Thursday, June 08, 2017

Discourse

Kinda-sorta-not-really political post incoming:

I've been thinking a lot lately about ideas: how they are created and transmitted, accepted or rejected, absorbed or inverted. It's been weighing on my mind for a few years now, and has seemed increasingly urgent in our current political and cultural environment, with massive war camps drawn up and each side not only disagreeing on policy, but not even sharing the same facts from which to debate.

In times when the stakes feel incredibly high, it's natural for every person who cares to say, "I need to do something!" But what, exactly? With the rise of the Internet and social media, people are naturally inclined to spread their beliefs and message online. But this seems to be more or less useless. I don't think I've ever seen anyone who has said "I used to believe in X, but then a stranger online yelled at me, and now I believe in Y instead."

That isn't to say that online discourse doesn't have an effect. I think it can be effective in suppressing the expression of dissenting opinions - which sounds bad, but isn't necessarily. (If people know that they will be slapped down for hate speech on a particular forum, they're less likely to abuse other ethnicities, regardless of their personal beliefs.) Conversely, echo chambers can motivate people, making them more focused on their cause and more likely to take offline action. That might be good (donating to charities, voting) or bad (doxxing, bomb threats, murder). And, if you're lucky enough to find someone who hasn't yet formed an opinion, you may have a shot at convincing them that you're right.

But, as far as actually changing minds? It seems hard enough in the offline world. As human beings, we tend to stubbornly adhere to our world-views: we accept all evidence that supports our positions, and argue against or discredit evidence that challenges it. There's a reason people don't discuss politics in social settings: not only do such conversations get heated, but it tends to be very unproductive. And online, it's far, far worse. We can easily retreat to our bubbles and mock those on the other side... and everyone else is doing the same, or staying out of it altogether.

So, what can be done? The best solution is real-world experience. Not words, but actions. Actually changing your environment, living side-by-side with someone else, seeing problems and solutions with your own eyes. This will necessarily be anecdotal and isolated, but it's also real, and as living creatures we viscerally respond to our lived environments.

While I didn't appreciate it all that much at the time, I think one of my more formative experiences while growing up as a white suburban boy was a church youth group trip to Chicago, where we lived in the inner city and worked at public-housing projects. (And this was the grim 90's Chicago of Cabrini Green and Robert Taylor, not the shiny 21st century Chicago of Millennium Park and Navy Pier). The things we experienced were very different from our daily experiences back home, but what was far more important were the commonalities: seeing the human, finding shared expressions, recognizing that despite our differences we shared much. If I hadn't experienced that then, I don't know if I ever would have; and how would I now filter discussions about poverty, race, justice? And there are so many other things I haven't experienced: life abroad, in marginalized communities, etc.

Those kinds of first-hand experiences are the most powerful, but you can't force someone to have an experience, and most of us won't have more than a few during our lives: most of us naturally find our milieu and stay in it. The next-best thing is direct contact with someone who has had those experiences, especially if they're a person you work with on a team or otherwise have an invested relationship with. To some extent, you are forced to acknowledge them: at least as an anecdote, at least as a single data point. This doesn't trump your own experience, and you'll set it against the experiences you've learned of from others in your life. But it's real, and something that, in one way or another, you'll incorporate into your worldview. (As a side note, though, I think this is only true of people you physically meet with and cooperate with. Watching someone on TV share an emotional story won't change your mind.)

Given all the above, I, personally, have been feeling pessimistic and unmoored. I've been donating money, which is useful; I've been attending rallies and marches, which lifts my spirit; but ultimately, the project of America will require changing minds, and I don't think either of those activities really helps with that. They can win battles, of defeating bad policies and electing good leaders; but the tumor in America will still be there, poisoning the body, pulsing out hate and ready to metastasize.

So, how to change minds? I think that there's one other option, which is the weakest one but one that lies within my grasp: creating art. When people are presented with Discourse, their brains switch into combat mode: ready to fight for their side, defeat the arguments sent their way, marshaling their defenses and allies. But art bypasses all of that. When someone is watching a well-made movie, or reading a novel, or playing a video game, or listening to music, or looking at paintings, they are engaging with it as a creative work, not as a piece of polemics. Any messages, viewpoints, values, are transmitted as the artwork is consumed, and have a chance of lodging in the brain, another vector through which ideas can travel.

I've recently heard some people, who I respect, make claims along lines like "All art inherently increases empathy and is helpful." I don't think that's true. Art can transmit ideas, and artists are often compassionate people, but it can absolutely be used to transmit ideas that are incorrect or evil. The example that immediately springs to my mind is the TV show "24", which poisoned the American mind and led to disastrous policies that have damaged the world. And the relentless adoration of violence in our media prepares us, both as individuals and as a society, to consider it a natural solution to problems.

So, making art doesn't necessarily help by itself, but it does provide a narrow channel that has a chance at changing a handful of minds. If someone is a liberal, then they aren't likely to spend their time reading right-wing thinkpieces; but if a conservative enjoys fantasy, then they may spend hours reading fantasy novels or watching fantasy movies, and along the way they might absorb a couple of perspectives that they otherwise might not have encountered. Art can meet people where they are, and take them to new places.

This is absolutely not a panacea, and honestly probably not even the best use of my time. Hundreds of hours of labor might (just picking numbers at random) cause four people to soften their views somewhat. I'd make a bigger impact by spending more hours working and directing more resources to helpful organizations. But creation is an approach that can help me feel like a more full human being, bringing one other set of gifts to the table, and possibly seeing a direct line between actions I take and small changes in the world.

EDIT: Heh, odd that I would have written this on the eve of the British election. I'm still catching up on the details of the results and synthesizing info. One thing I'm especially curious about is, to what extent was this a tactical victory (inspiring people to vote, making smart party preferences), versus a change in hearts and minds (individual people actually changing their values and, as a result, selecting another party)? If the latter, how many people were persuaded by the manifesto, how many by personal conversations, how many by party campaigning, how many by online discourse? I'd love to be proven that I'm wrong, and people can be persuaded. Hopefully there's good data in exit polls or other sources, because this seems like a very valuable event to study.

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