribute that content to every single one of your other followers, many whom may have missed that particular blog post, or have never been exposed to content that you think is obvious because you read it a decade ago.

There is much to be said for "brand awareness", a tactic commercial marketers understand well. Every chance you have to retweet the same link to yet another person asking the same questions, your other followers will begin to see that content as legitimate and worth consuming. Maybe they meant to read it last month, and have forgotten. You're making it easy for them to educate themselves and maybe even join the cause.

Other times, the good fight becomes overwhelming. It's exhausting to be outraged all the time. That's when I take a break and let others pick up the banner. Sometimes I do this because I am far too emotional to think clearly. I'd rather sit out the Outrage Machine's churning than say something that loses points for my side. Because I want my team to win. It is possible to communicate "It's not my job" in a way that doesn't detract from the overall argument or your future ability to be persuasive. Like, "I don't have time to answer that right now. Could you please google 'cis privilege' on your own?" Or just remain silent. That gives the hostile troll the last word, but most likely, it will reflect worse on him than you.

It's true that my white, cis, thin, mostly-abled, * privilege gives me the luxury to sit alot of these out, a privilege not everyone may have. I realize that I live relatively free from various kinds of hostility that lets me take these breaks. It's a little easier for me, perhaps, to go on an anger diet, to step away from the keyboard when emotions run too high. In many ways, this might be "easy for me to say". I still think these suggestions are tactically the most effective, and worth employing whenever possible.

In the end, we all have our own journey and our own idea of what's right and wrong. It's your social media platform, so please, do with it what you will. But hopefully, I've been just a bit persuasive here.

Let's go out and change the world.


  1. Thank you for writing this, you have shared some great insights and given us a lot to consider... I hope many do ponder on what you have shared. It is a lot to take in, but I think it is an excellent post.

    Interesting, I just wrote a post before I read this one and I shared the same video by Sally Kohn. :-)

    1. Thanks! :)

      The TED Talk is no coincidence. I noticed it in your post and found it very appropriate. Ok, maybe you posting it around the same time I was writing this was a coincidence. But you definitely helped me find it. :)

  2. I recognise a lot of what you're saying. It's one of the reasons why on my own blog, I never let a comment go unanswered when I disagree with that person. Not because I want to change that person's mind (although that would be a bonus), but to show the readers of my blog that commenters will not get away with shit like that.

    It's also why I responded very politely to a commenter on someone else's blog, disagreeing with what they said but also acknowledging their problems and questions, hopefully making them or people following the discussion sit up and take notice, while posting my not-polite, not-acknowledging, ripping-to-shreds reply on my own blog, for my own followers. Because if I had to get angry somewhere, better to do it among people I wouldn't alienate as quickly.

    I was curious about your first point though, about some of the tactics employed by advocates being unethical. The non-effectiveness is clear and I completely agree on that account.

    1. Yes, I almost always reply as well. On twitter, too. I believe in engaging whenever I have the resources to do so.

      I believe that shaming and ostracization is unethical. It is healthy to exclude someone from the group when that person is unsafe, i.e. banning a harasser from a con, but all other forms of ostracization are a form of coercion, not only for the person you're ostracizing, but those observers who are then motivated out of fear to never publicly disagree.

      Shame is a poor motivator for change. Usually instead it leads to people hiding who they are or their behavior. It is antithetical to transparency, where real change can occur via open discussion. Shame is the feeling "I am bad" vs. guilt which is the feeling "I've done something bad." I wrote about this as it relates to autism:

      Us. vs them thinking is also unethical. It dehumanizes people who don't agree, and again is coercive. It shuts down thinking and closes off dialog.

      Any tactic that tries to change others through intimidation, dehumanization, fear, shame, or deception, is unethical in my opinion. Ethical persuasion comes through patience, reason, respect, and eventually mutual understanding. If you can't persuade using those tools, then the persuasion isn't worth it, especially in the social justice spheres, because you're become as bad as your opponents when you employ the same coercive tactics they use.

      Hope that explains it. :)