January 31, 2017

Taking the Low Road

I've found myself on what I can most charitably call the unpopular side of most arguments about politics, lately. I like to tell myself it's because I'm being relentlessly reasonable, which may well be the title of my autobiography one day, but I expect to a certain degree that's self-rationalisation. Either way, the end result of that is that I usually come out saying "Trump isn't trying to create an authoritarian state," and "Trump voters aren't so bad," and you can no doubt understand why this is often the unpopular side of the argument when one runs, as I do, in social groups that tend towards the left of the political spectrum. Hell, I've been piled on so much the last few months I've begun to feel kind of gaslit myself by my liberal friends.

But look, we can disagree for the rest of time over whether the Trump presidency or his supporters are as bad as the worse predictions, so this time I won't ask you to come there with me. The thing is, though, successive Republican congresses and presidents have brought us closer and closer, each time, to the sort of political climate where Trump can get elected, and that matters, because like it or not half the electorate still voted for the increasingly conservative right. (Of course, Hillary got more votes than Trump, but Republican candidates for the house got more votes than Democratic ones, so I'm inclined to call it a draw.)

I say this not to defend or justify any specific Trump or Republican policy, but to point out that conservative policies, by and large, can't change and still be conservative, whereas any voter can in theory be persuaded to vote for the other side with the right tactics. You're welcome, of course, to dig your heels in and say that anyone who voted for Trump is an irredeemable asshole who could never be persuaded to do something as reasonable as voting for a left-wing candidate — but for my money, there's still more chance of changing a human mind than rewriting a political doctrine, so the former is where I choose to put my effort. And, to be clear, I choose to expend that effort not by, say, donating money to swing races so that increasingly left-wing candidates can attempt with greater amounts of increasingly left-wing campaign material to sway increasingly right-wing voters onto the right side of 50%, but by approaching the problem as, like I said, a human one rather than a political one.

This is around the time when people tell me I'm being naive, or normalising, or using the moral high ground as an excuse not to take real action. So let me be clear: I am not now nor more than very rarely taking the high ground about anything. (Read the rest of my blog; my wheelhouse is mainly dick jokes.) So when I say something like "the Trump presidency isn't so bad," or "Trump voters aren't so bad," or "let's give them a chance," it is purely, self-servingly, entirely because I want a left-wing candidate to win the next election. And I don't believe that will happen as long as the most vocal left-wing voters are the ones who think all Trump voters are idiots or Nazis or both.

That's because there is a large body of reliable and replicable social science research into the most effective (and ineffective) ways to persuade people to agree with your point of view, and though I should have thought some of these were self-evident, here's a quick list of the most widely accepted dos and don'ts:

Things that don't persuade peopleThings that do persuade people
Calling someone a Nazi/idiot/fascistGetting someone to make small-bordering-on-insignificant, incremental concessions to you (because each time someone takes your side, no matter how piddling the issue, they are more likely to take your side again in the future, and on bigger issues too).
Punching someone (*perhaps because you believe them to be a Nazi, perhaps not)Modifying someone's "choice architecture" to make them more likely to choose what you want (e.g. Not "Do you think the president should protect our borders from Muslim terrorists?" but "Do you think the president should violate the fourth amendment and the Immigration and Nationality Act?")
Telling someone that they are unequivocally wrong about everything they believe in.Telling someone that they clearly have valid reasons for holding their beliefs, thereby making them more likely to accept your compromise when you offer it. (*N.B. This might require the exercise of empathy to understand why someone would hold an opposing belief.)
Framing everything as nothing short of a cultural war in which there can only be one winner.Making some concessions. People are more likely to do you a favour when they feel indebted to you. (N.B. This obviously cuts both ways, given my first point about concessions. That's good. The more everyone in the country feels indebted to each other, the less likely they are to kill each other. Science!)

I also want to take a minute to be clear about my units of analysis here. I am not saying anybody needs to make concessions to Steve Bannon or empathise with Donald Trump (though I am saying you shouldn't punch anyone, Nazi or not). To the extent that this kind of conflation is reasonable, I see Bannon and Trump as equivalent with "right-wing doctrine," and therefore largely unchangeable. I'm also not saying that their opponents shouldn't consider all legal recourse to stop Bannon and Trump implementing their doctrine. But neither doctrine nor Bannon nor Trump is interchangeable with the people who voted that way, and those are the people whose can still be persuaded to vote for someone else. Those are also the people who won't be persuaded to vote for someone else if we repeatedly force them to publicly defend their views by calling them Nazis and idiots. When you get someone to state a belief out loud, they are less likely to give up on that belief in the future.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I know this approach is unpopular. People are afraid that taking this kind of "soft" approach, instead of militancy, will only give the right more opportunity to press their advantage and drive us towards a new fascist dictatorship. I don't disagree that, in the context of government, that's true. But in the context of voters — and I'm going to keep drawing this distinction — it's not true. Look at same-sex marriage: it went from 27% approval in Gallup polling in 1996 to 53% in 2011. And yes, there were militant aspects to that movement, of course there were. But it also did a lot of the things above: it made incremental steps (civil unions in some states, repeal of DOMA, Obergefell); it changed the choice architecture (not "should gays be allowed to marry" but "should people who love each other be treated equally regardless of gender"); it expressed an understanding of the opposing side's beliefs ("we know you're afraid that this will destroy the institution of marriage, but that's not what we're trying to do"); and, crucially, it largely didn't frame the issue as about defeating a group of bigots.

So let me say it again: this isn't about taking the high ground. It's not even, jokes aside, about being relentlessly reasonable, except insofar as I think — and so do most of the most militant lefties I know, about most things, in most other circumstances — that the most reasonable and rational course of action is usually the most effective one. And let me say this again, too: you'll never make right-wing ideology left-wing. By definition it's impossible. But it is possible to make right-wing ideology less popular, and if everyone could focus a little more on changing minds and a little less on winning the culture wars, we might be able to do just that. If you want to persuade me otherwise, just remember: I'm not a Nazi.

January 25, 2017

On Trump, Normalising, and Bike Paths

I had a somewhat delayed post-election epiphany about a bike path the other night that I feel like sharing, but before I do, full disclosure: I, perhaps like you, am pretty tired of hearing about Donald Trump. I thought I had Trump fatigue by the end of the campaign, but Jesus, back then seems breezy compared to the endless, over-wrought handwringing dragging down Facebook these days. What happened to the drunk pictures and stupid memes, guys?

Okay, I'm being glib. I get it. Donald Trump, on the evidence, has a number of character traits and apparent ideological positions and an overall air of dumbassedness that are unprecedented in modern presidential history (if you discount Nixon for the character traits and Reagan for the ideological positions and W. Bush for the dumbassedness, but yes, all three in one president is a first). Certainly, it's unsettling imagining the potential consequences of some of the things he might do. And no, I don't agree with the deft synecdoche most liberal pundits deploy by which Trump supporters = Trump = the return of the Nazi party, which strikes me as intellectually lazy and unnecessarily alarmist a lot of the time, but on his own merits I also don't expect Trump to shower himself in distinction as a commander-in-chief. That's why I didn't vote for him.

Still, I get tired of the doom and gloom. I remember the early years of Bush II, remember how fucking terrified I was, as a nineteen-year-old, by all the forecasts and prophecies about the first steps towards an authoritarian state, and the start of World War Three, and terrorist retaliation against the U.S. I was so terrified, in fact, that I did what a certain segment of the Democratic Party–voting U.S. population often threatens, and actually moved to Canada. After a few years, though, it became clear that none of those awful things were coming to pass, and to top it all off the same country then elected Obama, widely regarded as one of the most thoughtful, liberal, modernising presidents in recent times. Everything, it seemed, had turned out okay. And that's why I'm pretty sanguine about the actual prospects of a Trump presidency. I've heard these cries of wolf before.

This is the point where you accuse me of normalising. And yes, I'll cop to that, inasmuch as I am pointing out that a lot of the things Trump has done since taking office do reflect the norms of the presidency in the last fifteen years. His plans to restrict refugees from certain Muslim-majority countries? Actually less restrictive than what Bush II enacted in 2002. (It was called NSEERS, and was in effect until 2011. Look it up.) The Keystone Pipeline? I mean, come on guys. Obama didn't nix that until like literally three months ago, and if you recall even that took some cajoling. The ban on funding for global organisations that offer abortions? Bush II did that too. So did Bush I. So did Reagan. I'm not saying these are good things, or calling them norms in the prescriptive sense. But they are norms in the descriptive sense and that's worth acknowledging, because they're bigger than Trump and making it about him is counterproductive long-term.

All of this to say, sorry for adding to the weight of post-election armchair punditry, and sorry for normalising or whatever, but this epiphany, right?

So I'm walking home from the train station, along a poorly lit pavement near my building that is wide but perhaps not quite wide enough to be divided, as it is, into a half-and-half pedestrian walkway slash bike path. It's kind of a terrifying sidewalk, to be honest, and one I might avoid if it weren't the quickest route home. If you're crossing to it from the other side of the street, you have to navigate three lanes of traffic and then step immediately onto this bike path before you can get to your pedestrian sanctuary, and not a lot of effort has been put into making that fact obvious. There are no signs, there are only tiny little bike symbols painted onto the bike path at very long intervals, and the bike path itself just looks like part of a normal pavement. Yeah, it's got slightly different asphalt laid down, and there's a narrow concrete strip dividing bike path from footpath, but in the dark it all just looks like kind of a wonky pavement and let's be honest, if you're a London pedestrian you don't tend to notice that after a while because they're ALL wonky pavements.

But so I'm walking home, having successfully navigated these various dangers myself, and up ahead I see a lost old woman stop, on the pedestrian side of the pavement but right next to the divider. She looks to her left (away from the bike path), and realises that she is going the wrong way, and finally starts to turn around to the right — in a way, I have to emphasise, that is totally reasonable if you believe you're just standing in the middle of a normal pavement, and reckless only if you're aware that what you're doing is going to make you step directly into a commuter bike lane at rush hour.

Luckily, the cyclist careering towards her has also seen this coming and slams on the brakes and skids to a stop about two inches from her. He looks exasperated — but in a way, I again have to emphasise, that is totally reasonable if you've just shit your pants grinding your bike to a halt because you thought you were about to kill an old lady who wasn't watching where she was going. He doesn't say anything to her, but you can see it in his face, and she clearly can too, because she yells at him that she wasn't expecting him to be there, and at that point he finally yells back that, well, it is a cycle path, so she should probably pay more attention. And then they both just stand there smouldering at each other for a few seconds before he starts to ride off again. (It was a very British argument.)

And this was when I had my epiphany. Because both of those people had ample reason to be fucking furious at the other, right? The privileged young white man and the old black lady alike. No wonder they stood smouldering at each other for a while. He almost fucking killed her! She almost fucking caused an accident! How fucking stupid could he/she be?! They probably both went home and told their friends and family about the fucking moron who almost fucking sent both of them to hospital!

But let's face it: neither of them was really at fault. The problem was that goddamn bike path. And that suddenly struck me as a neat metaphor for the thing that has bothered me no end about the election's aftermath, about the campaign, and about politics in general in the United States ever since 9/11. Everyone is so busy painting the other side as imbeciles who are going to kill us all, that nobody is actually doing much about the real problems. You can keep signing and un-signing that executive order banning abortion funding as long as you like, but even restoring the funding doesn't really address the underlying cultural forces that mean women around the world get pregnant against their will way more than is acceptable. (i.e. at all.) You can also do and undo the Keystone Pipeline as much as you like, but at the end of the day, as long as the U.S. still needs this much oil, it has to come from somewhere and that means someone is going to get the shaft.

This is over-simplifying, okay. Of course it is. It's a fucking metaphor, that's the point. But it's still, I think, an instructive one. Do you know how many unrelated, disparate, piddling, unimportant decisions went into making that bike path the way it is? One bureaucrat had a bike path quota to meet and several other bureaucrats had lighting and road improvement budgets to slash, and all of them -- and indeed it sometimes seems the whole of my borough council -- were caught unprepared in general by the enormous push for gentrification in my neighbourhood over the last decade. And gentrification, of course, is a problem in itself, and one I'm a part of, but even that boils down to a lot of individual people making roughly the same, very reasonable calculation: I have a job in London, and I want to be able to get to and from that job to a house that I own and still have enough time left over after commuting to see my wife and/or husband and/or kid and/or friends. (For that matter, the fact that London is the place where so many people have to find work takes us onto another long history of once-reasonable decisions creating unintended consequences.) To claim that somehow all of that can be boiled down to "it's your fault for being on my side of the bike path" is, I hope we can all agree, also grossly over-simplifying.

To be clear, I'm still not saying we should restrict immigration or cut funding on the basis of abortion services or reinstate the Keystone Pipeline. What I am saying is that all of these issues are at the nexus of several much larger, much more complicated problems, most of which result from people with conflicting needs and beliefs making exquisitely rational decisions on the basis of those needs and beliefs over a long period of time, and in the process creating social forces that are much larger and more serious than the sum of their parts. And as easy and as satisfying as it might be to look at it all and say "fucking Trump, what a Nazi, just like anyone else who doesn't also say he's a Nazi," that not only won't address those larger issues (even assuming that calling anyone a Nazi is ever a good way to solve a problem), but it will actively make those issues harder to solve — because an issue like immigration across somewhat arbitrarily drawn national borders is not something you can definitively fix or unfix with a single executive order or act of congress or whatever. It requires long term cooperation and concerted effort of the sort that just doesn't happen in the current political climate.

So let's cool it with the new world order talk, okay? Don't forget that the right spent much of Obama's administration calling him an undercover fascist, and if you're on the left (and I assume you are if you're reading this) you probably switched off as soon as you heard someone suggest that. So what makes you think anyone on the right will take you seriously now that you're doing exactly the same thing to their guy? The validity or not of the accusation is irrelevant; it's basic psychology that nobody will want to cooperate with you or even listen to you if your starting point is likening them to the most notorious and murderous political movement in modern history. That doesn't mean you have to roll over and pretend everything Trump is proposing is okay. It doesn't mean you can't fight, vigorously, to fix what you see as the world's biggest problems.

But as long as we're all screaming at each other about who's on the wrong side of the bike path, we're never going to make anything better.