It’s been a difficult couple of weeks for those who consider themselves ‘left’ or ‘progressive’ (and I’d count myself as both).
What the Google diversity memo revealed, more than anything, was that there are many who not only don’t share our priorities but think that the way that we’ve been going about securing them is wrong. It has been chastening.
It’s tempting to point to scraps of evidence, such as Donald Trump’s declining popularity rating, and say that the left is ‘winning’ the argument. But that would be kidding ourselves.
At least some of Trump’s decline in popularity comes from a perceived failure to do the things he promised to do, not because this stuff has suddenly become unpopular.
As for today’s protests (I hesitate to call them that, but there isn’t a better word) in Charlottesville show, white nationalism is alive, well, and possibly even growing in power and influence.
Our arguments, our snarky replies to Trump, our heated discussions, our think pieces are just not cutting through. The left has thrown all it has, in good faith, at the Trump administration and it just doesn’t seem to be convincing people. It may even be turning people off.
This may be something that we’re comfortable with. The catharsis of tweeting snark at Trump, or about the right, may outweigh the imperative to win over hearts and minds. But there’s no point in pretending that we are winning over hearts and minds when we do so.
Part of this is a quality of the platforms we use. Every qualifier that a tweet uses exponentially decreases the number of “likes” and “retweets” it’s likely to receive. It’s easy to go for the easy clap lines.
If we’re interested in winning the argument though, we need to change our approach. And that starts with realizing that the arguments that work for us (such as appeals to natural justice/rights) may not be the reasons that work for someone else.
It starts with realizing that the left is capable of making arguments in bad faith too. When we argue that the ACLU should “prioritize” defending the First Amendment rights of “left” people because of “resources,” we should be honest with ourselves about the rhetorical move we’re making.
We’re saying that someone should be denied of their rights under the First Amendment based on their political beliefs. And let’s be honest, we hate when other people do that to us.
One of the biggest civil rights victories in my lifetime was the vote in Ireland for equal marriage. Ireland is a very Catholic and religious country, yet Ireland voted with a huge majority to legalize same-sex marriage.
In a country where the Catholic Church dominates, people voted against the advice of almost every single Catholic and bishop. Had the Irish suddenly turned their back on religion?
In short, no. In fact, campaigners had talked for years regarding ‘social justice’ and ‘civil rights, ’ and their pleas had fallen on deaf ears. There was a section of the population that were simply not convinced.
What’s more, the older segment of the population, as in many referendums, was much more likely to vote than the young. So any attempt to win a referendum in Ireland would have to include them.
It turned out that what this older population, the one that was not convinced of the benefits of equal marriage needed to hear wasn’t talk of “equal rights.”
They needed first, for the argument to be put to them not by “campaigners,” but by people like them, or people that they trusted.
Second, the campaign needed to speak regarding the impact that the equal marriage would have on their grandchildren. And as humans, we know this to be true. The only thing that is going to sway someone away from the fear of fire and brimstone is an appeal from their own family.
The resulting campaign, which used the voices of the elderly on TV, and encouraged young people to “ring their granny” to talk about their aspirations for a family life regardless of sexuality, was a triumph.
It was also an incredible success. By securing the margin of victory that it did, it ensured that no one would be able to argue that the result had come from a narrow social class pushing through the desired outcome.
Brexit and Trump are often characterized as “the revenge of the old,” or “the attack of the white working class,” but the Irish result genuinely came from the whole country, even though different groups voted for various reasons.
Likewise, if someone believes that all affirmative action schemes are inherently wrong-headed, no amount of argument that “the outcome of positive discrimination can be good in the long run” is going to sway them. You need to address the fear of affirmative action or convince them that what you’re proposing isn’t affirmative action.
Second guessing motives, and saying “you’re just trying to protect your interests” is a good way of ensuring that they never listen to you again. It takes guts, and no small amount of humility, to admit that not only is your argument potentially not convincing to someone but that you might not be the right person to be making it.
It’s even harder when the argument seems to cover such “first principles” stuff. How do you even begin to argue with some of these people, when the disagreements are so fundamental and so basic?
But, you know, I think the LGBT campaigners in Ireland probably said the same thing. The suffragettes probably said the same thing. Civil rights movements around the world have said the same thing.
And then they started to organize. And they adjusted their arguments. And they found a combination of words that would resonate. And they time and again chipped away even when it seemed like all was lost. And then they won.
Categories: Political Science