I’ll be honest, sometimes I get into arguments with progressive friends about what the current political movement requires. There are well-meaning folks passionate about social justice who think things have gotten so bad, the lines have been so starkly drawn, that we have to fight fire with fire. We have to do the same things to the Republicans that they do. To adopt their tactics. Say whatever works. Make up stuff about the other.
I don’t agree with that. It’s not because I’m soft. It’s not because I’m interested in promoting an empty bipartisanship. I don’t agree with it because eroding our civic institutions and our civic trust and making people angrier and yelling at each other and making people cynical about government, that always works better for those who don’t believe in the power of collective action.
(Barack Obama’s speech to the University of Illinois on September 7, 2018)
It will come as no surprise that I agree with President Obama on this point. It was nice to hear him articulate it anyway. I have been at odds with some of my liberal friends and allies over similar issues this last year or so. I’ve had a few people on the left criticize me for not being aggressive and strategic enough. One old friend said, “We keep losing to Republicans because we refuse to fight dirty, like them.” Another acquaintance, who had been a big supporter of our journey initially, was disappointed in my moderate tone, telling me I was “living in privilege” with my “head in the sand.” When he accused me of being a Nazi sympathizer and started attacking my friends, I ended our online relationship. At least for now.
I don’t doubt the purity of these critics’ motives, or the need for justice in their various political comeuppance fantasies. I just don’t think rhetorical violence will work. And I don’t think the discourse of revenge ultimately shapes the kind of society we want left standing when the smoke clears. Maybe I’ll change my tune as days get darker. Check back with me on that.
But for now, I’m driven by the desire for a better discourse and a fairly strong understanding of how persuasion works. In this Freakonomics podcast episode, psychologists Shai Davidai and Tom Gilovich talk about their research on headwind/tailwind asymmetry. I think it’s really helpful.
If we recognize headwinds as barriers and obstacles to progress, and tailwinds as the benefits and advantages helping us along the way, Davidai and Gilovich argue that we are inclined to overestimate our headwinds and take our tailwinds for granted. As a consequence, most of us tend to be pretty negative and resentful more than we are contented and grateful.
We met two white couples in Florida last year – one couple conservative and the other liberal – who all claimed white heterosexual men were suffering more discrimination than any other group in our society. They were all parents of young boys, and expressed concern about their sons’ rights being protected into the future. They told a few specific stories where people of color and LGBT people gained advantages and white people were accused or treated unfairly. These examplars loomed large as signficant headwinds, but there was no discussion of the immense advantages they possess as relatively successful, wealthy white people living in an affluent neighborhood in a city that is gentrifying and growing rapidly. On balance, the advantages are still very much in their favor.
I’ve always been stuck on how to address the issue of privilege to someone who doesn’t see it (it’s invisible to them, which is the very nature of privilege), and reacts angrily to any suggestion they benefit from anything more than their own efforts. Pointing it out and criticizing them doesn’t work. You might be correct and you might feel righteous doing it, but it’s almost never helpful. In fact, it creates more headwind.
What Davidai and Gilovich helped me understand was how this asymmetry explains some of our strange cultural and political shifts.
We all have people in our lives who support attitudes and agendas that seem contradictory with that person’s professed ethical and moral beliefs. For me, it’s the perfectly kind, devout person of faith who gives full-throated support to a president who is demonstrably offensive and immoral in a multitude of unprecedented ways, while excusing his behavior with oblique references to Court appointments, the economy, or matters of law and order. I understand the support for the policy outcomes, but not the support for him as a person. The obvious hypocrisy stumps me. (For the record, I’m sure some of my friends on the other side of this equation are mystified by my values and rhetoric.)
The headwind/tailwind asymmetry research shows that when a person or group overestimates their headwinds, they go into crisis. Dwelling on it – through, say, a steady diet of cable news, talk radio, and pastors and presidents constantly drilling them on how persecuted they are – heightens the sense of crisis and the perceived severity of the headwind. When we face seemingly insurmountable odds, we are inclined to overlook, excuse, and justify the misbehavior and immoral attitudes of those speaking and acting on our behalf. So, if you are convinced brown people, gays, and secular humanists are threatening your wellbeing, you will likely excuse a foul-mouthed, misogynistic, dishonest, adulterous, narcissistic leader, if he promises to make the world of your historical fantasies great again.
Here’s where it gets applicable to our current moment, and this dispute over methods and strategies: When we ridicule, name-call, attack, scorn, dismiss, or otherwise dehumanize those who are already perceiving a stiff headwind, they will not turn and run for the hills; they will not collapse in front of you and ask your forgiveness. They will double down. They will rally around a leader who says the equivalent of “Fuck those idiots. Stick with me, no matter what, and I’ll do something. Something huge. You just wait and see.” That sounds like hope and change to them. And they will suspend whatever Constitution or constraint of good sense to get it.
So, if we want the madness to stop, we shouldn’t just get louder, snarkier, and more violent in response to the volume and aggression. We sow more division and chaos. We’ll lose. All of us. We have to reach beyond our tribe, talk to people who see things differently than us, work for understanding, vote, and organize for collective action. Obama closes this loop: “[W]e won’t win people over by calling them names or dismissing entire chunks of the country as racist or sexist or homophobic. When I say bring people together, I mean all of our people.”