Thursday, February 23rd, 2017

flwyd: (pensive goat)
I'm Right and You're an Idiot: The toxic state of public discourse and how to clean it up by James Hoggan with Grania Litwin, 2016

I went book shopping last weekend so that I would be better prepared to have conversations with conservatives about issues like climate change. This book sounded like exactly what I was looking for. James Hoggan is a professional in the public relations field. He runs DeSmogBlog, a site devoted to "Clearing the PR pollution that clouds climate science" and has published a book on the topic. He set out to write another book devoted to climate advocacy and highlighting climate facts, but he realized that there was a bigger problem: the public space in which our society discusses issues and comes to agree on policy is polluted, sickening democracy and making progress on any tough issue almost impossible. So he decided instead to explore what was clogging the public square and how we can engender more productive communication and enable action on important problems.

Hoggan structured the book's chapters around people he interviewed, most experts in some mode of communication. The result is a book where each part is clear and interesting, but it can be difficult to find an overall narrative. I came away with several important insights but without a full practical framework for making things better. The epilogue does help tie things together, and I'd recommend reading that first, then deciding if you want to read the rest of the book.

Hoggan's background concern of climate change and environmental concerns shows up throughout the book; most chapters share the interviewee's thoughts on how people relate to environmental facts or arguments. And while I bought the book hoping to improve my ability to have conversations around climate change, I think the book would have been stronger if he'd dug into specifics on several distinct issues. He mentions migration, gun violence, and other "big challenge" problems in passing but never talks about how someone might approach those particular problems using the ideas in the book.

Some of my key takeaways:
Experts on a topic (e.g. scientists) make decisions based on facts, rational debate, and deep investigation. Most non-experts make decisions based on emotion and narrative.
In a modern democracy, the support of non-experts is needed for any major policy. Facts are important in deciding what to do, a story (particularly one with values or a moral) is crucial in getting people to do it.
People have a self-conception in which they generally do the right thing and believe in the truth. When something challenges this view, people experience cognitive dissonance, which is uncomfortable.
If new information is presented in a way that's too shocking to that belief, people are more likely to assume that the information is wrong than that they've been wrong. It's therefore very important not to structure an argument as "You're wrong" or, especially, "You're a bad person." Instead, find shared values and express a policy proposal as a way of expressing those values.
Tell your own story; otherwise people who oppose your idea will tell your story in a way that undercuts you.
Once you've told your story, avoid responding to attacks. It's easier for folks to see an attacker as offensive if you aren't playing defense.
Anger is important in motivation, and appealing to anger "on your side" can be a good way to get folks involved in an issue.
But it's super important to drop the anger as you start talking to folks who don't get angry by the same things you do. If someone feels that you're speaking to them out of anger or that you perceive them as an enemy, they aren't likely to take your words to heart.
Self-righteousness and purity can hurt your position.
If the public sees two sides loudly asserting their own position, they aren't in a good position to evaluate the arguments and they may conclude that the issue is just a matter of personal preference or align with the side that has better hair or a slicker marketing delivery.
Change is scary.
People resist imposed change more than when they feel they have agency.
Inevitability is a terrible motivator.
To take action, people need to feel that there's hope and that what they do will have an effect.
Compassion is key to communication.
You can't make progress working with an enemy. But you can make great progress working with a fellow human being that you understand, respect, and disagree with.

One of the best paragraphs in the book comes in the epilogue:
People don't start out mired in hostility. The situation evolves. When someone publicly disagrees with something we feel strongly about, we perceive them as aggressors and we begin to question their motives and intentions. When people criticize or condemn our cause or our reasoning, our defense mechanisms kick in. Anger simmers and escalates. When people on both sides of an argument draw their positions from the perceived bad behavior of the other, they eventually start treating each other as enemies, and this provokes a perpetual shoving match and eventual gridlock.
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