Meatless Monday meets Trump: Reacting to Facts

By Stephen Cataldo, 25 April, 2019

Do you feel that "the other side" listens to facts? Or that facts don't work?

Let's look at a fact, and consider ways we might react:

A pig is as intelligent as a dog

There, you’ve heard the fact. Are you vegan now, or at least done eating pork? Why not?

If you can answer that question, it might be a first step to more effective conversations with Trump supporters.

This article is not officially about vegetarianism, but an experiment to step through and learn from how we react to facts that disturb our personal stories.

We’ll explore when facts work — or don’t — plus team identities, a bit of George Lakoff's framing, and getting unsatisfied Trump voters to take their first budge.

facts create pressure, either forward or backlash

So — How do facts work? How do they fail? — for you?

A pig is as intelligent as a dog

Slow down and consider how you react...

Do you believe it? Reject it?

How does that make you feel? Do the words open your heart and help you feel connected, or close your heart? Feel anything or nothing?

Do you ask yourself, “Is that really true?” … and then never follow up or seek more information?

If you hear that fact once, have you stopped eating pork?

Not me. I did not hear the fact once and immediately absorb it and adjust my actions to the fact.

So, facts don't work on me. Why are we surprised that facts don’t work in politics?

Resisting the Facts

If we go from "a pig is as intelligent as a dog" to "you are deplorable for eating meat," guess what? We'll have a tiny group of activists screaming at a larger body of people who come to dislike the people screaming at them. Messages will be lost to team identities: the noble vegan resistance to deplorable meat eaters. Outside the “resistance,” people are cranky and wish the whole conversation would go away — and don't change their diet. Nor their vote. Familiar?

Conversation Frames

George Lakoff talks about framing an issue: taxes might be an affliction you need relief from, or they might be membership fees you are proud to pay.

But what about framing conversations?

What is the frame of your conversation itself? Are you a combatant, firing facts like artillery shells to batter your opponent’s position? A teacher, lecturing a student? A student, challenging a teacher or authority figure who is wrong? A doctor, giving a prescription from above? A judge sentencing the deplorable criminal? A student talking to another student, sharing something cool you just found out about? Something else?

Exercise: How would you frame our conversation, if I say “A pig is as intelligent as a dog”? Describe the metaphor of the conversation that you imagine, teachers, students, bosses, doctors, judges???

Integrating with Partisan Politics: Tracing Your Own Reactions

I’d like everyone reading this to try the following exercise, which I think will help teach skills relevant for partisan politics.

Exercise: Watch this short video — I admit the first half is not the easiest watch, but it's just five minutes long. Keep your focus meditative on how you are responding to the information, not on the issue at hand. Put aside any thought of changing your actions, and just meditate on yourself, on how you absorb, ignore, resist or reject the facts presented in the video.

(You might also want to notice the video uses a lot of techniques progressives should be using: it assumes the best of everyone. People doing the wrong thing are not deplorable, merely not-yet-informed. They've tried to be open and welcoming.)

After watching, step away from computer, maybe step outside. Meditate on your own reactions to the facts that might be hard to absorb: write them down. What do you feel? Inspired, guilty, angry at me for exposing you to something you don’t want to know? Avoidant? How do you identify? Are we on the same team; am I an outsider for saying this? All of these, back and forth? What else?

Take your notes and hold on to them. If someone voted for Trump along with their parents and spouse, and then they hear Trump did something not so great with Russia (( that even they know, deep down, they don’t agree with )) — they’ll feel pressure, cognitive dissonance. The facts will intrude into story that they enjoy. Where do we go from here? How do we turn the pressure that facts create into an engine for change, not backlash? How could people reach you? How do facts cause you to resist?

Lessons & Possible Techniques

My experience: you have to go slow so people can absorb a new idea.

Avoid frontal assaults. Expose people to facts you want them to absorb sideways: in a movie, in an activity where you share a goal (not where you are an opponent). Find ways to have conversations — try asking, actively listening, agreeing — be in the same community, not anti-Trump vs pro-Trump. And then know what you want: have a very small goal, imagine a thousand mile journey and figure out the first step. Do you know some very first steps you might aim for, when talking with conservatives? What do you want at the end of a short conversation? Really focus on creating a single achievable step: not a miraculous thousand mile journey, nor a hopeless situation where you launch a barrage with no option for them to do but dig in and duck while you reload with another fact-barrage. Find the one first step. Let’s go back to lessons from advocates for pigs:

The vegetarian activists behind Meatless Mondays believe it is deeply, fundamentally wrong for us to cage and kill animals just for dinner. There's been a long evolution of communication techniques: what used to be an angry screed of "you are caging, torturing and killing an animal as intelligent as your pet dog" has transformed into (cue optimistic, gentle music) "Why not try Meatless Mondays?!"

Facts Open Hearts, or Backlash

Let's say the fact makes you uncomfortable: for this blog-example, imagine your starting point is a desire to not change your diet and a desire not to think about the mind of animals who become meat. What next => Does that cause action? Resistance?

For most people, resistance comes first. This is a great moment to look at the spectrum of allies:

Spectrum of Allies — see the Social Media Guide for Progressives

When facts intrude on the way we imagine the world, they create pressure. In the chart above, shifts from disagreement to agreement are a different direction, take a different approach, then shifts between apathy and action. Facts press people who don't see the world as you do to shift towards your view; towards the left in the chart. We can react to pressure in different ways: going along, resisting, doubling-down, and backlash are all options. Piling on more and more facts can backfire. Instead, empowerment, community, hope and connection can help release the pressure towards allyship.

When I hear a fact I don’t want to hear, one instinct is to treat the fact like enemy artillery: to duck. If I encounter it again and again, I dig defensive trenches deeper and deeper. Every time I encounter the idea, I'm a little more dug in, and hear it less. The Resistance to Trump encounters this a lot: the more accusations against Trump, the more dug in his supporters become, even some who heartily voted against him in the primaries.
People often already have the facts: they’re busy ducking, and the more facts, the more ducking. We have to change approaches.

This is vital in Trump-era politics. We may somewhat agree on facts already: Trump voters know he is arrogant, breaks the rules, will fight dirty to win — you don't have to convince them of that. They already feel “pressure” — they already feel a barrage of facts, a lot of cognitive dissonance that the man they wish was their savior disappoints them over and over. But he’s still the team leader even when he disappoints. No single artillery shell “fact” will do anything but make them duck again, exercising the "duck!" neural pathways.

So we ought to be done with facts quickly: we might want to focus on one or two at a time, but the big goal is to get people’s hearts back open; to remind them of the country they believe in when their hearts are open. When our facts build up pressure to change views, the key is not more pressure but making sure that the pressure releases forward.

The Step After the Fact: Action? Resistance?

The folks at the Humane Society have visited farms or watched these videos, and are horrified that factory farming abuses continue. They are as burnt out as as Democrats watching America vote for Trump: they've decided that small steps are the best starting point. Here’s a simple pledge, an action you can take without any big changes in your life, sign up! Meatless Monday Pledge — check it out, maybe sign up!

So what do you think about that? Is that do-able? Hey, Earth Day / Earth Month is almost over — I would be excited to do this with you. If this wasn't a public blog, if you're one of my real-life friends, I would love to share a meal with you, come to a potluck at my house. Let's make one little Monday a meatless Monday. If you're tired of animal rights videos, MeetUp is full of vegetarian restaurant outings, a great place to meet people and get more information, lots more fun than reading blogs — find a group!

Exercise: How does that request to sign up feel? Did you do it? If so, do you (like me) find that facts build up pressure, and actions, even small actions, relieve that pressure while giving it direction?

For me, taking a tiny action helps make the fact seem more real — now {{ you, me and the fact }} are all in the same community, the same reality. Is it similar for you? If you're moving forward even a tiny step, the pressure is going forward; no forward step and the pressure becomes a backlash, something we've seen on a massive scale in the last few years.

Techniques: This style of small action step or request is the last step of Nonviolent Communication, and often a great way to scale down large political disagreements.

What is the "Meatless Monday" of getting people to reconsider Trump?

What actions make the facts real — without requiring an identity-change after hearing one fact?

What would this look like for politics? Imagine a person who voted for Trump, maybe their parents and spouse voted for Trump, and they have a sense of integrity: what is a small thing they could do, not life-changing, not difficult or challenging, that acknowledges and makes real one little fact — pointing them in a direction where facts can be absorbed and then the pressure released, without asking much at once?

Exercise: Look at some recent issues that have troubled you, regarding integrity and Trump. Come up with the smallest ask you can for conservatives. Something you can ask for as a fellow citizen of the same country, together. Please add it to the comments!

If you'd like to volunteer on a project, be the organizer who collects these ideas, and we'll help you get them online and in front of many people.

The core of this blog post based on Framing a Compassionate World: Challenges and Limits, from Cognitive Politics, page 16.
Share with others: how do we absorb facts? Did you watch the video — why, why not? Sign up for Meatless Monday — why, why not? How can you translate these actions to politics?