Persuasion vs Shaming

01 Jun 2015 10:34 pm
Posted by: Donna

Post screenshotScreenshot: PostTV

Last Friday evening a bunch of racist idiots thought it would be a great idea to hold a protest outside a Phoenix Mosque. Luckily, there was no violence (despite how heavily armed many of the anti-Islam protesters were) and something kind of wonderful happened:

Jason Leger, a Phoenix resident wearing one of the profanity-laced shirts, accepted an invitation to join the evening prayer inside the mosque, and said the experience changed him.

“It was something I’ve never seen before. I took my shoes off. I kneeled. I saw a bunch of peaceful people. We all got along,” Leger said. “They made me feel welcome, you know. I just think everybody’s points are getting misconstrued, saying things out of emotion, saying things they don’t believe.”

Paul Griffin, who had earlier said he didn’t care if his t-shirt was offensive, assured a small crowd of Muslims at the end of the rally that he wouldn’t wear it again.

“I promise, the next time you see me, I won’t be wearing this shirt,” he told one man while shaking his hand and smiling. “I won’t wear it again.”

Usama Shami, the president of the ICCP, invited anyone to join him and the 800 members of the mosque for a prayer.

“A lot of them, they’ve never met a Muslim, or they haven’t had interactions with Muslims,” he said. “A lot of them are filled with hate and rage. Maybe they went to websites that charged them with this hatred. So when you sit down and talk like rational people, without all these slogans, without being bigots, without bringing guns, they will find out that they’re talking to another human.”

That is really nice and I hope that the experience sticks with Leger and Griffin and can perhaps overcome the reinforcing effect of going back to the same community and media sources that fed the existing views the men had about Muslims when they showed up at that rally. Sadly, that outcome is not as likely as many liberals fervently would like to believe*.

A recent study about the positive persuasive effects of canvassers on people’s opinions about same-sex marriage – one that had several campaign organizers plotzing over it – appears to have used faked methodology to achieve its stunning results.

The results [Michael] LaCour showed [David] Broockman were, in fact, very cool, and like everyone else who had come across them, Broockman instantly knew they would be a hit. LaCour’s research involved dispatching canvassers to speak with California voters at their homes. He reported that a brief conversation about marriage equality with a canvasser who revealed that he or she was gay had a big, lasting effect on the voters’ views, as measured by separate online surveys administered before and after the conversation. LaCour told Broockman that he planned on getting a big name on the paper in progress: Donald Green, a highly respected political-science professor at Columbia who was also Broockman’s undergraduate adviser at Yale.

Part of why LaCour’s results were so noteworthy was that they flew in the face of just about every established tenet of political persuasion. While past research had shown canvassing can be effective at influencing people in certain ways, the sheer magnitude of effect LaCour had found in his study simply doesn’t happen — piles of previous research had shown that, all else being equal, human beings cling dearly to their political beliefs, and even when you can nudge them an inch to the left or right, people’s views are likely to snap back into place shortly after they hear whatever message you’ve so carefully and cleverly crafted. Not so in this case: When LaCour compared the before-and-after views on gay marriage in his study, he found that opinions had shifted about the distance between the average Georgian and the average Massachusettsian, and this effect appeared to have persisted for months.

So when LaCour and Green’s research was eventually published in December 2014 in Science, one of the leading peer-reviewed research publications in the world, it resonated far and wide. “When contact changes minds: an expression of transmission of support for gay equality” garnered attention in the New York Times and a segment on “This American Life” in which a reporter tagged along with canvassers as they told heart-wrenching stories about being gay. It rerouted countless researchers’ agendas, inspired activists to change their approach to voter outreach, generated shifts in grant funding, and launched follow-up experiments.

It’s understandable that LaCour’s fraud would be able to bamboozle liberals so easily. The temptation to believe that we can change hearts and minds, one voter at a time, by appealing to their rationality and humanity is strong in my tribe. And such individual epiphanies do happen, as most of us can attest to by considering people we know personally who used to be arch-conservative and are now liberal Democrats. Sometimes these transformations do follow contacts. But it’s difficult to believe that a substantial percentage of Americans would have changed their minds, as they have, on marriage equality due to one-on-one persuasive conversations. It’s more likely they have been swayed by sweeping disruptions to the status quo like more LGBTQ people being out, same-sex marriage becoming legal (through the courts or legislatures), positive/neutral portrayals of LGBTQ people in movies and TV, and (importantly) the increasing negative perception that homophobia holds.

In other words, people probably aren’t coming around on LGBT rights because they’ve been persuaded individually. No, it’s more likely because they want to avoid the shame of being seen as homophobic. Shame isn’t always a good thing. It can certainly be wrong-headed and counterproductive when applied to people about their own lives (weight, substance use, sexuality, etc.) but where attitudes on other people’s rights are concerned, it may do a better job of changing them than pleading and wheedling will ever do.

Which brings me back to Jason Leger and Paul Griffin at the Phoenix mosque. Leger accepted an invitation to go inside the mosque and pray with the members. Griffin had his conversation with Muslim attendees outside as the rally was dying down. Both were in “unfriendly” territory. The clear message both men got was that they were welcome but that their bigoted views about Muslims were not. They responded accordingly.

Again, will Leger and Griffin become permanently changed by their experiences? They might. They have their own minds and agency. I’m all for assuming that people can make up their own minds about things, something I wish my fellow liberals would grasp. The notion that conservatives and fence-sitters are delicate babies requiring careful cossetting is absurd and insulting to them. They can change if they want to. But let’s stop thinking that we shouldn’t create a hostile environment for their bigotry. We should. LGBTQ, Muslims, and other “out” groups have just as much right to exist as they do.

*Which does not in any way absolve them from whatever they choose to do or believe later. They are grown men in charge of themselves.

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