The other day, over drinks with a coworker, I had an experience that left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and lamenting how I couldn’t get any good news. When he asked what I was reading I told him I was feeling enraged about the Michael Brown shooting. He blurted out, “Oh, I’m torn on that one.” I did a little Scooby Doo inquisitive grunt, “How so?” “Well,” he admitted, “maybe it’s just that I don’t know enough about it, but didn’t he rob a store?” Cue face-palm.
I tried my best to remain calm while I explained that it doesn’t matter what he did or did not do, because he did not have a gun. Like, that’s the only important part of this story, and the one part that people seem so quick to gloss over. Even very nice people like my co-worker, who later came to his senses saying, “Wait a minute, I hate the cops. I have no idea why I just tried to make an excuse for the cops.” The answer, my dear friend, is racism. And no, I do not mean that my co-worker is racist (at all), but it is racism that led him to believe that somehow this unarmed young Black man deserved to be shot; racism perpetuated by conservative news media, apathy, and the myth of colorblindness. It is the act of scrolling through headlines, glancing over your neighbors shoulder at their copy of the New York Post, and taking their smear campaigns at face value that perpetuate prejudice.
This is not — despite my little anecdote — an essay about racism (for a change). This is an essay about searching for the most effective ways to engage those ambivalent, apathetic, or misinformed people who might otherwise find themselves on right side of justice. Because people without a vested interest in justice rarely take it upon themselves to open their own eyes to the micro and macro-aggressions oppressed people face every day of their lives, the onus falls upon us to blow their minds wide open. But how?
One way is through the education system. Changing attitudes early on, and in higher education is one way to get people to self-reflect and change their potentially problematic or incorrect beliefs. We can also hope to access this demographic online, but when we share our underground media perspectives on our Facebook and Twitter feeds, most of us are sharing it with the people who already share our beliefs. When we are out in the street protesting, those who disagree with our cause see us as a nuisance. And forget about clipboard canvassers. Even I cannot stand clipboard canvassers. My point is that if these people already think liberals and radicals are blowing things out of proportion, they are going to see our outrage and visible activism as blowing things out of proportion. Solidarity is so very important, but when do I get to convert some young Christian conservatives into crunchy hippies? I went looking for the loopholes. What I found was mostly discouraging.
In a May 2014 New Yorker article by Maria Konnikova titled “I Don’t Want To Be Right,” researcher Brendan Nyhan set out to change people’s perspectives on hot-button current events issues. His research focuses on correcting people’s factually incorrect beliefs about things like the Iraqi insurgence, or the “dangers” of vaccinating your child. What he discovered through trial and error after error, is that it’s almost impossible:
At first, it appeared as though the correction did cause some people to change their false beliefs. But, when the researchers took a closer look, they found that the only people who had changed their views were those who were ideologically predisposed to disbelieve the fact in question. If someone held a contrary attitude, the correction not only didn’t work — it made the subject more distrustful of the source.
So, basically, if you try to tell a liberal that Mike Brown was shot because he was Black, they will probably believe you, but tell it to a conservative, and he’ll dismiss it as propaganda, pretty much without fail. To get an idea of how this works outside of a laboratory setting, I spoke with one ideological convert, LJ Beckstein, a student at Hampshire College, who shared his experience with a change of attitude:
I’m from Cornwall, New York, which is a small town three counties above New York City. Wikipedia tells me it’s 95% white, which makes sense. The town’s pretty split politically, but split between liberals and conservatives — nothing too radical happens there. Growing up I learned, through a combination of my parents and school and TV and books, that here in America, we were post-race and post-gender and post-everything. I was taught the theory that we were all created equal, and not how that (didn’t) play out in practice. I don’t know how I picked this idea up, but I was under the impression that affirmative action existed as the government’s official apology for slavery. I didn’t know anyone who was really rich or anyone who was really poor… Because I thought that everyone had the same opportunities, it seemed like capitalism was a fair way that the hardest workers succeeded and lazy people didn’t. It’s funny, because I clearly had an instinct for activism. I started and ran my school’s GSA. I was notably the liberal kid in class who would always fight with the Republican teachers. I decided to go to Hampshire College in large part because I had heard it described as a yearlong activist camp. So once I got there and I learned about — well, basically everything — pretty much all of my opinions instantly changed. It wasn’t hard or painful, and I wasn’t ashamed of how I’d seen the world before. The way I understood it is that I just didn’t have access to the information… I had never been given reason to question what I’d learned. (Which, in my understanding, is pretty much exactly what privilege is.)… I wonder how much patience Me now would have if I met the Me who believed all those things.
Because LJ was leftward leaning, it wasn’t difficult to accept these new truths, but had he been from the conservative side of the tracks, this transition might have been a lot more uncomfortable. In fact, it likely wouldn’t have happened at all. First of all, he probably would not have attended Hampshire College, a liberal bastion. Second, according to Professor Nyhan’s research, the introduction of this new information might have had a backfiring effect. Nyhan attributes this phenomenon to an almost religious attachment to our political affiliations:
If someone asked you to explain the relationship between the Earth and the sun, you might say something wrong: perhaps that the sun rotates around the Earth, rising in the east and setting in the west. A friend who understands astronomy may correct you. It’s no big deal; you simply change your belief.
But imagine living in the time of Galileo, when understandings of the Earth-sun relationship were completely different, and when that view was tied closely to ideas of the nature of the world, the self, and religion. What would happen if Galileo tried to correct your belief? The process isn’t nearly as simple. The crucial difference between then and now, of course, is the importance of the misperception. When there’s no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we change our beliefs. It’s when that change contradicts something we’ve long held as important that problems occur.
Our understanding of the world today, at least in America, is one of an ideological dichotomy: Liberals versus Conservatives. Every issue, be it race, the environment, or women’s rights, is split up like this: They think this thing, We think the exact opposite, with no room for the multitudes that exist between (and for no very apparent reason other than accruing votes). The arguments that occur across parties are essentially shouting matches. They call one another terrible names, sling mud, and actually do one another favors by further polarizing their views.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the way we consume our news. In a 2009 study of news media viewers and readers, entitled “Red Media, Blue Media: Evidence of Ideological Selectivity in Media Use” the researchers found that not only do consumers have a tendency to commit to sources that espouse opinions that align with their already held political beliefs, but media outlets cater to this trend: “The emergence of Fox News as the cable ratings leader suggests that in a competitive market, politically slanted news programming allows a new organization to create a niche for itself… Under competition and diversity of opinion, newspapers will provide content that is more biased.” Their motivation to do so is purely driven by profit, or they run the risk of losing out to competitors, both liberal and conservative. “Thus, as the audience become polarized over matters of politics and public policy, rational media owners stand to gain market share by injecting more rather than less political bias into the news (Gentzkow & Shapiro, 2006).”
As for how this trend affects voting, author Andrew Gelman says this in his book Red State, Blue State, Rich State Poor State: Why Americans Vote The Way They Do that “polarization serves as a useful function insofar as it makes party brand names meaningful, ultimately making elected officials more accountable to relatively uninformed voters… Social scientists who study American political elites have generally concluded that politicians have become substantially more ideologically polarized over time.” In this way, the issues we fight for in America which are so inextricably tied to our political and moral beliefs, that an opposition is born at the moment the issue is created. They exist harmoniously in opposition to one another. The further Right goes the right, so does the Left go left. However, Gelman goes on to note that “although Americans have become increasingly polarized in their impressions of the Democratic and Republican parties… each person maintains a mix of attitudes within himself or herself [sic].” Middle and lower class conservatives and liberals, as individuals, see themselves as very complex. It is within these complex understandings of the self that we find an opportunity to change people’s attitudes, especially concerning social issues. Politicians are not going to change their stance because a radical, partisan opinion is what will get them into office, but it is possible that their constituents could make them change their tune.
Using a theory developed by researcher Claude Steele, Professor Nyhan was able to make some small progress in narrowing this divide. It was done not by forcing facts into people’s hands, but by stroking their egos. “The theory… suggests that, when people feel their sense of self threatened by the outside world, they are strongly motivated to correct the misperception, be it by reasoning away the inconsistency or by modifying their behavior.” So, the researchers performed self-affirmation exercises along with the corrective information: “On all issues, attitudes became more accurate with self-affirmation, and remained just as inaccurate without. That effect held even when no additional information was presented — that is, when people were simply asked the same questions twice, before and after the self-affirmation.” This sounds kind of bananas, but the science suggests that if we are more likely to accept factual information if we are able to feel good about ourselves while making the change of opinion. Nyhan admits that “it’s hardly a solution that can be applied easily outside the lab. ‘People don’t just go around writing essays about a time they felt good about themselves… And who knows how long the effect lasts — it’s not as though we often think good thoughts and then go on to debate climate change.'” Right, but this is the loophole I was looking for.
Making a change of opinion can be life-altering, which is why it is important that people feel unthreatened while making that change. Often, this change happens in a college setting, a (mostly) inherently nurturing and self-affirming environment in which we are encouraged to take challenges and have a cadre of professionals and classmates there to take the jump alongside us. It can be difficult to address people with problematic or hateful views with anything but spite or shame, but in campaigns to win over those “swing votes,” it appears we might catch more flies with honey than vinegar. For instance, a 2010 ad campaign launched by the group Men Can Stop Rape focuses on the strength men can find within themselves to prevent rape scenarios, using the tagline “My Strength Is Not For Hurting.” While the campaign does raise some eyebrows around the complexities of gender, “strength,” and rape, the intention is self-affirming. This stands in stark contrast to a 2013 UK anti-rape campaign featuring a woman in her underwear, stating “Have sex with someone who hasn’t said yes to it, and the next place you enter could be prison.” Aside from the atrocious run-on sentence, the ad is threatening. A threat like this, Professor Nyhan might say, would cause a person to go into defense mode and dismiss the message as propaganda. Certainly I’m not arguing that the person would leave the scene and go on to commit an act of rape. I’m saying the message would be lost on a person who is otherwise ambivalent about the issue of sexual violence against women.
Are there other ways to access our peers in meaningful ways? It is sometimes said that people who hold the strongest prejudices are hiding an insecurity about themselves; that people with homophobic views might just be gay themselves. While I prefer to respect a person’s right to self-identify, we stand to learn something from stories like this, which is why I offer you this nugget of inspiration from our very own Helen McDonald:
I had decided to go to a pre-orientation program my first year of college… It was called the “Third World Transition Program” and it was comprised of a weeklong series of workshops that taught about identity politics, social marginalization, and various axes of oppression. I understood nothing about systematic oppression before college, and as far as I was concerened, we lived in a post-racial, God-fearing, go-Amurrica society where sometimes bad things happened to good people, but most people deserved their lot in life. I was a conservative preacher’s daughter, who endorsed a lot of homophobia but justified it in the name of religion. I didn’t really like how society treated women, but I didn’t have the tools to really articulate my ideas, and I rarely thought that my race affected the way society treated me, even though my parents tried their best to warn me about racism. Throughout my first week of school, I had my mind blown time and time again… The counselors announced that the day would be devoted to the topic “Homophobia and Heteronormativity.” In my mind, homophobia was murdering someone gay and I didn’t do that so I didn’t really have anything to learn from those workshops. In fact, I almost skipped that day because I was afraid of what I’d learn, and that indulging “the gays” would send me to hell… The counselors greeted us with white sheets of paper taped on the walls around the room, with different words on it. Our job was to write whatever words came to mind when we thought about those topics… Eventually I came up to a piece of paper that said “internalized homophobia,” that had been decorated with a series of adjectives and nouns, written by my peers… It felt like I was reading a poem about my life, and about all of the times I had wished myself “normal,” or projected hate onto the same gender couples, or gender non-conforming people because they were free in a way I could never be. I’m not even sure I was able to write anything on the sheet of paper. I returned to my seat, and the counselors opened the floor to queer people who wanted to share their stories. Many people came out, and others talked about their life journeys; I sat alone and tried not to cry, wanting so badly to be strong enough to stand up and speak my truth. After the workshop, I went back to my dorm room, and texted a friend: “I’m sorry for not understanding who you are, and for judging you when you came out to me. I know now that nothing is wrong with you.”
“Also I think I’m gay.”
Helen, rather than self-affirmation, had an experience of self-identification. She was confronted with a truth that existed within her in a supportive environment. It is worth noting that the experiences of both LJ and Helen happened in a college setting, and there are a lot of people who either cannot afford a college education, or who are beyond the point of going back to school. It’s more difficult to figure out how to create these attitude changes outside of a classroom, but if we are able to pinpoint the moments when these changes happen, we can work towards recreating them organically in the “real world.” Personal narratives are far more compelling than scientific journals and psych experiments.
So, to that end, I’m inviting you to share your experience with a change of perspective, large or small, to create a little archive from which we can draw inspiration. Right here in the comments. In this way, whether you want to start a movement in your community, or you’re just trying to get your high school friends to stop using the phrase “that’s so gay,” we can draw from our shared experiences.