(My wife Roberta and I hope that THIS IS MY SONG will be sung at Obama’s 2nd inauguration in January. It’s “a song of peace for their land and for mine” – just the message America needs to hear, and that the world needs to hear from America. “Like” our Facebook page if you agree!)
I saw the new movie, LINCOLN, last week, with my wife, Roberta. We were touched by Daniel Day-Lewis’ faithful and sensitive portrayal of the President in his last days in office as he pushed for the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, to pass Congress before the Civil War ended. We may think that the U.S. Congress is a sausage factory today. But if the film came close to accurately portraying it in 1864, it looked more like a dog food plant then. The debates were full of the strident partisanship so familiar to us today. But they included a level of foul language and personal insult that we now consider beyond the pale. And there was nothing subtle about the corruption of the political process. Patronage jobs were being handed out left and right to lame-duck Congressmen, to leverage their votes for the amendment. At the end of the process, wads of cash lubricated the most recalcitrant of the persuadables.
There were many memorable scenes in this important film. But my favorite was at the end, just after the vote was announced. Church bells rang out all over Washington. A huge crowd outside the Congress was cheering. The abolitionists in Congress were jubilant, throwing documents into the air like confetti. The members of Congress whose votes had been bought looked bewildered at first. As they felt the enthusiasm all around them, they smiled tentatively. Then they began to cheer along with the rest. They didn’t become believers in racial equality before they voted, or even when they voted. But afterward, they began to act and even feel enthusiastic about what they had done.
It was an artful portrayal of human nature. They had voted against their own racist instincts out of personal greed. But once the deed was done, they wanted to act and emote in a manner congruent with their votes.
It’s normal for us to want to see ourselves as being consistent. This aspect of our nature can be manipulated, for better or worse. A book I use in the public policy course I teach at USC’s graduate School of Social Work, INFLUENCE: Science and Practice, by the social psychologist, Robert Cialdini, explains how it works. He pointed out that the Chinese during the Korean War treated American POW’s much better than did the North Koreans. And the Chinese got more of the results they were seeking. They manipulated the American prisoners carefully, by getting them to do small acts that were on the edge of disloyalty, and then nudging them to do more and more disloyal things until prisoners were denouncing America on the radio and informing on each other during escape attempts. The same effect works in sales. Sell something cheaply to a customer, get them in the habit of buying from you, and later you are more likely to succeed in selling something more expensive to that person. Get people started down a road of behavior and they tend to stay on it, even if it’s the wrong road. But this method can get people on the right road, too. Get a racist to do something that fights against racism, and the human tendency toward commitment and consistency will do its magic to unravel the web of hatred in that person’s heart.
Thaddeus Stevens, a member of Congress, said of Lincoln’s role in the passing of the 13th Amendment that “the greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” It’s a quotation worthy of contemplation. Obviously we should not condone corruption in politics. But well short of buying votes in Congress, there is a place for using the arts of influence to aim our human nature in the right direction. Convince people to take a baby step, and then a kiddie step, in the direction of kindness and justice. Then watch the magic happen.
The film depicted a late-night encounter between Lincoln and Stevens, the radical abolitionist. Stevens wanted the end of slavery to be accompanied by full equality for blacks in America in voting and all other rights. But Lincoln knew that Stevens’ plan would backfire. Lincoln was a keen student of human nature. He knew what had to happen: just get slavery abolished. Get America toddling down the path toward liberty for all, and the other good deeds would follow in the due course of time.
Even our weaknesses can be put into the service of our purest aims. Let’s help each other to do the right thing, one little step at a time – until doing the right thing feels so good that we’ll do more of it on our own.
Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California