In It for the Long Haul: Humanism after the U.S. Election

In It for the Long Haul: Humanism after the U.S. Election November 8, 2020

Image of many hands together, forming a painted heart. Tim Marshall,, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a story. It’s 2017, and women are launching widespread public protests of the new U.S. president and his administration. Gathering to create exposure, they’re certain, will change people’s minds. Only, the research doesn’t necessarily agree: exposure to women’s concerns might bridge the experiential gap with men who don’t strongly prioritize gender in the first place, but among men who do regard gender as key to their identity, greater exposure to such protests only seemed to increase their justification for the current gender system.

Okay, but that’s just one scenario, right? Let’s look at another: You’ve got family and friends, say, with different political views — and some are particularly extreme. So, you try to expose them to the other side of the spectrum through social-media posting. More information, more ability to change minds, right? But no. Again, the research seems to indicate that, especially if you hold, say, strongly Republican points of view, increased exposure to alternative points of view will probably entrench you further in your own.

Panning out a bit, we then find an even wider body of research that illustrates our propensity toward entrenching ourselves in specific choices simply because those are the choices that we made. Once we’ve made a decision, that is, when we’re then asked to evaluate all the initial options on their own terms, we tend to value higher whatever we chose; and lower, whatever we did not. For this reason, the oft-cited term “cognitive dissonance” is about more than simply holding contradictory beliefs; it also involves an active behaviour-set of self-justification after having made any choice wherein we recognized that a trade-off was necessary. When later presented with evidence against positions strongly tethered to our self-concept, we then tend to justify why we held the position in the first place, which helps us cling to it.

Heck, we’ve even been known to forget our earlier, contradictory views on a given position in the process: convincing ourselves that we were always for the position we hold now, even when the record clearly shows the opposite.

This is why we then experience something called the “backfire effect” when trying to argue with other people’s positions; and why this can happen whether or not we consider what we’re doing as “arguing” at all. We might think that presenting strong, alternative data sets will sufficiently turn people from their original choices, but when certain ideas have been tethered to a person’s core identity, the presentation of different facts can challenge a person’s self-conceptualization. This, in turn, can lead them to “dig in,” so as to defend their sense of self.

Worse yet, this effect seems to be exacerbated when the person you’re arguing with has any doubts about their position in the first place. Instead of uncertainty opening us to the possibility of our being wrong, it instead sometimes seems to trigger a deeper emotional response; and then people advocate even more for their original position as a way of reassuring themselves of its validity.

(I’d be amusingly hypocritical if I didn’t note, of course, that some studies argue that the “backfire effect” isn’t as significant as it’s made out to be. However, in this contrapuntal study the authors seem to suggest that the backfire effect is overhyped because it doesn’t affect “the average subject” (p.4) to any great degree. And yet, as noted above, the studies that do illustrate the presence of this effect also show that the subject’s self-conception is key. So, are those dissenting papers misdirected in interpreting the significance of their findings, or am I merely entrenching myself in my original position as a reaction to opposing points of view?)

Humanism after the U.S. Election

In the wake of Joe Biden being named President-Elect, the usual entreaties have started to crop up online and in other news media: how people who voted Democratic need to be gracious to those who voted Republican; how people on the left need to reach out and start conversations of healing with those on the right; how people for whom this election was a matter of protecting human rights need to “forgive and forget” those whom they regard as having advocated for the dismantling of human rights protections in the first place.

And, of course, there are quite a few choice words being offered in response, by people with no patience for being asked to focus on the feelings of those who voted for a decidedly un-humanist politician. The panic of the QAnon crowd is not the same as their own dismay in 2016, they argue, because back then the desire of many conservative voters was to “own the libs”, “lock her up”, and otherwise see harm done to others under the guise of retributive justice. The desire now, conversely, is to advance beneficial reforms such as improved healthcare and economic futures for folks from pretty much every subject position.

Folks irritated by the platitudinous call for harmony through outreach can take heart, though, in the aforementioned body of research into cognitive dissonance and the backfire effect. Even if it were your job to try to change hearts and minds one-on-one after the U.S. general election, it’s rarely effective to try to broach such matters directly with people who are either undergoing periods of ideological uncertainty, or who have otherwise linked self-conception too tightly with some of their strongest points of view.

(And this is especially true in the case of U.S. political opinions, where research has found that in-group animosity toward the out-group can rival and maybe even surpass group-based animosity along racialized lines.)

What works instead? Well, if you are of a mind to engage someone one-on-one, research suggests that your best tactic is giving the other person to feel as if they are in control of their changing point of view. This can involve a bit of sleight-of-hand, by manoeuvring the conversation so as to have them defending a position they hadn’t held before, or by getting them to articulate the rationale for positions that they adamantly oppose. The work of “de-biasing” can also be achieved by reframing policy questions so that the other person is allowed to present their interpretation of the facts, along with what they believe a fairer approach should be, before being presented with the actual data. In so doing, opportunities can arise to illustrate where their notions of fairness already surpass the modest aims of whatever supposedly “objectionable” policy is under review.

(And, of course, all throughout this process, body language and tone are key to de-escalating a tense conversation — which is itself a strong reason why most folks will find themselves ill-equipped to do this sort of one-on-one work without it massively backfiring.)

But also, is it really necessary to focus on changing society one person at a time?

We sure love that anecdote about two people walking along a beach, with one flinging stranded starfish back into the water, while the other offers scepticism about giving aid when you can’t help them all. The first person’s one-on-one actions are wonderful, yes — but the second person isn’t wrong either, so long as their observation is then acted upon by seeking out more systemic changes.

What if we could raise the tide, that is, and bring whole schools of starfish home?

Humanism as an Unpredictably Rising Tide

Ruby Bridges published a book this year, This Is Your Time: the story of how she, at six years old on November 14, 1960, became the first integrated Black student in the U.S. elementary school system. Within her lifetime, we have seen wave after wave of injustice shift from accepted norm to the mark of primitive thinking — and often, seemingly overnight. In my own lifetime, I saw corporal punishment for Canadian children become unconscionable (and now, here in Colombia, the debate feels uncannily similar to where it stood in the ’90s); the closing of the last residential school; the rise of marriage equality and other queer rights protections; and a myriad of shifts in acceptable terminology around visible and invisible disabilities, gender/sex, orientation, and racialized groupings and ethnicities.

And I get it. I do. It can be bewildering and demoralizing to realize just how arbitrary the impetus for so many of these overnight changes have been. Why did it take Hannibal Buress making an off-hand joke about Bill Cosby for everyone to take the rape allegations seriously? What caused the sudden, stark reversal in explicit views about homosexuality?

Greater mainstream representation isn’t enough to explain these tipping points. As much as we might want to attribute changing views toward queer persons to media consumption, we’ve had prominent representation of BIPOC individuals from a range of class backgrounds and subject-positions for decades, without seeing anywhere near enough compassion turned to meaningful steps forward.

Likewise, I’m not sold on the “contact hypothesis” as a catch-all explanation for the transformation in queer-rights culture. Yes, if you already care for someone before you find out that they’re queer, you’re probably more open to having your point of view changed with respect to their rights. And yes, the same result is not as easy to achieve for, say, ethnic prejudices, due to homogeneity in many of our communities and social groups.

However, a full half of human beings are sex-female, and the vast majority of the world’s population is underserved by our economic system. How does the contact hypothesis accommodate for our highly variable performances of compassion in either domain?

We Are a “We”, for Better and for Worse

No, unfortunately, as alarming as spontaneous tipping points like the Buress remarks often seem (especially in cultures enamoured with the idea of using “reason” to advance social change), the really tough take-away from the sharp transformation in queer-rights’ popularity is that when the law changes — whenever and under whatever circumstances it may have changed — people change, too.

Marriage equality laws caused a big fuss in Canada when first tabled, for instance — but now? Now marriage equality is status quo. A “self-evident” sign of enlightened society. A non-issue, and one that people even find baffling to imagine that others ever so vehemently opposed. After all, we now know full well that the world (and other peoples’ marriages) didn’t end in its wake. Why in blazes didn’t they?

We see similar human behaviour around other political issues, too. The U.S., for instance, recently reached 54% favouring the death penalty in murder cases, which is closely paced by Canada’s 51% preference for seeing the death penalty returned for similar crimes. But Canada is far stronger in its “never acceptable” contingent (27% to 18%); and the U.S., higher in its “always acceptable” contigent (16% to 13%) — which suggests that, even when legal frameworks might not greatly change general consensus, they certainly impact the “loudest” points of view.

(Likewise, look to the wave of marijuana rights over the last few years. Funny how the world hasn’t ended there, either, and how youth are smoking less now that it’s legal, despite all the hand-wringing before these votes.)

The Catch-22, of course, is that we often need groundswell to achieve policy-changes in the first place — and therein lies our delicate balancing act, as participants in a democracy. When it comes to putting people into office, we need to reach out to others, because only after everyone’s voted can we begin to make the institutional changes we’re convinced will best raise the tide for all.

But once that threshold is reached? Once the momentum is there, and political dominance is on “our” side?

Then maybe the best way to change hearts and minds is simply to let time and policy transformation do its work, by illustrating how little our living well does active harm to anyone else. To give others space, that is, to adjust to a world wherein their greatest fears are either not realized, or else not nearly the awful realities they had imagined. To let them see how this rising tide will carry them back to the ocean, too.

The Take-Away: Long Haul Humanism

Suffice it to say, direct argumentation has to be handled with delicacy when we’re dealing with folks entrenched in extreme points of view. Cognitive dissonance tends to set people on the path of relentlessly justifying why they held polarizing views with huge trade-offs for so long; and this can lead to a particularly serious backfire effect when they’re presented with contradictory evidence that threatens their self-conception. If the holders of extreme views are in a place of doubt already — vulnerable as many might be, for instance, after this U.S. election — sometimes the worst thing one can do is to try to push home the correctness of other points of view.

What works better? Being present, being active, and being constructively joyful within our communities. Sure, we can talk to others about our differences of opinion, but it’s up to them to process how little their doomsday rhetoric matches the evidence now before their eyes. By letting them believe that they changed their minds on their own, we stand the best chance of acclimating others to the new norms. 

And thank goodness, too — because in the U.S. there’s now a lot more top-down work to be done, to build off this election’s complex and hard-won transformations. Friends in the U.S. now have healthcare reform, carceral and judicial reform, and economic reform to push their elected leaders to enact as soon as possible. Who the heck has time for hucking starfish back into the ocean one by one?

Yes, we need to ensure that everyone sees the positive effects of these changes as clearly as possible. No letting “granny death panels” slip by this time. No letting anyone trick average citizens into thinking “Obamacare” and the Affordable Care Act are different beasts.

And so, yes, improving our info silos is going to be of pressing concern for some time.

But the work of humanism has always been lifelong, hasn’t it?

Let’s all cheer a little, then, for its latest victory — and then act as if we’re truly in it for the long haul.

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