So what works better to change people’s minds? Calm, respectful, patient empathetic engagement that offers solutions and is open to compromise — or snarky, uncompromising anger?
I’m going to offer up a data point of one here — that data point being myself.
Back in 2010, I wrote a piece about body policing in popular culture, examining how celebrity gossip magazines give contradictory and impossible-to-follow messages about dieting and bodies, and how they applaud celebrities for staying rail-thin while at the same time gasping in horror about disordered eating. I titled the piece “Don’t Feed the Stars!: Celebrity Bodies and Gossip’s New Schizophrenia.”
I immediately got pushback on that title from more than one person, who complained that using the word “schizophrenia” as a pejorative was insulting to mentally ill people and contributed to their marginalization. One person in the conversation, Kit Whitfield, was very patient with me: they politely asked me to reconsider using the word; calmly explained why it was a problem; made it clear that they basically liked and respected me and just wanted to point out this one problem; stuck with me throughout several rounds of back-and-forth; and stuck with me even when I was getting snippy and defensive.
Sara K., on the other hand, just got angry — not only at my original post, but at my conversation with Kit. In a very snarky tone, she called me out on my privilege, and on how screwed-up it was for me to be telling a marginalized person how to talk about their marginalization with a privileged person. She made it clear that she basically liked and respected me, but she made it every bit as clear that she had lost some of that respect.
At the time, my reaction was to think, “Sara’s being a mean jerk! Kit is so awesome! It’s hard to hear people tell you you’re wrong, but it’s so much easier when they’re being nice and patient! Why can’t everyone be more like Kit?” (I know, I know. You don’t have to tell me. What can I say: I wasn’t as good at the social justice stuff back then.)
But in retrospect, it’s clear that both of these people were important in changing my mind.
I definitely valued Kit’s patience, their sympathy, their willingness to stay focused on the content and to overlook when I was getting impatient and snippy. But it was Sara who made me realize that this was important. It was Sara who made me realize that people were really being hurt by this — hurt enough to get angry, hurt about to get unpleasant with someone they basically liked and respected.
In the moment that this conversation was happening, I was getting that hot, defensive flush that you get when you’re doing something wrong and don’t want to admit it. You know — the Cognitive Dissonance Contortion Tango. So in the moment, of course I was happier with the person who was being all reassuring about how I wasn’t a bad person. But in order to take this seriously, I also needed the person who wasn’t reassuring me; who was forcing that cognitive dissonance on me; who was making me realize that I was not in fact being a good person, and that if I wanted to be a good person, I needed to change.
It took me a little while, but I am now being much more careful about using language that marginalizes the mentally ill. I am being much more careful about using words like “crazy” or “nuts” in a pejorative way, and about using words like “schizophrenic” to mean anything other than “having been diagnosed with the illness of schizophrenia.” And in fact, this conversation, and others like it, helped me accept the reality of my own mental illness. In realizing that my language was “other”-ing, and in working to not do that, I found it easier to not see mentally ill people as “other” — which made it easier to accept myself as one of them.
My point: “Good cop, bad cop” works.
Yes, in that hot, flushed moment when we’re doing the Cognitive Dissonance Tango, we respond more positively to the good cop. But that doesn’t mean the bad cop isn’t having an effect.
So when people are telling us things we don’t want to hear, the best reaction probably isn’t, “Why can’t you be nicer about it?” It’s an admission that we’ve lost the argument anyway: if all we can say is “You’d be more convincing if you were nicer,” and we’re not actually addressing their content, we might as well throw in the towel and not dig ourselves in deeper. (With our towel. Okay, I think I need to abandon that mixed metaphor.) But it’s also just not true. The good cops show us that we can be better people, and help show us how to do it. The bad cops show us that we’re screwing up at this “being a good person” thing, and they help show us exactly how. As uncomfortable as it is, we need both.
So belated thanks, to both Kit Whitfield and Sara K. I’m a better person now, thanks to you both.
Greta Christina’s books, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why and Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, are available in print, ebook, and audiobook. Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More is available in ebook and audiobook.