Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Socrates Strives Forward

Socrates Strives Forward

     In prior articles, I argued that Trump’s Removal Must Be Political, Not Psychological, and, as a Prelude to a Way Forward, that we have to begin by showing some pretty radical compassion to Trump supporters who are about as lovable as a porcupine crawling out of a cesspool.  If you’ve come this far Great! Thanks for sticking with me.

     When it comes to “confronting” these Trump supporters, it may be easier if we think back to the format of a debate that we talked about in Prelude.   Whose mind do we want to change?  Hopefully, that uneasy Trump voter, right?  Remember, it is the audience, not the debaters, who are most likely to change their minds.  So, how can we make these folks feel more like the audience, and not like a participant?

     Just as I was getting ready to post this article, I read a great piece about the philosopher Blaise Pascal i that offers a slightly different take on persuasion from what we normally think.  There were three main points in the piece.  First, to effectively persuade, we must try to see things from his perspective, and that means practicing some empathy.  Second, we must acknowledge either a good point about that person’s position or find some other commonality.  This commonality helps us to feel the same as the other.  It’s compassion  literally to “feel suffering with” the other person ii. Even Hillary acknowledged that Trump’s children turned out great and were very successful – that’s a commonality.  Third, once we have created a dialogue with that compassion, then we can suggest that there may be other possibilities that the other person hasn’t considered yet. 

     To make this happen, the first thing we have to do is to NOT ATTACK THEM.  We want them to listen and be open to us.  That means we have to listen to them first.  To start,  we have to recognize that many of these people feel desperate.  Many of them have worked hard and played by the rules, but they still find it more difficult to make ends meet every day.  They see the American Dream becoming nothing more than that – a fading memory of a dream – for their kids.  If you are having trouble with this, go watch Michael Moore in Trumpland.

     Seriously, right now, if you can’t find any sympathy for Trump voters, go watch that movie.  Listen to what Moore says.  He empathizes with these folks.  Now, his main audience is still liberals, so he pokes a lot of fun at conservative “ideas”.   (I do that too, over here.)  Honestly, I suspect that he is not empathetic enough to convince anyone in that theater, but it’s a real good start.  While you’re watching, notice how often he makes statements, and how often he asks questions.  He’s not just preaching.  Once you've watched it, you should have an idea of what these folks are going through. 

     Second, don’t attack their positions either!  Remember, we tend to think of our political positions as connected to our very identity.  I've read that it is more common for people to change their religion than their political party.  Political beliefs are central to people's perception of themselves.  If we attack their positions, they will feel personally attacked.  Attacking their positions means that we cannot find a commonality.  With empathy and listening skills, however, there is a way to still engage with these folks even if we have difficulty in finding a commonality.  Pascal called it "suggesting that there is something that they haven’t considered."

     For our purposes, we don’t want to “make a suggestion” in the sense of making a statement, if possible.  In logic and debate, that statement is called an assertion and is pushing an idea forward.  We can’t push these folks.  (For a lot of these folks, they have lost their good jobs through no fault of their own, and life has gotten pretty bad. They've been pushed around enough.)  Instead, we need to find a way to bring them toward us.  Instead, we want to get to a point where we ask a question.  It’s like the aikido and jujutsu idea of using an opponent’s energy to let them throw themselves.  Their energy is their anger, and it’s up to us to find a way to redirect that anger.  Assertions push against the anger, but a question creates an empty space where that energy can be transformed.  Specifically, we want to use the Socratic Method of questioning.

Socrates questioning and teaching a student.

     I was lucky to have a few classes with Dr. Oxhandler, the amazing professor that I mentioned in the last article.  He was one of those professors that didn’t try to tell us what to think but only asked us to engage in the process while we learned how to think.  He did this with many questions in his classes.  Even on writing assignments, if he saw a flaw in your ideas, he would not mark you wrong.  Instead, he would ask you a question to make you clarify your own ideas.

     Dr. Oxhandler gave me an introduction to what professors in law school would do.  They use the Socratic Method, which sounds very serious.  Don’t worry, it just means that you ask questions in a structured way to help the student move through the reasoning process, one small step at a time, to the ultimate truth.  The key is to structure and ask questions in an order that will take the person one small step at a time towards the truth.

     If you can learn the method, it works great.  (I currently teach English in Thailand and use this with my students.  They have told my department head many times that they love the way I do this to teach them.  From primary level teaching to graduate level – THIS METHOD WORKS.) The key is to design the questions so that the audience only has to take a small step at a time.  This keeps you engaged in conversation with the audience.  For those of you in the mental health profession, you are already very skilled at listening (and having empathy and compassion), and you have a set of topic areas that you routinely ask questions about.  You will only need slight modifications, if any, to make this method work.

     Now, on to some more specifics about how to ask these questions.  Keep in mind that we want the person engaging with us to feel more like an audience member than a debater.  So, after a Trump supporter points out some “alternative fact” that is obviously false, maybe we can ask, “Is this kind of spin consistent with our [personal, Christian, family, American] values?”  Notice, that I called it spin, and not a lie.  Again, we aren’t trying to attack, we are trying to have dialogue.

     In order for this to work, though, we also have to maintain control over the forum.  Whether it is a face to face discussion or an online forum, we must make sure the discussion is in a safe place where the person doesn’t feel attacked.  I have had a few situations where I was using this method online and a friend jumped in and attacked the person’s position (or the person herself).  That can instantly destroy the space, but we can also use it to our advantage.  When something like that happens, just play a little good cop – bad cop.  Stick up for the person you’re having the discussion with.  Point out that this person is a decent person who is a friend of yours, or that they may have a reason for their beliefs.  Not only does that protect the discussion space, it also makes you a little more of an ally and a little less of an adversary.  In Pascal’s words, it creates some commonality.

     Let’s take a look at how an expanded conversation might go about Trump’s “historic inauguration turnout”.  We’ve all seen the pictures of the crowds.  (We’ll discuss the people who are determined supporters in the next article.  For now, this is directed at someone who is starting to question their decision.)

1) You’ve seen the pictures, right?

2) Which one, left or right, has the larger crowd size?

3) Yet, some people keep saying that the right had a bigger crowd size. Why?
Because they were taken at different times in the day.

4) Well, the photographer who took the 2008 photo stated that it was taken at 12:04 PM – the same time that the 2016 photo was taken.  That’s according to the time stamp from his camera.   Are you accusing him of lying?

5) So, we know that the claim of the crowd on the right being larger is false, yet some people keep repeating it.  Is repeating known falsehoods consistent with your [personal, Christian, family, American] values?
 . . .

    It’s that simple.  The key is to break each question into one small step.  Using closed questions, those that only require one word or a yes or no answer, is a good technique to help keep the process from getting derailed.  There are a few other things to take note of as well.  First, in (3), I use “some people”.  I intentionally did not use Trump’s name.  People will have an attachment to him as part of their political identity, so avoid mentioning his name when you need to point out his misdeeds.  We have to keep that discussion space open for them.

     Second, in (4) - “Are you accusing him of lying?” is a pretty serious question.  A decent person will not make that accusation without proof.  If the Trump supporter does, then you have two options.  First, tell them that is a very damning accusation, and that they need to have support (or proof) for that claim in order to be taken seriously.  The second option, which you take if they refuse to provide any support, is to simply state that you have no desire to engage in further discussion with someone who refuses to remain civil.  It's not polite or civil to accuse someone of lying without proof, so don't engage with that.  It’s like the adage: don’t play chess with pigeons; they have no idea what they are doing and will only poop all over the board and strut around like they won.

     In (5), after walking toward each fact and getting confirmation, then we can ask a question that will give the person reason to split themselves from their former Trump loyalty.  Also, notice that I didn’t even refer to it as spin this time, and never called it a lie.  "Lie" and "spin" are too emotionally loaded.  Finally, it’s not important to get a response at this point.  In fact, it may even be a good idea to change the topic after the person has had a short moment to consider the question.  We don’t want to force them into an uncomfortable public confrontation, that will only trigger the backfire effect.  Again, keep that space open for them to move around.  They just might change direction and agree with you!

     Of course, it is nearly impossible that they will change their minds immediately.  That’s alright.  All we need to do is give them questions to consider and wrestle with.  I saw an interview with Neil Degrasse Tyson a while back, and he stated that it takes a period of months for a person to change their belief system.  So, a successful discussion should be judged by whether we keep the discourse civil, not by whether we changed a person’s beliefs.

     Finally, there are going to be some people that are just such die hard Trump supporters that they will not engage in anything approaching a civil discourse.  For a couple tips on dealing with these folks, go to the next (and last, I think) article in this series: Tolerating Trumpanzees in their Native Habitat.

Thank you for reading!  Did this article help you or change the way you think a little bit?  If so, I'd love to read what it did for you in the comments section below.  If you found this article helpful, you can share it, and there are sharing buttons below.  You can also follow this blog by clicking the "Follow" button at the top right.  Your help in getting this message out is sincerely appreciated.

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