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Why most internet activists don’t change any minds

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On Facebook I quietly unsubscribe from friends who regularly make angry issue-related posts, even if they’re right. I don’t want to be pummeled by “truth,” no matter how true it is.

I understand why they do it. I’ve done it. Ignorance — of overfishing, of puppy mills, of normalized sexism, of what vaccines can and can’t do — can be genuinely dangerous, and wanting to reduce this ignorance is understandable.

Some are able to do it carefully and diplomatically, and I have learned a lot from these people.

But most internet activists let contempt seep into the message. It becomes about making others wrong instead of trying to help them be right. Just visit virtually any issue-related message board. It’s adversarial. It’s normal to blame people for their ignorance.

Ignorance, if that’s what it really is, isn’t something people can fairly be blamed for. We don’t choose what not to grasp, what not to have been taught, what not to have understood the significance of.

Ignorance is blind to itself. When you’re trying to rectify ignorance in someone else, it’s easy to forget that you’re ignorant too, in ways you can’t know.

Whoever you are, you have to admit there’s a hell of a lot you don’t know, and you don’t know that you don’t know it. None of us are free of ignorance. So in our attempts to reduce ignorance we ought to approach others as fellow learners, rather than people worthy of blame.

The worst thing a person can do for their stance is to deliver it packaged with a moral judgment. This effectively eliminates the other person’s freedom to agree, and may even create a committed opponent to their cause. Doing this to a lot of people reduces the public’s receptivity to the cause altogether. Even if it is the truth, when you hurl it at someone it will bounce rather than stick. 

Learning means letting go of a current belief, and a person needs to be in a particularly receptive state in order to do that. Yet, most attempts at internet activism are openly derisive of the people they (ostensibly) want to educate.

Changing minds is very delicate work. Great care must be taken not to express contempt for people who don’t (yet) see it your way. Put people on the defensive, and their minds are closed until they feel safe again. The moment a discussion triggers a defensive reaction, the possibility of learning anything is gone for that person — even though this conflict point is where most online “activism” begins.

This crucial delicateness is threatened by our frustration with beliefs we see as ignorant. It’s hard not to be angry at the ill-informed anti-vaccine movement, now that we’re seeing domestic outbreaks of measles and whooping cough.

Anger is the easiest response, and also the most destructive. What do you think started the anti-vaccine movement? Probably the same kind of anger: “What we’ve been told is wrong and it’s putting our children at risk. People need to smarten up!”

Even if one side is factually correct — and this isn’t always the case — the more anger that’s directed at the other side, the fewer of those people will feel safe to change their minds. Cornering people and making them wrong only encourages heel-digging and rationalizing and the touting of bad science, because at that point it’s just an exchange of emotional noise.

This kind of arguing is an almost perfectly useless approach to reducing ignorance. Helping people to understand something (if that is indeed what the arguers want) is the opposite of fighting.

The feeling of being right is an extremely attractive high to us. It feels as good to be right as it feels awful to be wrong. But whether we have that feeling or not has little to do with whether the facts indeed back us up, and that’s why it’s such a dangerous drug to get used to.

Once you get attached to the feeling of being right, it becomes more important than actually being right. We’ve all found ourselves in pointless debates with friends: Was Crash a good movie? Is Bono actually helping anyone? You may have noticed that in these debates, we don’t want the other person to make a good point, even if conceding it could leave us with a more intelligent stance than we had before. Instead we want them to make dumb points that make ours sound good. We want them to be wrong more than we want to learn anything.

If you were wrong, would you want someone to tell you? Maybe, if it were done privately and sympathetically. Doing that isn’t a common skill. If you want to learn how to talk to people about anything without putting them on the defensive, Marshall Rosenberg’s brilliant book Nonviolent Communication is your Bible. (In my humble opinion.)

It is hard to pass up the temptation to make people wrong. I’m not very good at it. In the process of writing this article I’ve noticed anger emerging again and again in my words, and I’ve done my best to keep it out of this piece. After all, my goal here was to “cure” a particular kind of ignorance.

That’s always shaky ground though, because you have to begin with a rather self-important belief: “I have a truth you don’t have, and I’m going to give it to you.” I’ve tried to keep my aims pragmatic here and not succumb to the impulse to attack and tell-off. But I’m sure it still shows where I am blind to it.

I do think I’m right, but it’s possible I’m being ignorant in a way I don’t understand. And some people may say so in the comment section, and again I’ll have to monitor my temptation to bully off their opposing views with rhetoric. If I’m skillful enough, I might be able to genuinely consider agreeing with them.

Even now I’m afraid I won’t be able to do that when I have the chance. I’m pretty good at rhetorical swashbuckling, or at least good enough to satisfy myself when I try. This blog’s comment history is strewn with verbal throttlings I’ve given to people, mostly just for the way in which they disagreed with me. I hope this time my detractors are gentle and diplomatic, because that rare form of generosity will give me the best possible chance of learning something.


Photo by mkhmarketing

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Andy April 15, 2014 at 2:13 pm

In a similar vain, I think this is why convictions are so dangerous–they are the veil for ignorance. Convictions are often spoken of as a an important quality of character, but I think they make us closed off to new knowledge and experiences. If I am convinced that God exists, why should I listen to and learn from an atheist. If I am convinced God doesn’t exist, why should I listen to and learn from a person of faith. Thanks for the “Nonviolent Communication” recommendation–I’m going to check it out from the library!

David Cain April 16, 2014 at 12:11 pm

It is strange how conviction for its own sake is treated as a virtue in politics, and critical thinking about your own beliefs is considered wishy-washiness.

Dan April 15, 2014 at 6:18 pm

Big fan of Robert Anton Wilson’s philosophy in this regard. He passed about 7 years back, but gained (and still maintains) a great many admirers. There was an event held honoring him recently, and one of the speakers summed up Wilson’s position (ever-refining as it was) wonderfully:

The Wisdom of Robert Anton Wilson: A Tonic for the Internet Age

“The reason why I think Bob is important, and Bob is different, I think it can be summed up in a principle he talks about called the ‘cosmic shmuck’ principle, and it goes like this. If you wake up in the morning and you do not realise that you are a cosmic shmuck, you will remain a cosmic shmuck. But if you wake up in the morning and you think ‘oh god, I’m a cosmic shmuck’, you’ll be very embarrassed [and] you’ll want to be less of a cosmic shmuck; you’ll try to be less of a cosmic shmuck; and slowly, over time, you’ll become less of a cosmic shmuck.

And the fact that the underlying principle of Robert Anton Wilson’s philosophy is “I know I’m wrong, I want to be less wrong”, is very different to now, our current internet culture, where the underlying philosophy is “I’m right, and I want you to know that”. And if you go onto any internet discussion, or debate, or things like that, you find people declaring certainties loudly, people with very fixed positions that they can express in 140 characters, that they hunker down and defend, and don’t listen to anything else, and attempt to drown out all the others. That’s so different to Robert Anton Wilson: he believed – hang on, the word believe is difficult with Bob – he thought that what you believed imprisoned you, he thought convictions create convicts.

His philosophy can be called ‘multiple-model agnosticism’. That’s not just agnosticism about God, that’s agnosticism about everything…

There’s a key core point [to Bob’s philosophy], this phrase ‘reality tunnel’, that’s at the heart of all Bob’s thinking, so I think it’s worth defining for you. A reality tunnel is the model of reality that you build in your head. It’s not reality, it’s what you think reality is. Just as Korzybski said, “the map is not the territory”; as Alan Watts said, “the menu is not the meal”; in the same way, your reality tunnel is not reality. It’s a model you personally built over your entire life, based on your experiences, your memories, your senses, your prejudices, your culture, and to a large and surprising degree, language. And that’s fine, that’s normal, we need models. We need models to understand what’s going on around us, to predict what’s going to happen next. But a model is, by definition, a simplified version of something. It may look roughly the same, and it gives you a good idea of things, but there are going to be places where it lacks the detail, or it’s just wrong or it’s different. And when your reality tunnel doesn’t map reality, then you are wrong. And the fact that we use these things means that we will always be wrong.”

Check out his book “Prometheus Rising” when you get a chance. Along with this recent article on psychology and how culture and metaphors shape/determine the lens through which we perceive and conceive reality (their influence on our thoughts/impressions/decisions/behaviors/etc…), which is academically confirming Wilson’s point on the existence of “reality tunnels” (an exceedingly helpful term/concept, in my opinion):

We Aren’t the World

Dan April 16, 2014 at 12:59 pm

Whoops! Messed up on that last link (which links back to this very essay, turning it into a weird mobius-strip like infinite loop). Here is the correct link:

We Aren’t the World

Elodie April 16, 2014 at 12:39 am

I’m glad to see the mention of NVC in your post! I’ve found NVC to be a simple, yet very powerful, way of getting to richer, deeper understanding. Learning NVC I think can really help bring about a kinder, gentler, more action oriented, world – helping people make change rather than yelling about things. And, perhaps surprisingly, as someone who is naturally very empathetic but NOT confrontational, I have found learning NVC has enabled me to become MORE assertive. Learning NVC helped give me a framework to first recognize my own needs, and then communicate them in a way that I trusted wouldn’t come across as too harsh to people. And knowing I had those tools in my bag allowed me to be more comfortable in difficult work situations, and take on challenges that I would have shied away from before. So, just a perspective on the value of NVC from all sides.

Leigh Shulman April 16, 2014 at 7:47 am

What’s interesting, too, is that we’re so often advised to post “emotional” content if we want it to be noticed online when most of the time, that emotional content makes all the same mistakes you mention here.

It definitely makes me wonder what people want when they go online and what drives them.

The vaccine debate you mention is one that strikes home for me. I tend to be very middle of the road with this. I hear so many misstatements and mischaracterizations. I also don’t trust the outpouring of anger. The moment I hear or feel it, I take a huge step back from whomever is talking.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. I hope people start to take your advice.

David Cain April 16, 2014 at 12:09 pm

Yeah, I struggle with this balance. Content that’s “charged” tends to get shared. I’ve also noticed that the more viral something goes, the more superficial the average level of engagement is. In other words, the most popular stuff is often whatever takes the least thinking to get behind.

Marie April 16, 2014 at 6:20 pm

People make fun of me for not being on Facebook or Twitter. Well-meaning friends have shown me their Facebook pages (or is it walls?) and I saw a lot of what you describe in your post. I’m an avid reader and tried Goodreads, but even there there’s no shortage of drama as to which books are cool, so I deleted my account. I have found that the best approaches to effective activism are polite persistence, positivity, and meeting in person with key decision-makers when possible.

MK April 17, 2014 at 10:52 am

You’re good. Thanks for this. It’s so refreshing to see such humility intertwined with confident words of wisdom!

The Smaller Dollar April 17, 2014 at 12:29 pm

It does seem that we live in a society where whoever shouts the loudest is deemed the winner, therefore the shouters are the ones who quickly ascend through the ranks. If you want to educate or convince me of something, use logic, reason, and your inside voice please.

Alicia April 18, 2014 at 3:03 pm

Heyya David!
This article is pretty excellent, and I agree with almost everything you’re saying. As a member of several oppressed groups I can attest to how most people try to argue their points simply to “win” a discussion. In order to truly change minds one must usually have a certain grace.

However, while I agree with your article, I feel like you’re making a pretty big assumption. It seems to me that you’re saying the only reason to post these articles, or have these discussions, or champion these ideas is to convince others. In truth, this is the superficial motive most of the time, however it’s ignoring a stronger, more emotional motive. That is: to simply be angry.

Most people tend to have a knee jerk “anger is bad” reaction when this point is brought up, but consider that the alternative is not being upset with oppression.

When a group of people are /systematically/ oppressed it would seem to me that anger is a pretty justifiable response. While taking this anger and making something constructive out of it would be ideal, I don’t think that a group that is already being told they’re “bad” or “wrong” and to conform by an entire system is obligated to educate at all. Regardless of how politely they’re told of their ignorance, people should be responsible for educating themselves.

There are lots of people who have written about this issue and are much more eloquent than I could hope to be. If you’re genuinely interested I highly recommend you check them out

Neil April 20, 2014 at 7:35 am

Just started reading your free book, and would just like to suggest everyone here subscribes and gets it.

yayaver April 20, 2014 at 10:07 am

This was one of the puzzles revolving in my mind from long time. Your article has brought a partial degree of clarity. But, I got this answer in a quote by Irwin Edman : It is myth, not a mandate; fable, not a logic; and symbol, rather than a reason, by which men are moved.

Yt’s a pity though that argument/debate doesn’t change stance of people. In past also, we have to wait for inhumanity to reach its crescendo (Spanish Inquisition, Slavery, Holocaust, Apartheid, Guantanamo) before the scales fall from people’s eyes and they recognise the error in their dogma.

kate April 20, 2014 at 11:57 pm

Someone who was very dear to me used to say two really great things…..and he said them quite a bit…1) No one’s going to love you more for being right. and, 2) I don’t know.

Magda April 25, 2014 at 12:35 pm

Hi, I randomly stumbled upon your blog…
I rarely leave comments (actually, never…) but I must express that this is an EXCELLENT article. Thank you for writing it! I have shared it with my friends. You touch upon so many great points…and you tap into the reasons why I’m OFF FB since months now. Thanks again and keep doing what you’re doing…;P

Elliott April 28, 2014 at 7:41 pm

While my impulse is to say, “HELL YEAH THAT’S RIGHT!” that would just be putting myself into a mental cage in which the only truth is your article. I’ve done this with so many blog posts that ‘feel’ right. They become my intellectual ideals that I know is right now matter what, and looking back, they weren’t backed up by facts. On the other hand, I’m one who submits easily in conversation/argument when I hear a fact or statistic that contradicts my point.
The irony is that at least in my opinion, it’s far more enjoyable to start a conversation with a pondering question: “is my belief correct? What do we know about this topic?” because it comes from a place of mutual curiosity with the focus on the conversation, not on defending our opinion.

David May 19, 2014 at 11:19 am

Finally ordered Nonviolent Communication! Had to share this as you’re the catalyst to the purchase.
Cheers to constant, consistent self improvement!
Appreciate your work, mate :)

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