The Good That We Can Do

Several recent studies have shown that one of the biggest problems we face politically isn’t based on information or ideology, but rather, psychology.  Because even if someone is exposed to information that shows their position on a particular issue or set of issues to be wrong, foolish, untrue, etc., odds are they still won’t change their mind.  In fact, these studies have shown that when proven wrong, most people actually tend to double down on what it is they already believe.

When I first heard this, it made me furious: what the hell’s the point of democracy anyway, if people don’t use information to make intelligent decisions?  I mean, if we’re collectively just a bunch of stubborn, ignorant, provincial assholes that believe whatever makes us feel good, even if we KNOW we’re wrong, then we’re screwed—China wins.  Better to have an oligarchy of smart people that have the foresight to make sure society keeps moving forward than a democracy where we’re paralyzed by idiocy.

Luckily, these same studies suggest there may be some light at the end of the tunnel. Sociologists have found that the reason people reject dissonant information, even if it’s factual, is because one’s social standing rests on their ability to fit in with others in their social circle.  To agree is to be accepted and included, whereas to disagree is to be scorned, pushed away.

And it makes sense, right?  We see it happen all the time—people don’t like to say things that are unpleasant, especially if there’s a strong sense of community attached to an issue.  Imagine the reaction, for instance, if an NRA member suddenly grew a conscience and told all the fellows down at the shooting range that they ought to support reasonable measures to restrict guns, like background checks and magazine limits.  Probably wouldn’t go too well.

The problem is that this happens all the time.  It’s easy and agreeable to say that Washington’s terrible rather than name names or parties, or risk getting into an argument—even easier to avoid the situation altogether by staying quiet.  I, too, the blogger with a litany of opinions, sometimes don’t challenge people that I disagree with—it’s way easier not to make waves. But recently, I was reminded of the importance of doing so by someone I least expected: my wife.

Just the other weekend we had her folks and some conservative friends (a little older than her parents, and despite their politics, some of the nicest people I’ve had the pleasure to know) over for dinner, and it came up during conversation that we had signed up with the electric company to support green energy.  Initially, her dad and the others couldn’t believe it, saying something like, “Why the hell would you pay eight dollars more a month—and to support green energy of all things?”

Now her father and the other guy happen to both work for the city’s electric company, so they have inside knowledge—but not just that, they’re also knee deep in the company’s culture five days a week.  To them, and the electric company, green energy is problematic: it’s requires a change of direction, a shift in resources and staffing, not to mention building or contracting out the actual plants, and yeah, for now, it’s more expensive than burning coal, oil, or natural gas.

At first my wife balked a little, which is natural; despite what most people think, we millennials do in fact respect our parents, and it’s natural to defer to them.  But after a moment she overcame her stumble, and pointed out the truth: someday, we’re going to have children, and since we’re planning on living for another 60 or 70 years ourselves, we have a stake in protecting the environment.

To back her up, I added that we already use a ton of hydroelectric power, which is a perfect example of green energy, and that the electric company doesn’t have any problem using that, so why not begin using wind, solar, tidal, etc?  In the end, I’m not sure we changed their minds, but my wife didn’t agree just to be agreeable; she stood up for her values, provided valid reasoning, and proved to her parents and friends that what they believe isn’t just taken for granted as truth: that it’s not a part of our value system, and it shouldn’t be a part of theirs either.

Frankly, if we’re going to solve our political problems, we have to follow my wife’s lead.  We have to have the courage to say, “no, what you believe, friends and family, is wrong.  I don’t agree with what you think, and here’s why…”  Sure, we may not convince that person then and there that we’re right, but anyone who hears our objections knows without a doubt that their (and our) social circle is NOT a collection of people who agree on every issue, and that there’s evidence and logic that runs counter to what they believe.

And that is powerful: 1) because they know you personally and like you enough to spend time with you, and 2) the reasons and facts you use as evidence, even if they don’t believe them, will worm their way into their mind as a voice of dissent, so that every time they hear some idiot spout the views they too believe, they’ll always have that bit of doubt you planted in their head.

The proof is in the pudding.  59% of all Americans now support gay marriage, when as recently as 2004, a liberal state like Oregon passed measure 36, defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.  People’s beliefs about gay marriage have changed precisely because gay Americans, as well as their neighbors, family, and friends, spoke up, explaining to opponents that it’s a civil right, that love is love, and that people ought to be allowed to marry whoever they want, man or woman.

Sure, it took some time, and some people are either too stubborn or too backward to change their views, but remember this: in a democracy, it only takes 51% to elect a good candidate over a bad one, or reject or pass a ballot measure.  We don’t need to convince everyone—just enough to make a difference.

But going on as many of us do, saying that all politicians are lousy, or that both parties are equally at fault for our problems, or that there isn’t anything we can do about changing things, isn’t just bullshit: it’s counterproductive.  It makes things worse.  Because not only do we lose our chance to show someone that their social circle isn’t made up of a bunch of like-minded ninnies, but we affirm their ignorance.  We affirm that the nonsense that’s coming out of their mouth is true.

So when someone says something you disagree with, make it known.  Make the argument that person hasn’t heard.  It doesn’t mean you have to get into a shouting match or make the other person feel bad, it just means you let them know you don’t agree with what they’re saying and why—it might be enough just to say, “I disagree” or, “that’s not true.”

For example, if someone says that unions are lousy, business killing, corrupt organizations, remind them that unions are the reason we have an eight-hour work-day, a five day work-week, health and retirement benefits, safe working conditions, etc.  Or when some asshole spouts off about how things are just so hard for corporations, that there’s so many rules and regulations and taxes that they can’t make any money, remind him that corporate profits are through the roof, the wages of workers have been stagnant for 30 years, and that there’s all sorts of loopholes, exceptions, and special laws that allow them to skate by regulations and taxation.  Or suppose someone starts whining about Obamacare: ask them if they were better off when their insurance company could kick them off if they got sick or cost too much, or when people could be denied insurance for having a pre-existing condition as common as asthma, or when there were no rules about how much profit companies could skim off the top (now they have to use at least 80% of premiums must be paid out for care).  Or, if it’s so awful, what they would do to replace it?

There’s a belief among Americans that we can’t do anything about our political situation: that we’re powerless.  I’ve heard it time and again, especially when I chastise people for not being better citizens.  As I’ve said before, no one needs to live their lives in a constant panic about our political situation, or about the problems we face as a nation.  Have fun, enjoy being with your family and friends, keep doing all the wonderful things I see you posting about on Facebook…

But when someone says something you disagree with, say so.  Explain why, try to have a reasonable conversation with them, show them that not everyone agrees with their perspective.  Because if enough of us speak up, there’s no limit to the good that we can do.

About The Author: Jay Scott


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