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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

Genevieve Hawkins April 13, 2014 at 11:44 pm

You bring up a lot of good points about emotional noise. The Landmark Forum I attended some years ago said that people always want to be right, even if it’s to their own detriment. Funny side note about the vaccine debate: a recent mother messaged me about her concern about getting her three month old son his shots, and asked me my stance on it. I gave it to her honestly, based on my own personal experience from my two daughters. My first daughter had two in a row that she had a horrible reaction to, and I never went back with her. My second daughter had a 104 fever from her first shot, so I was nervous, but eventually took her back, and perhaps because of the delay, she handled her next one very well. I suggested some literature for her on the subject matter, but said that I thought her mother’s instinct was the best thing to go by. If her son didn’t seem to be handling things well to bring up the concern with her doctor and wait. She thanked me and said she’d probably take her son in for his shots. It occurred to me then that there are absolutely no moderates in the vaccine debate. You either refuse all shots on the grounds that it’s a government hoax perpetrated for population control, or you believe the more shots the better, implicitly assuming safety and effectiveness (and that anyone who claims their child was injured by vaccines is faking it). It’s an ugly ugly debate, probably because parents don’t like to see their children dying (of anything)…and you see some horrifically insensitive comments on both sides. Emotional noise…I like that.

David Cain April 14, 2014 at 8:09 am

people always want to be right, even if it’s to their own detriment

This is super interesting to me. I still find that that the feeling of being right at any particular time is still more attractive to me than being wrong and learning something. I’m trying to recognize in the moment the superior long-term value of losing an argument so that I’m free to learn something new.

Vilx- April 14, 2014 at 8:16 am

This reminds me of a nice quote I read some time ago:

It was a turning point in my programming career when I realized that I didn’t have to win every argument. I’d be talking about code with someone, and I’d say, “I think the best way to do it is A.” And they’d say, “I think the best way to do it is B. I’d say, “Well no, it’s really A.” And they’d say, “Well, we want to do B.” It was a turning point for me when I could say, “Fine. Do B. It’s not going to hurt us that much if I’m wrong. It’s not going to hurt us that much if I’m right and you do B, because, we can correct mistakes. So let’s find out if it’s a mistake.” … Usually it turns out to be C.

David Cain April 14, 2014 at 8:31 am

I learned a great rule of thumb from Richard Carlson’s book: “Let others be ‘right’ most of the time.”

Matushka April 17, 2014 at 5:22 pm

I like the way you put that – very insightful.

Burak June 11, 2014 at 9:51 am

Excellent article David. I immensely liked it just like most of your articles. Thank you so much for this great reminder and eye-opener!

Besides, this reminded me a piece from a great book that struck me so hard:
“The rule of truth and equity established by the scholars of the art of debate is this: ‘Whoever desires, in debate on any subject, that his own word should turn out to be true, whoever is happy that he turns out to be right and his enemy to be wrong and mistaken-such a person has acted unjustly.’ Not only that, such a person loses, for when he emerges the victor in such a debate, he has not learned anything previously unknown to him, and his probable pride will cause him loss. But if his adversary turns out to be right, he will have learned something previously unknown to him and thereby gained something without any loss, as well as being saved from pride. In other words, one fair in his dealings and enamoured of the truth will subject the desire of his own soul to the demands of the truth. If he sees his adversary to be right, he will accept it willingly and support it happily.”

This piece sticks on my mind, especially in times when I find myself foolishly debating not for the sake of truth or of helping people, but for my own satisfaction to win the thing. Then, I feel so silly, and get to myself if I am true to myself at that very moment.

Kenoryn April 14, 2014 at 1:02 pm

“People always want to be right, even if it’s to their own detriment.”
In issues like the vaccine debate, it might be to their material detriment (such as health), but there is a significant social price to pay for always being right. Even if you are right, and even if you can make your case convincingly and bring other around to your way of doing things, it’s usually grudgingly, and it usually doesn’t leave them with a good impression of you. Or, perhaps, they may respect you, but not like you. These days I am trying to hold on to being right only when the consequences are important, and let go of everything else. Every now and then I meet some astonishing person who has no problem being wrong and is happy to listen to what you say, ask questions and reassess their viewpoint without a trace of defensiveness. Those people are really a joy to be around, and I wouldn’t mind becoming one of them. ;)

As an aside, I think there is some more moderate middle ground in the vaccine debate. I have always seen the two sides to be saying 1) the mercury, formaldehyde and similar compounds used as stabilizers/preservatives in vaccines are harmful to our health, or 2) the amount of those compounds is too small to affect us and the benefits of mass vaccination outweigh the risks. If you are in camp #2, for instance, you might be in favour of the smallpox vaccine but think the flu vaccine is not worth it four people who aren’t at high risk from the flu.

Genevieve Hawkins May 3, 2014 at 10:38 am

I tend to choose the middle ground always. As my grandma always says “You can go too far one way as you can the other.”
With vaccines I figure it like this. I believe they were founded on a stable ground (i.e. Polio, Smallpox). But I also believe that collusion of moneyed and powered people has pushed some things onto the market that maybe shouldn’t be there (Gardasil and yearly flu for everyone are at the top of my list, ESPECIALLY for pregnant women based on VAERS data on miscarriages). I also think the cumulative power of all of these vaccines put together has not been studied enough. US is supposedly the most vaccinated country in the world, yet, infant mortality ranks very poor as compared to other first world countries. How do you measure a cumulative effect?
Ahh, I remember the days when this debate wasn’t really important to me. One of my (childless) friends said it best: “I Don’t understand what the big deal is. I had to get yellow fever vaccines for going to the Peace Corps in Africa. It sucked but nothing major. So the kid cries for a few hours. Get the shot!” She then proceeded to eat her salad. Let me say that again. She then proceeded to eat her salad. Ah those days…

Shawn May 5, 2014 at 11:42 pm

I agree, we must be sure to assess evidence fairly, and not jump to either extremes. Most of reality exists in the grey area.

BTW, excellent post! Thanks David :-)

A gentle detractor April 14, 2014 at 12:08 am

Activism is not only, or even chiefly, about educating people about the error of their ways. It is more often about pressuring those who deliberately do “wrong” to desist from so doing. Hence the anger.

The cigarette company executive knows he’s killing people to earn money. The Big Oil executive knows he is killing the planet to earn money. The meat-eater knows he is causing animals to be butchered just to tickle his palate. They know these things. How could they possibly not know this, unless they were mentally retarded?

These people know they are doing wrong. They just don’t care. Being gentle with them is not likely to bring about any significant change.

The only thing such people might respond to, just perhaps, is pressure. Which is often best effected through anger (not uncontrolled anger, but controlled and focused anger).

simon April 14, 2014 at 8:04 am

The cigarette company exec believes people have the right to choose what they do even if it harms their health – when every one stops driving then they can tell him he has to stop making a living. The big oil exec is producing the energy that has lifted literally billions of people out of desperate poverty – when people are willing to share their wealth fairly, he can stop mining. The meat eater recognises that he is part of the cycle of life and has a right to eat a healthy diet – vegetarians are hypocrites, living an environmentally unsustainable and disconnected life.

But they all know that they are ‘doing wrong’ because you say so. There are no other legitimate points of view to those that concur with your knowledge. You should reread the article.

A gentle detractor April 14, 2014 at 12:53 pm

Simon, are you really trying to defend Big Tobacco? I mean, really?

In any case, those instances were only examples. Feel free to substitute them with any protest-worthy cause you yourself choose. My argument stands.

Garrett April 14, 2014 at 10:01 pm

Debating these issues would seem to run counter to the point of David’s piece. So, the only comment I’ll make is in regards to smoking. The problem with the “rights” argument is that smoking can directly harm others. Your right to swing your fist ends before your fist makes contact with my face. Simply having people smoke outdoors is insufficient. At the same time, it’s not realistic to criminalize smoking, so I’m not sure what can be done.

David Cain April 14, 2014 at 8:24 am

The cigarette company executive knows he’s killing people to earn money. The Big Oil executive knows he is killing the planet to earn money. The meat-eater knows he is causing animals to be butchered just to tickle his palate. They know these things. How could they possibly not know this, unless they were mentally retarded?

I’m not so sure they acknowledge the “wrongness” of these things. All of those things could be (and are) debated, and easily rationalized about.

I think it is a mistake to conclude that they know better and don’t care. That’s more of an assertion that evil is done consciously, by a different kind of person, and I just don’t see it that way. From personal experience I can tell you that meat-eaters do not feel pressure to change when confronted with anger from non-meat-eaters. If anything they feel pressure not to change.

Devil's Advocate April 14, 2014 at 8:51 am

“I’m not so sure they acknowledge the “wrongness” of these things. All of those things could be (and are) debated, and easily rationalized about.”

I doubt that. Not at the bottom of their heart, no matter what their external posturing.

Can a cigarette maker or cigarette seller really not realize that what he’s doing is killing people? Can the over-the-top big oil executive really not see he’s ruining the planet (though he may not admit it)? If I’m about to eat a piece of tender baby animal meat, can I really not understand that this was a living creature, which died only so that I could eat it?

I’m not saying we can’t “educate” them. We can, and I said as much. But activism goes beyond relying on the good sense of the perpetrator of evil.

kiwano April 14, 2014 at 11:18 am

As a hunter, I probably fall towards the extreme end of the awful meat-eating people. When I eat meat, I am acutely aware than an animal died before I could eat it, often having killed it myself. Because I know that meat costs an animal its life, the meat is precious to me, and I find it unconscionable to waste any of it.

Even though I can tell myself on some rational level that the hunt was in the fall, and most game animals don’t survive the winter (whether it’s because they freeze, starve, or are eaten by other predators), that chunk of carcass in the freezer represents a lost life and demands my respect.

Because I spend time outside of the city, I am also confronted with the realities of other foods. A crop of lettuce (or nearly any other vegetable) isn’t going to make it to harvest, unmolested by varmints unless the fields are regularly visited by hungry dogs and cats, and kids with small rifles. Small animals are often crushed under the wheels (or in the machinery of) tractors, combines, and all manner of other farm equipment.

As far as I’m concerned, no matter what I’m eating (except maybe for wild mushrooms or berries that I went out into the woods to pick myself), there’s blood on my hands. The ethical dimension of my food has more to do with how little of my food I waste than with what I choose to eat.

And for the record, the last time I ate a piece of tender baby animal meat (as opposed to the less-tender, mature animal meat, which I usually eat), it was a roadkill, slain by someone else’s careless driving.

I’m not expecting to change your diet here, but I would like you to at least see that there are other perspectives on food ethics, and the killing of animals, and that us meat-eaters aren’t necessarily bloodthirsty or ignorant of where our food comes from.

In fact one of my favourite hunting stories involves an unsuccessful hunt (well at least for me and my hunting buddies): after spending maybe 2 hours pursuing a buck that we could hear crashing and scraping its way through the bush, we heard a pack of wolves howling and barking and snarling no more than a hundred feet away. None of us had ever been that close to that many wolves, and that alone would’ve been spectacular. What made it even more awesome though was knowing that even though we were the only humans for miles, we weren’t the only hunters for even a few hundred feet.

(I’m pretty sure the cigarette and oil executives would probably be able to produce similar insights on their particular flavours of “evil”)

A gentle detractor April 14, 2014 at 1:11 pm

Peace, Kiwano April. Lots of meat-eaters are my friends. I’d be a lonely soul otherwise! But I do tell them my views when the topic comes up.

But that’s by the way. My point was that angry protests are sometimes not only not misplaced but actually necessary. You could protest strict gun licensing laws if you wish instead, when that comes to pass. ;-)

Angel's Advocate April 15, 2014 at 8:01 am

No perhaps not, but maybe they don’t think that is wrong. The people buying the cigarettes are making a choice to smoke, all the cigarette makers/sellers are doing is facilitating that choice. Arguably the cigarette makers/sellers are giving them freedom to choose, is that wrong? If the smokers make that choice, who are you to deny them, because you think it’s wrong?

My point is you seem to underestimate the subjectiveness of right and wrong.

Wiggleroom April 21, 2014 at 8:32 am

This goes into a much bigger question of ethics and selfishness. We all act out of our selfish behaviour, and perhaps it’s only a question of degree of harm our actions are causing.

For example, everyone uses oil, regardless of detriment to the planet. We use it because it’s part of our culture, and many don’t question its use. I’ve long given up on feeling angry at car-drivers for polluting and making my city noisy. What’s the point? The anger only harms me, and changes nothing.

People simply act in their own self interest, and as long as the harm is not too evident, they will continue to do so. This is the case for cigarette and oil company leaders — I.e. It is a business, and not illegal, therefore to them, not immoral.

Most people equate ethics with legality, therefore as long as the act isn’t breaking any laws, they can act in their own self interest without feeling any qualms whatsoever. Anger will not open their eyes to this or make them more self aware. That said, I’m not sure what the answer is.

Garrett April 23, 2014 at 9:26 pm

I don’t think there is an answer, per se. Living intentionally to the best of your ability is my suggestion.

Garrett April 23, 2014 at 10:19 pm

I also recommend The Better World Shopping Guide for anyone interested in consuming with a conscience.

sally April 14, 2014 at 1:20 am

“A gentle detractor”, do you think that people might be justifying their choices to themselves? Eg “if I didn’t do this job, someone else would do it and the outcomes would be the same so I may as well do it” or “if I wasn’t a meat eater, that cow would never have been born anyway”. Applying pressure to them may just reinforce their self-justification. Do you know any examples where applying pressure to people like that did cause them to change their views?

I was an omnivore up until five years ago. When I stopped eating meat, it wasn’t through anyone applying pressure, it was due to my own gradual changes in food choices and my own reflections. People can justify anything (not necessarily logically or well, but still) if they feel they must.

I agree with David that “Cornering people and making them wrong only encourages heel-digging and rationalizing and the touting of bad science”.

However, like so many things David writes about, this is a work in progress for me.

Great post thank you David!

Wiggleroom April 21, 2014 at 8:37 am

I know a lot of meat eaters.. They do not justify eating meat in this way. They eat it because it tastes good. They would rather not think about the process behind it. It’s pretty simple… People do what they want unless it causes them major discomfort… I.e, the pain outweighs the pleasure. This is true of activists as well.

A gentle detractor April 14, 2014 at 1:43 am

Let me repeat my point for emphasis, using your vaccination analogy this time.

Some people are indeed ignorant about the larger effect of not vaccinating their kids. (Just as, conceivably, a few people may still think that tobacco does not kill, or that climate change is just hot air, or that animals were created by God so that we humans can eat them, or that animals do not feel pain or distress or fear.) So by all means gently educate them. And such gentle education is a legitimate, and important, part of activism.

But what do you do when the cynical parent decides to take advantage of current health to spare their child pain and distress, choosing to ignore the what-if-everyone-did-it factor as theoretical twaddle, saying What do I care? What if the Big Tobacco and Big Tobacco types showed you their middle finger? What when meat-eaters shrug and go back to forking another bit of yummy tender baby animal, and to hell with that animal’s distress?

Then you get angry, and in a controlled manner show your anger. Get others angry too, and show collective anger. And then try to shame the cynical b*****, or have society ostracise them, or have government ban them or jail them or just tax them, or in other ways pressurise them to stop …. To stop not vaccinating their kids, to stop making and selling cancer sticks, to stop raping our planet, to stop butchering animals.

And that also is a legitimate and very essential part of activism.

Anger is not always misplaced.

Lovingly educating government hawks would not alone have stopped Vietnam. Anger did. And we need anger to stop people not vaccinating, to stop cancer-peddlers, to stop ecology-destroyers, to stop meat-eaters.

David Cain April 14, 2014 at 8:36 am

I tried to be pretty clear that I was talking about arguing on Facebook, not marching on Washington. There are obviously methods of activism that work.

A gentle detractor April 14, 2014 at 9:03 am

You really can’t have gradations. You cannot support activism in the streets, but not support activism online. Often one leads to the other. The street activism does not suddenly materialize out of a vacuum. It comes because it has been in the making for a long time, and spills over on to the streets after a point.

Think of the recent Arab public uprising. It all started with online protests. Some of those protests were quite angry. Then they got angrier and angrier, they increased in momentum, the protesters realized they were not alone, that others were angry too. And then it all spilled out into the streets.

In fact, now that I think of it, the Arab spring uprising is a perfect example of online protest.

I see no reason why this should not include protesting other ills as well.


As for pressure-activism as an engine for good, if we had relied on non-angry reasonable education, there would have been no green industry, and no bars on tobacco-poisoning either, just as there is no bar on eating babies today. (I mean animal babies, naturally–as well as animal adults.)


By the way, the rant is not against you at all. Your article was terrific, as ever, and very right in its own place. But I pointed this out because I felt you were, in this specific case, missing out a very important point about one aspect of what you wrote about. That point being : it isn’t always enough to try to change a person’s behavior, sometimes you need to try to change it for them.
I’m sure the Egyptians will agree, as will throat-cancer patients and animals (if only animals could type and go online).

Mike April 14, 2014 at 9:22 am

“That point being : it isn’t always enough to try to change a person’s behavior, sometimes you need to try to change it for them.”

I hate to say it, but if this was your point then I’m disturbed. This sounds extremist. To what lengths do you go to “change someone’s behavior” for them? You talk as though you have achieved absolute truth on the subjects which you mentioned – which (in my opinion) is the first indicator that you don’t understand both sides of the issue. Forcing behavior does not change things. It suppresses them and pushes them into dark corners where they are still done. Changing beliefs one person at a time is the only way to truly change anything and that is done through discourse and societal pressure over time. Anger is great tool to motivate yourself and others that agree with you. It is much less effective as a tool to change the minds of those who disagree. There are many more effective ways to accomplish that.

Great article David.

Garrett April 14, 2014 at 10:18 pm

I think many people are activists online so as to absolve them of not engaging in forms of activism that actually make a difference.

A gentle detractor April 14, 2014 at 9:16 am

Where’d the post go? Sorry if I end up double-posting, my last did not register for some reason.

I was saying, you can’t separate the one from the other.

To take an example : the Arab Spring movement. It started online. The online protesters did two things : first, they helped spread the message, as well as spread the anger. And second, they helped others understand they were not alone, that their anger was not one-off, but shared. And they helped form the real-world process.

How can you possibly divorce the one from the other? Facebook et al are part of life now, and therefore a very legitimate and important part of protest. It’s like saying that, twenty years ago, one is fine with protesting in the streets, but not speaking angrily about something in a private home or in a community hall or whatever.


by the way, i am definitely not ranting against you here. terrific post and thought-provoking, as ever. Except this was the thought you provoked this time.

YOur articles’s fine, it addresses a very real issue very well indeed. It’s just that it seems to have missed out a very important aspect of what you were talking about (namely, angry online posts), and I thought I’d point that out.

Kenoryn April 14, 2014 at 1:54 pm

I’m not sure I agree here – I do believe that internet activism and protest or other forms of government activism are completely different things. In government protest, there is no need to change anyone’s mind – just to change the way they act/vote on a particular issue by instilling fear of political repercussions in them. We don’t have that option with family, friends, or random strangers on the internet. On the flip side of the coin, we don’t usually have the opportunity to speak directly to politicians to try to convince them of our viewpoints. If we did, you can be sure that telling them what assholes they are for not ascribing to your views would not win them over to your cause.

I think this comment illustrates one of the fundamental mistakes we make when trying to convince someone of something, which is to assume that other people are basically like us in the way they think and feel, and share our basic values (such as valuing the environment or individual animals’ lives). For example, you say that the tobacco CEO must know that his products are harming people. The tobacco CEO probably does know this. But he doesn’t feel the same way about it that you do. Fair enough, the tobacco CEO will say. My products harm people. But they only harm people who choose to be harmed by them. I’m not forcing anyone to smoke. It’s a dangerous activity that some people enjoy and choose to engage in anyway, just like skiing or mountain biking. Who am I to tell people what they can or can’t do? Should we ban skiing as well?

Now if you want to convince Tobacco CEO of the error of his ways, telling him he’s a disgusting murderous pig is not going to resonate with him. There is no way in hell he will ever say, “Oh my god! You’re right! I never realized I was a murderer until you said that!” So it’s not going to help your cause. And by including that judgment with your argument, you’ve set up a dichotomy. Either you’re right, tobacco sales are evil, and he’s a disgusting murderous pig (the option you want him to take) or you’re wrong, tobacco sales are just part of the free market, and he’s a businessman doing his job (the option he is going to take.) There is no option in there that reads “You’re right, tobacco sales influence people’s behaviour in irrational ways, and he’s just a businessman doing his job.” But that is the option you want to get to, because it’s the only one you could possibly both agree on. In order to get to that, anger and moral judgment have to be left out. Every charge of stupidity or moral failure that we lay upon a particular viewpoint has to be swallowed by the holder of that viewpoint in order to change their mind.

Anger almost always entrenches people more deeply in their existing position, because they go into fight-or-flight and find ways to fight back by rationalizing or defending themselves. Having someone angry at you is not a good feeling, and it tends to engender resentment toward the angry person. But it also makes you less credible. When you hear terms like “eco-terrorists” or “feminazis” you realize how your anger is characterizing you in the eyes of the people you want to convince. The more angry you are, the less likely you are to be rational and to be able to articulate a sensible argument that appeals to the other person on grounds they can understand. How can you convince them of something if you don’t understand where they’re coming from in their opinion? and how can you understand that if you’re too angry and too sure they’re stupid or immoral to listen? Some excellent advice from 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is to seek first to understand, then to be understood. It’s amazing how much more willing people are to listen to your arguments when they feel you have sincerely listened to theirs.

Gentle Detractor April 16, 2014 at 8:12 am

Positively my last post in this thread. I have had my soapbox crowd the party space for far too long (for which apologies, David!). But Kenoryn, your reply to me was so very nicely reasoned, I feel not replying would be a bit off. Also, I’m amazed that not one soul here seems to understand what I’m trying to say. (That I suppose simply bears out the point of David’s original post. Should I have left out the meat-eating bit, then? Should I? But suppose the Chinese read this blog? So Tienanmen square’s off limits too for the gentle detractor? Or look at it another way: Why detract at all? No skin either way, eh?)


Kenoryn, I agree for the most part with all you’ve said (and also, indeed with what David has said). This would certainly apply to perhaps 99% of all our interactions. But for some 1% of our interactions this won’t apply. (And this 1% is a very vital and critical 1%; and also, this number may be far bigger than 1% for some people at some times; so the issue remains very important.) Let me refer to this 1% as “protest communication”, although it is actually only a subset of what we generally mean by protests.
Okay, let me also emphasize that while I do feel strongly about the unmitigated evil that Big Tobacco and Big Oil are, and about eating animals (as I do about a number of other issues), these are not the point of my posts here. They were only an example. Those who do not subscribe to these issues, or are against these specific issues, may substitute them with any issues they may want to espouse. The point of what I was saying is this : that for this critical 1% of our communication, anger is a very valid response.
Let me take the example of your Tobacco CEO, Kenoryn, to explain why. The fact is that Tobacco CEO is not immortal ogre from some other planet. He is an ordinary man or woman. Call him Toby Nicotine. Now Toby knows very well he’s making products that kill other people. Now say he doesn’t know. So all right, we nicely tell him. Then, say, he says: fine, so these things kill, but we’re selling to adults, not children, it’s their choice. So then fine, nicely tell him: Toby, take three guesses why it shady characters with stubbles who sell cocaine and heroin and all the rest. At that point Toby will probably smile lovingly at you, call security, and show you his middle finger.
Ok, assume he doesn’t. Assume, first, that Toby is a very decent and sincere human being, as opposed to an evil blood-sucking monster. Assume also that you yourself are a very empathic and non-confrontational communicator. Assume finally that you and Toby are both having nice days. So Toby ends up agreeing with you.
So what does Toby do? He goes and shuts his horror factory the next day. Or he goes and stops advertising and PR that stealthily target children and young adults.
Then what happens? This : Toby Nicotine is kicked out of his job, and his place is taken by Grimm Reaperr, a no-nonsense man who quickly repairs the damage Toby has done. Or if Toby is the majority shareholder, then the headlines are even larger, but are followed by his company losing market share, other tobacco makers gaining market share, Toby soon becomes irrelevant.
That is my point : that here, you want to change behaviour, not just an individual’s mindset. Even assuming one individual Tobacco CEO is not a cynical asshole (and that assumption I personally believe is very valid, else he wouldn’t have become Tobacco CEO in the first place, but let that pass), our “good communication” won’t serve any purpose here (or will serve only a very limited purpose). By all means talk to friend Toby, and talk to him nicely. But at another level, it is absolutely essential that you also express anger, generate collective support, show collective anger. That is what activism is. That is one important way how we’ve got tobacco age restrictions, advertising restrictions, curbs on public smoking, not to forget significant damages from juries to victims of Big Tobacco.
Let me repeat. I am not saying let’s always be angry. I’m saying that for the most, when decent men talk to decent men, yes all that you say and David says applies. But there are times when anger (controlled anger, focused anger) is necessary. Not to the exclusion of calm discussion elsewhere. But this anger is ab-so-lu-te-ly necessary.
Now you may yourself not be concerned enough about people dying of nicotine-led cancer, or of the ecology going kaput, or of animals suffering the fate of the damned, or about rag-tag Vietnamese natives, or whatever. Fine. By all means focus on things you like, like your next dinner out, like your next evening’s entertainment. Or even about those issues in a nice way.
But don’t deride the legitimate, good work that so many people out there are passionately doing.
Sure, many cranks among them. Sure, many do it for vested reasons, like wanting to feel important. Sure, many are just raising a lot of hot air to mask the fact that they’re not doing much else for these causes (although I would argue that doing this much and nothing else beats not doing anything at all hollow, but let that pass). I give you your cranks and gasbags freely. But don’t throw the baby out with the dirty water.
Keep low yourself if you want to. Fine. Free country, and all that. But don’t make that out to be a virtue. (I repeat, I address not communication in general, but only a subset. An important subset.)
There, long post. And now, soapbox cleared. Dance area’s free, folks!

Hu Man April 20, 2014 at 6:47 am

Hitler also falls into the 1% you speak of. I think the importance is knowing the difference between Hitler and your average meat-eater, or where to draw the line. There is most certainly evil that masks itself as good, or ignorant, or is actually ignorant! Great comments and great, thought-provoking article.

Russell April 14, 2014 at 1:44 am

” but it’s possible I’m being ignorant in a way I don’t understand.”

Yes…. you are… we all do it, but having an ignorance in the delivery of a message is a lot different than acting with ignorance of an answer, or Ignoring an issue that needs to to be raised above the din of the euthanasia inducing fear that is paraded as ” Morality”

“Your truth” is only as strong as the amount of people who share it with you, not if you are right or wrong as an individual that “needs” to have their viewpoint adopted for validation of the message.

Nathan April 14, 2014 at 2:06 am

Can someone please explain the ending of the tale of bird article. The comment section is close on it!

Thanks so much!


Jamie Edmonds April 14, 2014 at 2:22 am

Great article. Reminds me a bit of Phil Plait’s (from Bad Astronomy) talk at a JREF TAM a few years back:


Anna Bardon April 14, 2014 at 2:38 am

I m not very good at writing diplomatic sentences…. Please read this reply with a kind and soft voice in your head…. I liked your advice about using non violent communication being a good way to correct people if you have to. Maybe you don t have time to correct your Facebook activist friends using non violent communication. I think that would have been more loving than just deleting them. Xxx

David Cain April 14, 2014 at 8:45 am

I don’t think it makes sense to try to change everyone’s mind every time. Do you?

Unfollowing someone on facebook is not the same as unfriending them. It just means their posts won’t appear in your newsfeed anymore. I think trying to debate them in such a way that they stop is probably a less kind approach then simply curating my own news feed privately.

tallgirl1204 April 14, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Sometimes the same friend whose personal updates I very much enjoy is a person who “shares” posts created by another entity that I find inflammatory and alarming. Luckily, I have a choice to hide those shared posts, or even to hide all “shares” by my friend.

In particular, I have a friend who is badly disabled, and who “shares” all kinds of “news” from other websites that are just plain upsetting to me. By hiding his “shares” I can still get his regular updates about his health and his personal struggles, without being bombarded by his political beliefs.

Anna Bardon April 14, 2014 at 3:14 am

By the way.. I forgot to say an enormous thank you for writing about the power of now. I found the audiobook on YouTube read by eckhart himself. A lot of my questions i had were just blown away. I loved reading it and have been sooo zen with my kids and my life in general. It’s one of those books that leave you feeling like you will never be the same again. His look on forgiveness was MINDBLOWING to me. I struggled so many years trying to see good in the dream, trying to analyse it etc… What a relief to know that my real self has never been touched. Xxx thanks again. Xxxxx

David Cain April 14, 2014 at 8:46 am

Oh I’m so glad you liked it. It’s a good one to go back to after leaving it for a while, because you’ll be a different person and different parts will have meaning to you.

Cascade April 14, 2014 at 3:56 am

This was a beautiful read. Sometimes I forget, when I’m trying to reveal a helpful truth to someone, that I have to be gentle and kind, instead of always using the forceful logical tone that I generally acquaint myself with.

David Cain April 14, 2014 at 8:48 am

Thanks Cascade. It is amazingly difficult to remember this :)

Carl Klutzke April 14, 2014 at 4:43 am

Good post. One of my rules for posting on my blog (when I get it started) is that I’m not allowed to post anything that makes me feel righteous. It won’t convince anyone who doesn’t agree with me already, and anyone who doesn’t agree may stop listening to me about anything else. Presenting the facts clearly and respectfully, as best I understand them, has a chance to raise uncertainty. Belligerence only incites more belligerence: the reader stops listening to you and instead thinks only of how to prove that you are wrong.

There are certainly people that do wrong, and know that they are doing wrong. I probably can’t convince those people. But most people have an instinct that makes them want to see themselves as good people, and they generally try to be good.

David Cain April 14, 2014 at 8:52 am

That is very noble Carl. There are some writers who have a way of leading you into changing your mind without ever opposing you. It’s like a verbal aikido. Socrates was able to do it just by asking a string of questions that lead you to make his conclusion on your own.

Chris @ Flipping A Dollar April 14, 2014 at 5:10 am

At work, they push six sigma or lean methodology. One of the main tenets of this is similar to the late Dr. Stephen Covey’s rule “seek to understand.” When I really do use it, I feel happier, my relationships blossom, and things just seem to go smoothly. The hardest part is the amount of effort required. Its like cleaning up every day. I constantly have to fight going back into my usual routine of just saying what I want and not caring what the other person thinks. Just like eating well or writing daily. I guess it gets easier to hop back on the wagon the more you use it. At least I hope it does.

David Cain April 14, 2014 at 8:58 am

That was my favorite of Covey’s habits. I admit it often doesn’t occur to me though. It’s really all it would take to make sure I’m not being a bully.

techisbest April 14, 2014 at 5:53 am

I do not think this article was directed at people expressing anger or self righteousness towards people, or institutions, directly responsible for bad social behavior. Internet activists are trying to develop awareness of the issue so that a groundswell of opposition becomes the force for change. Getting people to either become aware of the seriousness of an issue or understand why backing the entities responsible is not in their own best interest is difficult without either attacking a person’s ignorance or possibly their livelihood. This article was getting us to think about our approach to persuasion.

claire April 14, 2014 at 6:27 am

Hello David and others,
I recently watched Stephen Fry’s Out There: Some of the interviews he does, he is struggling sooo much between a desire to be somewhat respectful and a want to just totally deride the (awful) views of some of the people he interviews (about homosexuality and homosexuals).
Can you please write more about this topic again in future? Thank you for your article.

David Cain April 14, 2014 at 9:02 am

Thanks Claire. I am really interested in the internal battle you describe and I will be writing more about it. On my bulletin board at my desk I have an index card that says “No ad hominem.” I am trying to live this as a rule in general and it is really hard.

Edward April 14, 2014 at 3:26 pm

I found it personally very difficult when pre-Olympics my activist friends started openly, loudly, and brutally ridiculing everything to do with Russia. It mostly had to do with the attacks against the gay rights movement in Moscow. …But some of it had to do with nonsensical things toilets and accommodations. Making fun of 144 million people for any cause seems excessive. I’d reply, “I agree with you, but it’s Russia. We’ve only had equal rights laws here in Canada for what? Less than 5 years? Give them a few seconds to catch up. You really can’t bully or shame Russians ’cause they’ll dig their heels in deeper and then you’ll never win them over. …I’ve actually been there and they’re tough folks but have hearts of gold in there.”
It would be nice if people calmed down a little and discussed things rationally. …Instead of grabbing the first JPG they can find of a leader, painting a Hitler moustache on it, and then posting it on Facebook. Those sorts of actions aren’t doing anyone any favours.
Fantastic article, David, I’m bookmarking it!

Niz April 14, 2014 at 6:31 am

Hmmm, you seem to judge everyone who does internet activism that they are attached to being right and looking for other people to show their wrongness and feel good about it. I know some people who don’t feel that. Their intention is to disseminate the facts and truth, stimulate discussions, and when discussions arise, they do it with reasoning and peaceful mind, without emotions that say “I hate you that you don’t understand me – you are on the opposite side, so stay off” or “I am the one who is right and I feel proud of it, so I feel good that you don’t know the rightness like me”. I know that they have the good intention to only expose and discuss with understanding. And when their messages arise that “You shouldn’t do this”, “Please help do this”, “I feel bad that you do this and are like this”, “This kind of people make me cynic and depressed” – I myself did it sometimes but just to express the sorrowful emotions of the actual state of the world. But I now think we shouldn’t mention how people make you sad because it makes them defensive and non-receptive because they think we blame them.

Will April 14, 2014 at 6:52 am

Thanks for this article.

I’ve been gradually coming to the same conclusion. When people dig their heels in, it’s almost impossible for them to see your point of view. The same thing happens with my cat (kind of). If I force her to come and sit on my lap, she immediately hops off and is firm in her resolve to not want be in my lap, but if I lure her with her favourite blanket, then she feels safe and is purring in my lap in no time. I think we can learn a lot from animals.

David Cain April 14, 2014 at 9:21 am

Haha cats are so vain. But I think it shows us how deep this impulse is, to avoid subordinating ourselves. Kids do it too — when my friend’s daughter was three, if someone helped her put her coat on she’d take it off and throw it on the ground, then put it on herself. I noticed when I was a kid that if my parents reminded me to do something (like clean my room) once I had already decided to do it, I would refuse to do it, because I wanted it to be on my own terms.

BrownVagabonder April 14, 2014 at 6:55 am

I know I have been there, where the feeling that I want to be right overrides everything else I might know or feel. I have been in a situation where I would rather lose a friendship or relationship over being right. Of course, I have also posted ignorant updates on Facebook, without realizing what the truth was, and sometimes not caring. But slowly but surely, reading more articles like yours and other favourite bloggers, I realize that words are more important than anything else on this planet, they are powerful, and they should not used lightly. Everything that I post now, I am careful to check the sources of it, and if I can’t find the sources or confirmation for it, I do not post it. I am trying very hard to be accurate as I have seen words can destroy entire dynasties.

David Cain April 14, 2014 at 7:26 pm

Luckily it is easier than ever to get a second opinion on something. Snopes.com is a popular site for looking into memes with questionable claims.

soynog April 14, 2014 at 7:13 am

Another wrinkle: I think often the audience in these situations is not “the other side” but rather the undecided public. And though I’ll agree that angrily casting blame can entrench those who already disagree with you, it may or may not (I’m really not sure which, and I’m sure it depends on the situation) be effective at convincing undecided people that you’re right.

David Cain April 14, 2014 at 7:29 pm

Good point. It is easier to get behind an emotional appeal when it’s not directed right at you.

Sophia April 14, 2014 at 7:17 am

I don’t think many activists of any kind are actually desiring to change anyone.

For one, that would be a self-defeating pursuit, for by succeeding in changing others, the activist would lose his reason for being one. (Maybe this is why the strategies of activists are typically self-defeating.)

For two, many activists simply get an ego boost out of being activists, it’s who they are, their sense of identity is less or more built around it. They care about “being themselves,” but they don’t care much about other people, or animals, or the planet.

Someone who actually desires to change others will try to find effective ways to do so, ways that actually produce the desired result in each particular person that is desired to change, considering each particular person’s needs, interests, and concerns. Activism as we usually know it doesn’t even begin to address these things.

She:kon April 14, 2014 at 8:23 am

Oh I like your reply! This is a yucky truth that I have observed in myself sometimes. Something to think about.

David Cain April 14, 2014 at 7:36 pm

I have definitely witnessed in myself the ego boost of arguing for a cause, and it you’re right, the cause itself doesn’t have to be the point. I remember having a big debate in grade school with some kid over whether Coke or Pepsi is better. Obviously there was nothing real behind the cause at all, and I’m sure I didn’t care at all whether the other kid switched to Coke later.

Pam April 14, 2014 at 7:19 am

Thanks for the article. I am really enjoying your blog. I used to try hitting people over the head with my arguments and then wondered why I was not getting anywhere. Now I refrain from using the internet as my soap box and try to live my life as best I can. It is such an effort to work on my own faults that I have little time left to get on my soap box ;)
I appreciate your thoughts and the fact that you take the time to write about them.

David Cain April 14, 2014 at 7:39 pm

Good on you for letting it go. This blog presents me with endless soap box temptations and I still get high and mighty all the time.

Nathan April 14, 2014 at 7:20 am

Is anyone else having trouble connect to mrmoneymustache webiste?

Kenoryn April 14, 2014 at 2:09 pm

Yes, it seems to be down.

David Cain April 14, 2014 at 7:41 pm

It was down all week I think but is up now.

Jamie April 14, 2014 at 7:49 am

Thank you for this. I know in my passion for a cause or movement I’ve often done more damage than harm by approaching it in an all-too-heavy-handed way. This is a reminder (one that I need continuously) about preaching to the choir and handling all relationships with gentleness and care. Thank you.

David Cain April 14, 2014 at 7:52 pm

So have I. It’s really easy to do.

Stephen Mueller April 14, 2014 at 7:55 am

Hi David,

Excellent point you make in this post. I was off Facebook for more than a year after the last election cycle, because there were many people that would end up in my feed that seemed like they would rather try and make a mockery of the other point of view rather than try to discuss their point of view based on its merits. Handling debate like this leads us to be more and more polarized.

I’m truly grateful when I find people I can disagree with in discussion and have it still be okay. Whenever I’m engaged in a discussion like this, I think we both come away having learned something.

David Cain April 14, 2014 at 7:57 pm

Certain issues I lose patience for really quickly, and partisan politics is one of them. I wonder how many people I’ve bumped from my news feed because they kept posting election crap. And there’s probably zero chance of convincing somebody to switch parties by posting something on Facebook.

Michael Eisbrener April 14, 2014 at 8:24 am

Great POST!! YES!!!! I am ignorant almost always. Either of what just really ‘plugged me in’ or of the actual topic or [and this one nearly 100% of the time] I am totally clueless how to be to have someone actually hear my message. We are infected with a ‘marketing’ virus and we use the language of slick con men, even with ourselves. to persuade people. I will have to read this a couple times a day for awhile to have it sink in where it is most needed. Thank you David. Mirror work is always good for the soul.

nrhatch April 14, 2014 at 8:39 am

Well reasoned share, David. When I read posts I wrote 4 years ago, they seem far more harsh and strident than the posts I share these days. I’m glad I’ve settled down . . . we attract more flies with honey.

“I am patient with stupidity, but not with those who are proud of it.” ~ Edith Sitwell

David Cain April 14, 2014 at 7:59 pm

Same here. I’ll probably think the same thing about this one four years from now :)

John April 14, 2014 at 9:50 am

Valid points here about the human condition of always wanting to be right and proving others wrong.

When reading this article, I was reminded of a recent event. Not to bring religion into the discussion and who is “right” or “wrong,” but I found this article to be very intriguing: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/24/westboro-baptist-church-lorde_n_5021135.html

Duška Woods April 14, 2014 at 10:06 am

David, I agree with most of what you say with the exception of rising awareness of political injustice such as the one that was happening in Ukraine when we were asked by Ukrainian rebels via FB to tweet and express our outrage during the occupation of Maiden In Kiev. There are instances where it’s necessary to voice our disproval of particular injustice or breach of law. After all, that is how the history of the world was changed and will hopefully continue to change and advance …through ‘spreading the word’.
I have recently posted a documentary ‘The Years of Living Dangerously’ for the purpose of informing others of the serious consequences of climate change that most are not taking seriously. I was thinking maybe, just maybe some will stop saying ‘I am not in control so why should I care’?
I do think that information via internet is great, some people such as Koch brothers would never come to light to the average voters for example had it not been for the internet or FB. Furthermore I feel it gives the voice to many who felt they never had one however not pleasing to many. I am a natural ‘social activist’, have marched many times in Washington DC for women’s rights and am very much aware that i sit on the shoulders of previous generations some who paid a high price for freedom and social advances that todays generation does not remember or takes fully for granted, but that’s all together different subject, and I am probably off the subject anyway
by now…sorry, I guess you prove your point I bam venting…be well, Duška

David Cain April 16, 2014 at 11:19 am

I agree that we need to voice our disapproval sometimes, absolutely. I’m definitely not against using social media to communicate important topics. But I still think that our effectiveness in convincing somebody of a different position depends greatly on whether we trigger emotional resistance in that person or not.

StephInBerkeley April 14, 2014 at 10:30 am

Refreshing idea, well said. Thank you.

Celia April 14, 2014 at 10:55 am

As always, excellent and thought-provoking. And, in my case, convicting. You’ve made me reconsider my more strident posts. Kudos also to some of the excellent readers’ comments.

I likewise have quietly tuned out people on facebook–and have probably myself been tuned out by many more. The line for me is unthinking ad hominem or blatantly dehumanizing and humiliating others — even joking about nasty things you would like to do to opponents.

In my humble opinion, it all comes down to what the experts are now concluding about the neurobiology of decision-making: We decide with our emotions and hearts, rather than rational, calculated logic. Most of our reasoning is after-the-fact rationalization/justification. [See Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”]

Critical to this, according to Haidt, is each person’s individual mix of values, and group identity. People agree with the folks that they see as being in their group — be it liberals, conservatives, progressives, evangelicals, atheists, scientists, artists, racially-defined groups, gender-defined groups, age-defined groups, friends … you name it. They identify with/ join groups that share their core values. It might be a deeply engrained tribal thing tracing back to the dawn of our existence as social animals.

Attacking another person’s stance by attacking the person or by insisting on the wrongness of their group or values is doomed to failure–it moves hearts away from whatever is being advocated, whatever the facts might be.

So what form of persuasion will work? Subject for future Raptitude maybe? Despite your saying it is a struggle, you seem to be a master, at least to my eye, at opening up this place I call “equipoise.” I feel safe and trust you enough to put aside my preconceived opinions, values, group identity, etc and really consider what you have to say.

Toward this end — figuring out an effective form of persuasion for people with different underlying values/group identification — I’ve been reading social engineering ideas from people like Robert Cialdini. It’s all a bit manipulative (then again, isn’t ‘manipulation’ just ‘persuasion’ that works on our emotions in a problematic way?)… but the bottom line seems to be capturing hearts/emotions in various ways that draw on fundamentals of emotional decision-making. This includes, for example, appealing to group or personal identity and using the power of social proof (people tend to favor what the crowd apparently favors).

Thanks and cheers!

David Cain April 16, 2014 at 11:23 am

Thanks for this comment Celia. This is more or less what I was trying to say:

Attacking another person’s stance by attacking the person or by insisting on the wrongness of their group or values is doomed to failure–it moves hearts away from whatever is being advocated, whatever the facts might be.

I am definitely no master at communication! I have a really hard time keeping ad hominem out of my persuasive writing and this post should make that clear ;)

shreen April 14, 2014 at 11:02 am

Can I recommend an article this topic reminded me of? Google: Scott Young Why I’ve Decided to be Wrong More Often.

David Cain April 16, 2014 at 11:29 am

Will look it up, thanks shreen.

You may also like this article I wrote in 2009:


Kali April 14, 2014 at 11:20 am

Very interesting article, it puts in words some impressions I have about certain types of debates or, to be more accurate, fights, I see in real life or online.

I just wanted to point one thing out regarding the end of your post, where you write: “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.””

Maybe I can suggest a different point of view – when you share your voice, in this case through this blog, but, more generally, on any kind of debate, maybe the starting point is not to consider it a *truth* your interlocutor doesn’t have, but rather a piece of your vision of the world, that they don’t have because they are not you.

Usually, when I’m confronted to a situation where I’d like to share my different point of view, I tend to view the other person’s opinion as “his view of the world” linked to his past experiences, education etc. which makes my own reaction to his words much more open-minded and tolerant. It is also a way to see it as an opportunity to see another person’s view of a certain situation. On the other end of the spectre, if I don’t agree with his view and share mine, I try to present it as my own alternative – equal to his as another human being – and not a “truth to spread”. It helps being more nuanced and respectful in the way I form my explanation. Well, in an ideal discussion when emotion doesn’t take control, that is.

David Cain April 16, 2014 at 11:31 am

This is great advice Kali. I hope I remember it when it counts :)

Silouan Green April 14, 2014 at 11:22 am

So right, people get consumed about being right which leads to anger. Usually changing minds means changing hearts and that is a lot more genuine, delicate procedure than anger. Of course anger is a powerful motivation, and in my own writing it seems I’m constantly fighting the desire to rant. Thanks for a healthy reminder why that’s usually not a good idea.

Tony Wiederhold April 14, 2014 at 11:32 am

One of the most effective form of persuasion is letting the other person arrive at the conclusion themselves and think that “your” idea is actually their idea. I can’t see how that can happen unless one lets go of the need to be “right”, as you point out. Our untamed minds are often our greatest enemy.

Gayle April 14, 2014 at 11:33 am

Maybe some of the “arguments” are coming from paid agents…


“Among the core self-identified purposes of JTRIG are two tactics: (1) to inject all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets; and (2) to use social sciences and other techniques to manipulate online discourse and activism to generate outcomes it considers desirable.”

David Cain April 16, 2014 at 11:32 am

Yikes, that adds a whole new ugly level to things

Jay April 14, 2014 at 1:08 pm

Great discussion. I have often had the same thought while watching the political heads on TV argue. Neither is EVER listening to the other, just trying to get in their sounds bites – meanwhile the audience is almost as biassed, given the political leanings of each network. Why even listen? If you tell me I’m morally deficient for having any other opinion – it certainly shuts down the conversation right there.

David Cain April 16, 2014 at 11:34 am

I know… there’s ZERO listening going on. None! I like to look at the face of the person not speaking. You can almost see them planning what they’re going to say.

Andrea April 14, 2014 at 1:36 pm

That’s not actually true. I read many angry activist posts, and they actually make me think about the issue (even before I identified as an activist), whereas, if someone half-assedly says something new to me, I’m less likely to have a good, hard think about it because their lack of passion and conviction leads me to think that it’s not particularly important. I guess what it boils down to is that sone folks have an easier time with cognitive dissonance than others. (i.e.: if you want to remain an ingnorant ass, you will no matter how it’s explained to you)

David Cain April 15, 2014 at 9:53 am

So is it the passion that gets you on board with a particular stance, or the issue they’re talking about? When it comes to informing people about an issue I think there’s probably a middle ground between doing it angrily and half-assedly.

Erin Donley April 14, 2014 at 1:49 pm

Such an important article, thank you!

I highly suggest Susan Campbell’s book, Saying What’s Real. It’s less formulaic than Nonviolent Communication, in my opinion. When someone’s pulling a “Marshall Rosenberg” on me, I can tell. It feels like I’m being handled.

Thanks again, great insights here!

David Cain April 15, 2014 at 9:31 am

Haha… NVC can definitely be done badly. I have been “Rosenberged” before, but at least the attempt was there to understand. In most casual communication there’s no conscious attempt to comprehend the reality of the needs behind the other person’s words. I think 90% of NVC is just understanding that there are genuine human needs behind every argued position, and they’re no different than our own.

d.s April 14, 2014 at 1:57 pm

Wow. You are very brave David for using your blog to poke at such a tender spot on the human psyche (the need to be right). And sure enough some of the comments said “Ouch!”

We’ve all demonstrated at one time or another the human mind’s tendency to lack humility, self-honesty, and compassion. And this is what folks like Marshall Rosenberg or Byron Katie are trying to teach us: be honest and compassionate with ourselves and others, and others will respond in kind. Also folks like Jesus, Gandhi, and MLK (all social activists) tried to teach us that violence begets more violence – and gave their lives for the cause.

Anger is psychic violence. And compassion is the only thing that has ever worked to change people’s minds for the better.

What I appreciate most about this post is your demonstration of humility, self-honesty, and compassion. We could all use more practice.

Thank you!

David Cain April 15, 2014 at 9:26 am

It really is a kind of violence. It is especially hard to refrain from doing it on the internet, when you can’t see the person.

Rob Thilo April 14, 2014 at 3:05 pm

Try this: Change your declarative sentences into interrogatories (heartfelt and engaged, avoiding sarcasm and judgmental critique). Follow with, “What else?” How does that feel? What happens to the engagement with the other? What happens implicitly, when this approach is initiated? Doesn’t this resemble NVC? Wouldn’t you prefer to be a participant than a spectator? All conditioned things are arising and passing away. Understanding this deeply brings the greatest happiness: peace.

David Cain April 15, 2014 at 9:22 am

Great advice Rob, thank you. I guess any statement always comes off as of a challenge to the listener, because then they’re confronted with the decision to agree with it or not.

Kevin Lewis April 14, 2014 at 3:58 pm

I enjoyed this article, and I think there is a lot of value toward approaching differences of opinion with a thoughtful, open, and “safe” approach. I think assuming you have the “truth” in an argument already puts you in a bad position for having a good discussion. At best, you are probably closer to the “truth” than the other person. For instance, in your article, you characterize the anti-vaccine movement as ill-informed, but that isn’t necessarily truth.
My background is mechanical and then biomedical engineering and I work selling genetic analysis instrumentation to facilities such as the CDC. I am well versed in reading scientific literature and sorting out just what the conclusions of those papers do, or do not say. I, like you, am pro-vaccine, but that isn’t to say there aren’t valid arguments on both sides of the issue. For instance, vaccines are currently given in bunches at your childs first several doctors visits. Hepatitis B is often given at birth and vaccines are then given in bunches 4 or 5 at a time. Vaccines are hard on a childs immune system, and they are an irritant. Irritants can have negative epigenetic effects that you might not see for years aside from the relatively rare direct immune responses that are sometimes seen. It obviously isn’t ideal to hit a kids immune system with all of these stimulants at once. So, why are newborns getting Hep B shots and vaccines given in bunches?…because lots of people will miss Dr.s appointments or forget if you space them out. Why Hep B so early? Because high risk individuals could pass Hep B to their children. On the vaccines like Measles and Whooping cough, it might be less ignorance and more of a calculus of what is more likely… that my kid has an adverse reaction to this vaccine or that he gets a disease that has been virtually eliminated. I get a flu vaccine every year and will be getting both my children all of the recommended vaccines (on a delayed schedule), but people on the other side of this issue may not be ignorant… they may just disagree.

David Cain April 15, 2014 at 10:12 am

Hi Kevin. Thanks for this comment. I should have clarified this, but the vaccine remark was a reference to the claim that the MMR vaccine is linked to autism. I guess I tagged the entire anti-vaccine crowd under this banner and that’s not really fair.

Garrett April 14, 2014 at 9:41 pm

The anti-vaccine thing stems more, I think, from a conspiratorial mindset than from anger, which is not to say there haven’t been angry people who have misattributed a loved one’s (or their own) misfortune to a vaccine. Whether it’s chemtrail or anti-vaccine or 9/11 “Truther” theories, I know of 2 excellent articles on why some take to grand conspiracies. One is simply titled, “Why people believe in conspiracy theories,” by Alex Seitz-Wald. The other is “Conspiracy Theorists Aren’t Really Skeptics” by William Saletan.

Anyway, more to the point of David’s piece, there seem to be 2 distinct types of ignorance. Willful ignorance and what I call just plain ignorance. I don’t think any approach will prove fruitful on the former, but I’ve come to agree with David when it comes to the latter. I’m getting better about accepting that, which has simply meant far less time on Internet message boards (where people go to argue or seek confirmation–neither is very productive). Face-to-face conversation is likely one’s only real hope in terms of having a constructive interaction.

“Learning means letting go of a current belief…” Sometimes. But sometimes, perhaps even most of the time, learning just means gaining knowledge/information. If you learn something that had been completely foreign to you, you don’t have a prior belief to let go.

I don’t know of anyone who goes around holding and expressing beliefs that they believe to be wrong. What would be the point? Naturally, people believe they are right, which sometimes requires a certain level of dissonance reduction. I also think most people will acknowledge that they are ignorant about some things. Actually, most will probably acknowledge that they are ignorant about the vast majority of people, places, experiences and so on in this universe (not to mention other “universes” if there are any).

David Cain April 16, 2014 at 11:42 am

I think there’s probably a bit of willfulness in most of our beliefs. It is hard to be just as happy to have been proven wrong than proven right, so we cling a bit to certain beliefs just because they’re ours.

kate April 21, 2014 at 12:00 am

ah, beliefs. They are funny things…

Garrett April 14, 2014 at 10:03 pm

Another relevant reading recommendation is this article on how presenting facts can do the opposite of what the presenter expects: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/07/11/how_facts_backfire/?page=full

Kim April 14, 2014 at 11:31 pm

The amount of unaware irony in this article that starts with talking about the temptation of wanting to believe you’re right, then lectures from the presumption of being right with… pretty much no basis other than you say so is pretty amazing.

Also, you can state that Internet Activism fails all you want, but I don’t see any evidence that Marshall Rosenberg has ever accomplished anything other than get paid for advocating warm fuzzies. I know I have learned a lot of angry people on the Internet, I don’t know of any social progress ever achieved through being the nicest, least confrontational person ever.

David Cain April 15, 2014 at 9:14 am

Exhibit A, ladies and gentlemen.

I see Metafilter has picked up this article.

Amanda April 15, 2014 at 1:14 am

I enjoyed this post, David. Thank-you. Your description of the adversarial internet activist makes me think of one of my Facebook friends. I have not unfriended or unfollowed her as I enjoy and find enlightening many of the things she posts. I do, however, practice not engaging her on any of them, for I know she will respond in what I perceive to be an aggressive and all out effort to “win,” thereby taking all of the enjoyment and most of the learning out of what could otherwise be the enlightening exchange I hoped for. I stumbled on a TED talk on “Emotional Correctness” which seemed to capture what I felt she was missing when making her arguments. http://www.ted.com/talks/sally_kohn_let_s_try_emotional_correctness

Many of my experiences over the last number of months seem to keep showing me that you get a lot farther when you treat people as people first. As in, I’m finding people are much more responsive if I’m able to identify and meet their (emotional) need first. And the same applies to me as demonstrated by my choosing to not engage with my adversarial Facebook friends. I’m much more receptive when the human to human part is taken care of before the professional to professional, man to woman, or parent to child, etc. part. I’m still figuring this out, both in terms of how I can better make that connection or meet that need with others and also how I can better meet, check or identify that need in myself, especially when others aren’t doing it for me. I’m sure it relates somehow to our common humanity and compassion, but I haven’t taken the time to try and work it all out. And I’m forgetting about it a lot too.

Wan April 15, 2014 at 3:02 am

Here are my thoughts on this issue, David:

“It becomes about making others wrong instead of trying to help them be right.”
True. This usually happens when people are too passionate with their dreams of creating the world they want and forget that their foot is still on the real world. They see most people around them as the low class citizens and they, the one who possess the ‘awareness’ are members of the high class.

“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.”
That’s the thing – most of us would not admit that we don’t know things. Having some sort of ‘sense of justice’ and ‘spirit of activism’ doesn’t mean that we are more knowledgeable. However smart we think we are, we are probably not that far off from the dumb spectrum.

“Once you get attached to the feeling of being right, it becomes more important than actually being right.”
Agree. This is tied to our desire to be important and be seen as a world-changer. Each of us has ideals and we think that our ideals are the right view of the world. But relying on the feeling that we are seeing the world ‘’correctly’ rather than actually examining our ideals, we will suffer from blatant idealism.

Another thing to point out is most internet activists succumb to confirmation bias. We need to have more critical thinking activist that focuses on actually changing the right thing and for the right purpose.

Nick April 15, 2014 at 3:42 am

Hi David, good post as usual. Raptitude is the only internet blog I have ever followed, but you always leave me with something to think about. I normally don’t like to comment, because I’m sure you have plenty to read and I imagine its distracting. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve been dancing around reading NVC for the last few weeks, and putting it off. I have a strong argumentative side but I really care about other peoples happiness, and even as I read your post I could feel a part of me trying to deny that I could be hurting people or myself with my communication; in other words, my subconscious going on the defensive again. This post helped me gain some perspective on the issue and I’m going to power read nvc tomorrow, and I’ll try my best to remember to use it. I felt like thanking you for this post because I hope it will be a difference maker for me-but while I’m at it I’ll throw in my thank you for this whole website. I’m just turning 21, and to be honest I was asleep for the first 18 years, when suddenly I couldn’t avoid make decisions about my future anymore. I must have looked at hundreds of articles about picking careers and connecting with people but they always depressed me because I didn’t know the answers to the questions they asked and I didn’t want my life to be the tedium i see countless adults shuffle through here in the good ol’ U.S of A. I honestly don’t remember how I found your site, but through some stroke of fortune I came upon your “improve your quality of life by 90%” article. It completely opened my eyes about my feeling of unhappiness. Now about a year later I have a positive outlook and I want to start giving back to the world and helping others grow, and I don’t think its flattery to say that your many articles about patience, awareness, ego deflation and just generally not being an ass (i think I’ve read them all honestly) are responsible for pulling me away from my old lifestyle. This website has helped me overcome dozens of mental hurdles in the way I view myself and the world, and that has to be one of the greatest things anyone has ever done for anyone else on the internet. Keep up the good work, and don’t pay so much attention to the people who respond to you negatively. I think you should focus on those who “resonate” with your message, to use a new age-y word that i utterly despise and regret typing. I don’t know how many people that may be, but they are the people who’s lives your particular gifts and experiences can transform, to try to change more than just them is perhaps a little arrogant.Forgive my harsh choice of words, but I often find myself trying to change the minds of stubborn individuals when I should accept that I don’t know how to help them change, or even if they really need to. Anyway if you ARE reading this I’ve wasted an inordinate amount of time trying to thank you, and although I have so much more to say(and ask) I will simply conclude with this. Thank you, David.

Juan April 15, 2014 at 12:50 pm

I guess it´s all about realizing that there is no such as a THE TRUTH, only individual truths. If we are able to keep this in mind, I think we all can be much more open to different opinions, and less prone to defend ourselves from the “heresies” from other people. I confess I struggle to be diplomatic with people that don´t even consider that there might be a way of thinking different from theirs, but I have noticed that when I surrender and I don´t try to convince them, and just express my way of seeing things, relaxed and confident, they at least take my opinion into consideration.

Thanks for the article, very enlightening!

Sarah Cooper April 15, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Every time I hear those words, ‘internet activism’, something inside me dies – especially when combined with online anonymity. Great post David, thanks for sharing this

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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