Human beings are not wired to find the truth, they are wired to win. It’s basic human nature. You defend what you believe to be true, often even more emphatically if you are shown errors in your thinking (Fascinating research by Mercier & Sperber led to their idea of the argumentative theory of reasoning, which proposes we are built not to find the truth, but rather to argue to win).
How do you then talk about big things like politics or religion or human rights to an audience who are diametrically opposed to you? In fact, can you reach an audience who frankly hate you? Is that even possible?
Well, You first…
The starting point is that you have to look at your own beliefs as having the exact same flaws. If you cannot examine your own bias, it’s almost impossible not to be caught in the trap. So, let’s examine my motivations in creating this blog content. I would argue that it is to promote the uptake of equal human rights. Sounds noble? It could also be interpreted as attempting to impose cultural and religious hegemony on groups that hold differing views on, for instance, the LGBT community or women. See a difference? The interpretation in tone and idea in the first is to rally, unite and bring a sense of peaceful harmony – all of us singing kumbaya around the campfire. The second idea is pretty close to what the Spanish Inquisition, the Christian crusades and every fundamentalist Islamic group wage(d) their wars to achieve.
Ideology is always a weapon, it’s just a matter of who is wielding it and how. We need to understand those opposites, and embrace them.
Being right means you won’t win.
Most people don’t realise this. It’s almost impossible to occupy the position of “right” without subjugating your opposition. If you are right, you are immediately not allowing the “other” any room to manoeuvre. Why? Because most of us reason from a myth of binary oppositions (Our thinking isn’t built for holding contradictions; it causes what is known as cognitive dissonance). This age-old chestnut simplifies positions to polar opposites and requires that if you are “right”, the only other position is de facto “wrong”.
This, quite fundamentally, is horse-shit. Both sides might in fact be right or wrong or, more commonly, have accumulated a list of both rights and wrongs.
The real casualty is of course compromise. If you are on the side of “right” and “good”, then compromising becomes “dealing with the devil” and selling out. You can look at Israel-Palestine, or Republican-Democrat or any of the polar opposites that live in this binary. Because winning requires the other side to cease to believe in their own “rightness”; it is inevitable that both will push for the destruction of the other.
What are the options?
Start with the wisdom of psychopaths; that responding based on emotions will not get you what you want. Most people follow a leader because they are led by what they feel. Most people who are good at leading make decisions critically and not emotionally (a trait distinctive in successful CEO’s, politicians & psychopaths).
Solution? One of the world’s greatest politicians was the master manipulator Mandela – check out this clip which speaks to his ability to not respond from “feeling”. I think his ability to “win” politically is almost unrivalled in history.
The lesson is easy to understand, and incredibly difficult to act upon. Subjugating our feelings is often necessary to achieve a desired outcome – and the benefits are of an order of magnitude difficult to comprehend (or just watch this for some inspiration).
But feelings trump facts.
The power of story is underpinned not by facts, but by what they inspire in us. Like the myth of binary opposites, what happens is that ideologies get bundled together under the banner of belief.
Just look to the USA’s presidential campaigns and Trump’s lead of the GOP. We must ask, what about his position is so appealing? What seems to be emerging is that Donald Trump could have said that he is supporting colonising Neptune and waging war on Australia. The content was not the biggest issue, it was the fact that he was dissenting from the perceived rhetoric of the “other guys”. His ticket to win has been “straight talk”. Valued way over the actual talk itself it seems. You see…
If everyone is selling the “truth”, then we cannot trust the facts.
In a recent study called “How to Talk about Immigration” by Katwala, Ballinger and Rhodes, a gem appeared on page 30 that shines a light onto the problem of charged issues (like migration). When it comes to public opinion, most people
think governments have failed to get a grip. So why would they believe the numbers which the system produces?
If all sides are quoting the facts that can support opposite positions – then why rely on facts at all. This is huge. By turning everything into a brand to be sold (including our ideas and beliefs) the general public sees the touting of facts as just another way to sell something. Now do you see why we are celebrating ignorance? Because the constant spin-doctoring has meant collateral damage to how we perceive the avalanche of information. In a word, we put all of it into the “probably bullshit” category, and we go with what we feel. Uh-oh. But wait, there is a light here.
The masses might not be as mindless as we imagine.
The same study found that most people are not full of toxic emotions, 61% of the UK public, for example, are happily in the middle on many of the issues. They can be engaged with, reasoned with, and argue rationally. That’s amazing, and explains why a Muslim, Sadiq Khan, just took the mayor of London position, because the fear mongering is only appealing to the edges of the bell curve. The media is, once again, guilty of spinning us a fearful fairytale.
Engagement means empathy, and it works both ways
I have quoted Lucy Christopher before, but here again her words ring true:
It’s hard to hate someone when you understand them.
If you watch movies about serial killers, the trope has always been that the detective must metaphorically “be inside” the killer’s mind in order to catch them. The underlying message is that between killer and cop the difference starts to disappear. In fact there is an implicit warning – you could in fact be just like me. How often, except for a random chance of birth, is that not patently true for all of us?
If you want to reach out to an audience you have to engage in why they believe. Whether it is sexism, homophobia or racial hatred, it is real and true for them. It doesn’t matter if you feel it’s false, and especially if it is in fact false; because in order to understand you can’t simply charge in, guns blazing.
Do not directly sell your ways, your beliefs or your products.
One of the most powerful plays in today’s media are those that don’t collide head-on. They sneak in because they don’t attempt to hard sell or confront directly. I have mentioned this approach as a key in creating empathy in Immersive Storytelling. The examples are incredible in the world of Alternate Reality Gaming, The Beast, I Love Bees and Why so Serious? They allow us to enter into parallel worlds to engage in epic, awe-inspiring stories. The by-product in each case were sales of products (AI, Microsoft Halo and Dark Knight) that broke every record in the book.
The key is to have your message as a by-product of the engagement. If the message can emerge as a co-creation with your audience then they are no longer your opposition, but your ally. Or, if you know you are right get out your guns. In our current world they will kill the messenger.
Brett Lotriet Best is the Founder & Creative Director of EdenRage Media, check out their Immersive Storytelling work at www.edenrage.tv. Go on, take a bite! Picture thanks to Unsplash, Joshua Hibbert