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Finding A Balance In A Partisan World

Burst Your Bubble

In my Persuasion class, I teach that the best way to disagree is to begin by agreeing. By acknowledging common ground – or common objectives – we show that we respect the other side, even if we disagree. This helps us build trust, which ultimately is the basis of all persuasion.

In today’s world of hyper-partisanship and angry denunciations, how do we begin by agreeing? How do we find points of common interest? The simple answer is that we begin by understanding the other side’s perspective. We read articles and authors that we disagree with. (This may be good for our mental health a well as our political wellbeing).

But trolls are everywhere – on both the left and the right. How do we find conscientious authors and sources that can help us understand a worldview and not just an angry index of insults? Here are some resources:

Bridge-The-Divide.com – this website has two CEO’s – a West Virginia Republican and a California Democrat. They aim to “understand each other’s point of view without compromising their own values.” The organization seems small but promising and has already recruited ambassadors in 22 countries. You might want to apply.

Cortico.ai – where bridge-the-divide.com relies on ambassadors, Cortico.ai focuses more on artificial intelligence and media analytics. They aim to “analyze the public sphere” and “give voice to the common ground”. Though small, they partner with MIT’s Media Lab and are backed by Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, so they may have some staying power.

Renewing The Center – a service of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, this service publishes a newsletter that seeks to explain why traditional left/right distinctions matter less than they used to.

The Guardian/Burst Your Bubble – this English newspaper tilts to the left but publishes a “Burst Your Bubble” feature every week. The editors select interesting conservative articles and videos – usually about a given topic – succinctly summarize the key ideas and explain why you should read them. For recent examples, click here and here.

New York Times/Right and Left – similar to Burst Your Bubble (but not as pithy), The New York Times regularly surveys how authors on the left and right treat a given topic. For recent examples, click here and here.

These five sources provide a pretty good starting point for finding a balance in a partisan world. But I hope that there are more. If you know of others, please let me know and I’ll update the list.

How To Save Democracy

Back off! I know rhetoric.

Most historians would agree that the arts and sciences of persuasion – also known as rhetoric – originated with the Greeks approximately 2,500 years ago. Why there? Why not the Egyptians or the Phoenicians or the Chinese? And why then? What was going on in Greece that necessitated new rules for communication?

The simple answer is a single word: democracy. The Greeks invented democracy. For the first time in the history of the world, people needed to persuade each other without force or violence. So the Greeks had to invent rhetoric.

Prior to democracy, people didn’t need to disagree in any organized way. We simply followed the leader. We agreed with the monarch. We converted to the emperor’s religion. We believed in the gods that the priests proclaimed. If we disagreed, we were ignored or banished or killed. Simple enough.

With the advent of democracy, public life grew messy. We could no longer say, “You will believe this because the emperor believes it.” Rather, we had to persuade. The basic argument was simple, “You should believe this because it provides advantages.” We needed rules and pointers for making such arguments successfully. Socrates and Aristotle (and many others) rose to the challenge and invented rhetoric.

Democracy, then, is about disagreement. We recognize that we will disagree. Indeed, we recognize that we should disagree. The trick is to disagree without anger or violence. We seek to persuade, not to subdue. In fact, here’s a simple test of how democratic a society is:

What proportion of the population agrees with the following statement?

“Of course, we’re going to disagree. But we’ve agreed to resolve our disagreements without violence.”

It seems like a simple test. But we overlook it at our peril. Societies that can’t pass this test (and many can’t) are forever doomed to civil strife, violence, disruption, and dysfunction.

The chief function of rhetoric is to teach us to argue without anger. The fundamental questions of rhetoric pervade both our public and private lives. How can I persuade someone to see a different perspective? How can I persuade someone to agree with me? How can we forge a common vision?

Up through the 19th century, educated people were well versed in rhetoric. All institutions of higher education taught the trivium, which consisted of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. Having mastered the trivium, students could progress to the quadrivium – arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The trivium provided the platform upon which everything else rested.

In the 20th century, we saw the rise of mass communications, government sponsored propaganda, widespread public relations campaigns, and social media. Ironically, we also decided that we no longer needed to teach rhetoric. We considered it manipulative. To insult an idea, we called it “empty rhetoric”.

But rhetoric also helps us defend ourselves against mass manipulation, which flourished in the 20th century and continues to flourish today. (Indeed, in the 21st century, we seem to want to hone it to an even finer point). We sacrificed our defenses at the very moment that manipulation surged forward. Having no defenses, we became angrier and less tolerant.

What to do? The first step is to revive the arts of persuasion and critical thinking. Essentially, we need to revive the trivium. By doing so, we’ll be better able to argue without anger and to withstand the effects of mass manipulation. Reviving rhetoric won’t solve the world’s problems. But it will give us a tool to resolve problems – without violence and without anger.

Keenagers — The New Demographic

We’re not old. We’re keenagers.

When Elliot was 12 years old, he and some buddies were racing around our house. I said, “Hey kids, lighten up a little bit.” Elliot looked at me sternly and said, “Dad, we’re not kids. We’re pre-teens!”

Elliot wanted a demographic of his own. He didn’t want to be a “kid” anymore. At the opposite end of the age spectrum, I now feel a similar need.

I now belong to a well established demographic defined as “over 65 and retired”. In other words, I’m old.

The odd thing is I don’t feel old, at least not in the traditional sense. I remember my grandfather. He had false teeth, an uncertain gait, and complained of myriad aches and pains. When he died, people said he died of old age. I’m not old like that – at least not yet.

So I want my own demographic. Yes, I’m over 65 and yes, I’m semi-retired. But I still teach part-time, run a website, and tend to my clients. I raise money for good causes. I study issues and have opinions. I serve on boards. I write letters to the editor. I’m not (yet) an old guy sitting on a park bench watching the world go by.

I also spend money. My wife and I have a nest egg and some purchasing power. We should be of interest to marketers who have interesting things or services to sell. But it would be easy for a marketer to overlook us. We could easily be mistaken for regular old “old” people.

So, let’s segment the market and create a new demographic. But what should we call it? The question came to a head for me when I read a recent editorial in The Economist called “Over 65 Shades Of Grey”. The article notes that “Branding an age category might sound like a frivolous exercise. But life stages are primarily social constructs, and history shows that their emergence can trigger deep changes in attitudes. … Declaring a new stage of life could help change perceptions.”

To remind marketers and analysts that we exist – and that we’re not doddering, dependent drains on society – we need a name. The Economist suggests a few non-starters like “geriactives” and “pre-tirees.” Sorry, but those just don’t work for me.

So, I hereby propose that we name our demographic the keenagers. Like teenagers, we’re a well-defined group with many common interests. We’re keen to learn, travel, advise, engage, and spend. We’re even keen to work every now and then. We’re keen to do, not just observe.

What are the advantages of establishing keenagers as a separate demographic? First, we can change perceptions. We’re not old in the traditional sense and don’t need to be treated as such. Second, marketers can develop and refine products and services that meet our needs more effectively. Third, forecasters can fine-tune their data make better predictions about us and about society as a whole.

Perhaps the ultimate advantage is that the label gives us keenagers a convenient and non-derogatory way to refer to ourselves. We belong to an attractive and interesting cohort. We’re not old. We’re keenagers.

Why Do Smarter People Live Longer?

What’s related to what?

A study published last week in the British Medical Journal states simply that, “Childhood intelligence was inversely associated with all major causes of death.”

The study focused on some 65,000 men and women who took the Scottish Mental Survey in 1947 at age 11. Those students are now 79 years old and many of them have passed away. By and large, those who scored lower on the test in 1947 were more likely to have died – from all causes — than those who registered higher scores.

This is certainly not the first study to link intelligence with longevity. (Click here, here, and here, for instance). But it raises again a fundamental question: why would smarter people live longer? There seem to be at least two competing hypotheses:

Hypothesis A: More intelligent people make better decisions about their health care, diet, exercise, etc. and — as a result — live longer.

Hypothesis B: whatever it is that makes people more intelligent also makes them healthier. Researchers, led by Ian Deary, call this hypothesis system integrity. Essentially, the theory suggests that a healthy system generates numerous positive outcomes, including greater intelligence and longer life. The theory derives from a field of study known as cognitive epidemiology, which studies the relationships between intelligence and health.

Hypothesis A focuses on judgment and decision making as causal factors. There’s an intermediate step between intelligence and longevity. Hypothesis B is more direct – the same factor causes both intelligence and longevity. There is no need for an intermediate cause.

The debate is oddly similar to the association between attractiveness and success. Sociologists have long noted that more attractive people also tend to be more successful. Researchers generally assumed that the halo effect caused the association. People judged attractive people to be more capable in other domains and thus provided them more opportunities to succeed. This is similar to our Hypothesis A – the result depends on (other people’s) judgment and there is an intermediate step between cause and effect.

Yet a recent study of Tour de France riders tested the notion that attractiveness and success might have a common cause. Researchers rated the attractiveness of the riders and compared the rankings to race results. They found that more attractive riders finished in higher positions in the race. Clearly, success in the Tour de France does not depend on the halo effect so, perhaps, that which causes the riders to be attractive may also cause them to be better racers.

And what about the relationship between intelligence and longevity? Could the two variables have a single, common cause? Perhaps the best study so far was published in the International Journal Of Epidemiology last year. The researchers looked at various twin registries and compared IQ tests with mortality. The study found a small (but statistically significant) relationship between IQ and longevity. In other words, the smarter twin lived longer. Though the effects are small, the researchers conclude, “The association between intelligence and lifespan is mostly genetic.”

Are they right? I’m not (yet) convinced. Though significant, the statistical relationship is very small with r = 0.12. As noted elsewhere, variance is explained by the square of r. So in this study, IQ explains only 1.44% (0.12 x 0.12 x 100) of the variance in longevity. That seems like weak evidence to conclude that the relationship is “mostly genetic”.

Still, we have some interesting research paths to follow up on. If the theory of system integrity is correct, it could predict a whole host of relationships, not just IQ and longevity. Attractiveness could also be a useful variable to study. Perhaps there’s a social aspect to it as well. Perhaps people who are healthy and intelligent also have a larger social circle (see also Dunbar’s number). Perhaps they’re more altruistic. Perhaps they are more symmetric. Ultimately, we may find that a whole range of variables depend partially – or perhaps mainly – on genetics.

Arguing Without Anger

Can we talk?

Red people and blue people are at it again. Neither side seems to accept that the other side consists of real people with real ideas that are worth listening to. Debate is out. Contempt is in.

As a result, our nation is highly polarized.  To work our way out of the current stalemate, we need to listen closely and speak wisely. We need to debate effectively rather than arguing angrily. Here are some tips:

It’s not about winning, it’s about winning over – too often we talk about winning an argument. But defeating an opponent is not the same as winning him over to your side. Aim for agreement, not a crushing blow.

It’s not about values – our values are deeply held. We don’t change them easily. You’re not going to convert a red person into a blue person or vice-versa. Aim to change their minds, not their values.

Stick to the future tense – the only reason to argue in the past tense is to assign blame. That’s useful in a court of law but not in the court of public opinion. Stick to the future tense, where you can present choices and options. That’s where you can change minds. (Tip: don’t ever argue with a loved one in the past tense. Even if you win, you lose.)

The best way to disagree is to begin by agreeing – the other side wants to know that you take them seriously. If you immediately dismiss everything they say, you’ll never persuade them. Start by finding points of agreement. Even if you’re at opposite ends of the spectrum, you can find something to agree to.

Don’t fall for the anger mongers – both red and blue commentators prey on our pride to sell anger. They say things like, “The other side hates you. They think you’re dumb. They think they’re superior to you.” The technique is known as attributed belittlement and it’s the oldest trick in the book. Don’t fall for it.

Don’t fall into the hypocrisy trap – both red and blue analysts are willing to spin for their own advantage. Don’t assume that one side is hypocritical while the other side is innocent.

Beware of demonizing words – it’s easy to use positive words for one side and demonizing words for the other side. For example: “We’re proud. They’re arrogant.” “We’re smart. They’re sneaky.” It’s another old trick. Don’t fall for it.

Show some respect – just because people disagree with you is no reason to treat them with contempt. They have their reasons. Show some respect even if you disagree.

Be skeptical – the problems we’re facing as a nation are exceptionally complex. Anyone who claims to have a simple solution is lying.

Burst your bubble – open yourself up to sources you disagree with. Talk with people on the other side. We all live in reality bubbles. Time to break out.

Give up TV — talking heads, both red and blue, want to tell you what to think. Reading your own sources can help you learn how to think.

Aim for the persuadable – you’ll never convince some people. Don’t waste your breath. Talk with open-minded people who describe themselves as moderates. How can you tell they’re open-minded? They show respect, don’t belittle, agree before disagreeing, and are skeptical of both sides.

Engage in arguments – find people who know how to argue without anger. Argue with them. If they’re red, take a blue position. If they’re blue, take a red position. Practice the art of arguing. You’re going to need it.

Remember that the only thing worse than arguing is not arguing – We know how to argue. Now we need to learn to argue without anger. Our future may depend on it.

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