Friday, February 03, 2017

We Need Better Tools Of Persuasion

A couple of years ago a high school friend of mine wrote a short piece for HuffPost about the inequities in our criminal justice system––the very disproportionate percentage of people of color who are in prison compared to their percentage in the general population. The key point of the piece isn't the inequity but our difficulty making white conservatives care about the inequity and the clear injustice. This point is important whether the issue is racial justice or economic or gender or religious justice or issues of basic practicality and survival like climate change and good government.

In his piece Gilliam discussed the problem of persuasion in the area of racial justice. Blacks are far more likely to spend time in prison than whites. Blacks are more likely to be convicted and more likely to receive prison sentences and longer sentences than whites convicted of similar crimes. Sure it’s unfair, but for some reason unfairness isn’t an effective argument against it with people who are not directly affected by the injustice, white people and conservatives. Conservatives are likely to reply that life is unfair. Hearing that far more black men are in prison conforms with the entrenched idea among white people that more black men are in prison because they commit more crimes. Even though they do not commit more crimes. Explaining this does not persuade whites who are inclined to think otherwise.

Unfortunately, some progressives are satisfied with expressing a pure and logically consistent idea regardless of its ineffectiveness, its unpersuasiveness as an argument.

We see these inequities as injustice and wonder how Americans can stand for it––if it is clearly an injustice. It has to do with mindset. The reason may be how it’s framed in arguments and discussions and political discourse. In recent decades white conservatives have done a very effective job of creating white unease over the issue of race and religion and orientation and otherness.

Now psychologists have learned that it is unhelpful to counter those carefully created sentiments (that are cemented daily by FoxNews and talk radio) by explaining they are incorrect or hateful or unChristian, which they are.

It is better to reframe the issue in terms the other side is likely to understand and relate to. We aren’t persuading ourselves here. We are trying to persuade them.

Here are the relevant paragraphs from Franklin Gilliam’s piece at Huffington Post:

"In a series of experiments, [Stanford psychologists Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt] report that, “...exposing people to extreme racial disparities in the prison population heightened their fear of crime and increased acceptance of the very policies that led to those disparities”. Hetey and Eberhardt conclude that “... bombarding the public with images and statistics documenting the plight of minorities” is unlikely to increase support for progressive reform policies."

"We have found that starting a conversation with the American public by essentially claiming the system is racist does, in fact, dampen support for progressive reforms. But, and this is an important finding, our research also shows that starting the conversation with the values that many Americans adhere to, and then pointing out racial disparities, is effective in garnering support for progressive reforms.

"In a recent piece in Slate, Jamelle Bouie argues that, “...advocates might want to try different language (or a different approach) in their campaign to reform the criminal justice system.”

"We believe we have identified a better strategy that allows advocates to both use facts and talk about race. Paying attention to values and order in criminal justice reform communications is an important framework for moving public will."

Which is, essentially, the same argument made in an Atlantic piece this week. The Atlantic also buries the gist in its discussion and supporting information.

The gist is: frame the argument in values which the other side already has, like patriotism and faith, instead of trying to prove they are dead wrong… even if they are.

The article in the Atlantic this week can be read here

We need to integrate these findings into how we work to persuade people. Our scripts need to be less about gratifying our own feelings of righteousness and anger and more directed at changing and shaping opinions that are different from ours.

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