One criticism we’ve heard over this last year is we aren’t talking to a wide enough variety of people. A typical comment is, “You should talk to my aunt. She watches InfoWars everyday and thinks the Parkland shooting survivors are all paid actors in their twenties who never attended that high school.” I will talk to your aunt – just like I’ll talk to a child who eats paste, the dude who strapped himself to a rocket to prove the Earth is flat, or a liberal who thinks all conservative evangelicals should be sterilized – not because it would be useful, but because it would be weird. I like weird people. But it wouldn’t be helpful. Colorful isn’t always meaningful. The culture of narcissism, infotainment, and reality TV has soaked so deeply into our pores, enigma has become intrinsically valuable. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe our project will never be popular because we didn’t look for the most clownish, deviant people possible to interview. Let me clear about this: I don’t give a shit.
I feel pretty good about the 700+ people we’ve met so far. Many of them have challenged our thinking and made us uncomfortable, and a small number have been unfriendly, but all of our conversations have been civil and reasonable. There’s no doubt we would get more attention and traffic if we were dragging more fringe-dwellers out of the shadows and onto the stage, but that’s just spectacle. Isn’t that a big part of how we got in this mess?
I’ve been reading social psychology lately, and I’m making some connections that help me explain my rationale.
Many interpretations of the Müller-Lyer Illusion data show subjects who dwell in more rectilinear (oh, stop it) or “carpentered” environments (like developed urban areas, with more straight lines and right angles) are more susceptible to the illusion than subjects from more natural, less engineered habitats. It’s led me to consider the possibility our geographical, educational, religious, political, or cultural environments may establish a strong heuristic for our decision making, our “seeing.” It may turn out we’re objectively wrong, not because we’re malicious, but because our vision is altered by our environment.
Add to that the Asch Paradigm. The experiment tests the propensity of people to conform to an opinion that is demonstrably false. In the original studies about a third of the subjects were consistently swayed by the group, with up to 75% giving at least one incorrect answer. Some admitted to giving in to peer pressure, but others experienced an actual distortion of perception. They saw the lines differently because of the social pressure they experienced.
I’m pairing up this research with comments from experts we’ve interviewed on the road who have said up to a third of us won’t alter our support for Trump if he literally shoots someone on Fifth Avenue. It’s likely the same could be said for up to a third of us who would never support him, even if he successfully negotiated world peace and the people of all nations held hands and sang “Kumbaya.” That leaves a solid third in the middle who are too busy being Americans to have strong opinions, or who remain persuadable, or are at least still capable of civil discourse. I’m optimistic; I would steal 5-10% from each end of the spectrum, giving us about half the country still eligible for better conversations.
The humility, empathy, and honesty we keep talking about isn’t acceptable and won’t be helpful for about half the country. I think it’s still helpful for the other half. That’s who we’re interested in talking to.
*Our project isn’t solely about Trump and politics, and I realize I lack the footing to make any scientific claims here…it’s just a thought experiment. I’m just interested in what you think.