Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Waiting For People to Die

Came across some Pew Research today via BoingBoing. No need to read, I have it in summary here:

Support for Marijuana Largely a Generational Story

Democrat-leaning members of the boomer generation aside, the pattern is pretty clear. Legalizing marijuana is not so much a Republican vs. Democrat issue in the US, it is an old vs. young issue. I'm willing to go way out on a limb and guess that research would produce a similar pattern in Canada.

If you spend time on internet message boards and comment sections you'll often encounter "tone policing" - criticisms of people based on their manner of expression rather than the content of what they are saying. These are usually coming from people who are supposedly friendly on the actual issue. "Sure that thing is insulting to women," they say, "but yelling about it just makes the people who advocate it defensive, it won't change anyone's mind."

Instead, they say, being conciliatory will change minds, connecting with people emotionally will change minds, even being deferential may be necessary.

There's a lot wrong with that point. For one thing, it's almost always another white man telling non-whites or non-men that if they just all did what he thought was right then everything would get better. The idea that he is going to be given a lot of charity is far-fetched, he probably isn't that one exceptional white man who actually has everything figured out.

Today, though, I want to address the actual Machiavellian argument being made. The argument that we should be kind for our own good for the sake of making people believe us - that this is how we will change people's minds. Look at that chart above. Nothing changes people's minds.

But that isn't the same thing as saying that trying to change things can't work. It can and it does. It's just that if we are going to be Machiavellian about it we need to understand our proper goal. The goal is not to convince people who disagree with you, because you can't convince anyone. The goal is to increase the amount of signal in the public space that is devoted to the issue.

It is obvious that marijuana should be legal, especially in America where the war on drugs has had an incredible toll. If someone things marijuana should be illegal, it is because they haven't actually thought the issue through. But we all have tons of things we haven't thought through. It's inevitable that we mostly accept what our culture gives us and only question a subset of that.

If there is enough interest in an issue that it causes people to question it, then younger people will tend to be more right about it than older people. If there is not, then there is no reason for younger people to be more right.

Last century's heroes of social change are Nelson Mandela, Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. All advocated for peaceful resistance and all eventually attained their goals. But Apartheid lasted 46 years; the struggle for an independent India went on for 32 years; and while the civil rights movement in America spanned only 14 years, looking at the criteria for success from MLK's famous "I Have a Dream Speech" only about half have ever been satisfied - the civil rights movement is a name for a particular period of the struggle against racism in America that has been going on for hundreds of years and certainly hasn't ended.

When you look at time periods like 32 and 46 years, it's hard not to think of the change as a generational shift. A new generation came of age that said to themselves, not just that Ghandi was right, or that Nelson Mandela was an admirable man, but that British occupation of India didn't make sense and that apartheid was a bad policy.

Peace hasn't been the only road to success, either. The Irish Troubles lasted 30 years of riots, bombings, and failed ceasefires before people eventually concluded that if Northern Ireland wanted self-governance, it should have it. It wasn't because they thought bombing was a good thing, it was because rejecting the will of a nation for self-governance is just policy and they knew it. Sinn Féin, believed by US and British intelligence to be directly linked to the IRA and bombings, holds seats in the Northern Ireland House of Commons and the European Parliament.

I think peaceful protests are better than bombings because bombings are terrible, but for achieving your political end, I'm not sure either is more effective. Nor is being sympathetic more useful than being outraged in an argument. Whatever ideas you advocate, the Machiavellian thing to do is to figure out if they are on the right or the wrong side of history. If they are on the right side then scream them from the rooftops, get as much bandwidth as possible, and let the next generation make up their own minds. If they are on the wrong side then keep quiet about them so they can go unquestioned.

Actually convincing people of things in arguments is essentially hopeless, and if you want to be effective, it shouldn't even enter the conversation.

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