Thursday, November 24, 2016

Avoiding the "Smug Liberal" Trap

Background: This is the fifth piece in a series on understanding conservative intuitions and communicating effectively with conservatives, for liberals. Please read the previous post BEFORE reading this one. The SSC zombies post is also strongly recommended. Earlier posts are optional.

Trigger warning: brief discussion of racism and college rape discussions.

Last post talked about signalling moral superiority. We used the example of "LGBT" vs "LGBTQ" vs "LGBTQIA" vs "LGBTQIAPK" vs "LGBTQQIP2SAA". This post talks about how that sort of thing can spoil conversations with conservatives.

For now, let's forget about conservatives for a moment. Let's say you're a badly stereotyped liberal talking to a fellow badly stereotyped liberal, and you bring up the topic of LGBT rights - maybe something like "hey, there's an LGBT rights march in the city next weekend, are you interested?". Your fellow liberal says something along the lines of "Yeah definitely, I should really be more involved in the LGBTQIAPK community.".

At best, that's going to raise an eyebrow. At worst, a response like that comes across as someone trying to show how morally superior they are, by memorizing all those extra letters, despite apparently not being all that involved in the relevant community. Depending on context, it could seem extremely pretentious (and often disingenuous to boot).

Obviously this is an exaggerated example. But when engaging with conservatives, it's important to pay attention to this sort of thing. Even conservatives who support LGBT rights are going to find it slightly pretentious if you talk to them about LGBTQ rights - not because they don't support queers, but because they feel like you're just trying to one-up them.

If you want to actually get through to someone, teach them something or change their mind, then you need to build some rapport. Making them feel like you're one-upping them is basically the opposite of building rapport. If you want to get through, don't try to seem morally upstanding; instead, play up your own moral weaknesses. On the other hand, remember that conservatives usually don't try to signal morality to nearly the extent that liberals do. So if a conservative seems to be signalling against something, remember that they might just not be signalling at all.

Some examples:
1. Racism is a great area to apply this, because practically everyone is at least a little bit racist (source: implicit association tests). Maybe say something like "look, I get a bit nervous when I'm walking alone at night and I pass a big black guy. That's a pretty ingrained instinct in our culture. But that doesn't mean that instinct is right, and we certainly don't want cops to go shooting people just because of that instinct...". You might try saying something like this even if you don't actually feel nervous.

2. Ambiguous cases make good signalling opportunities. College rape is a good example of this. There are (lots of) obvious clean-cut cases, like date rape drugs. But arguing that we need to crack down on date rape drugs is not very useful from a signalling perspective - practically everyone will agree with that, so arguing for it doesn't say much about you. On the other hand, there are people who argue that we should believe virtually every accusation, or that it should count as "rape" if a woman decides in hindsight that sex was a bad idea. These are more questionable. And because these ideas are questionable, arguing in favor of them sends a very strong signal - no one would argue in favor of ideas that extreme unless they were really concerned about college rape.

If you want to communicate effectively with conservatives, then try to notice this pattern. Even if you really honestly think that we should believe virtually all rape allegations, you should still recognize that reasonable people can find this pretty questionable, and it will require pretty strong evidence to make a case (you can find this evidence if you look - but most people haven't). Just because people don't agree with you outright does not mean they're bad people who hate women, it might just mean that they're not signalling as hard. And you still need to build rapport - open with something like "I know it sounds surprising, I thought it sounded ridiculous at first, but I looked at the data and...". Again, try saying this even if you didn't question it at first.

2b. Not necessarily a signalling thing, but as a general rule of political discussion etiquette, try to avoid the "mott and bailey" trick. I've seen this come up e.g. when discussing feminism - going from "feminism just means supporting equal treatment for women and men" to "opposing abortion means opposing equal treatment for women and men". The former is easy to defend. The latter is harder to defend. They are not logically equivalent.

In practice, mott-and-bailey arguments frequently accompany ambiguous-case signalling. If someone calls you out on using a mott-and-bailey, just admit that your argument was wrong, but make it clear that just because the argument was wrong doesn't make the conclusion wrong. Contrary to instinct, people will be far more likely to believe you later if you admit you were wrong at some point, so don't be afraid to really ham up an apology.

3. Remember that economics is a thing. There's the classic cautionary tale of rent control: New York City originally adopted rent control to protect lower-income people from exorbitant rent. After that, developers stopped building low-cost apartments, because rent control meant that prices couldn't adjust to demand, and tenants would hold rent-controlled apartments for decades. To this very day, there is a huge shortage of low-cost apartments in NYC. But there is an abundance of "luxury" apartments - apartments past a certain price point are not subject to rent control. In short, rent control accelerated gentrification.

Why do I bring this up in a signalling discussion? When someone argues against rent control or minimum wage or the ACA or what have you, there's a temptation to interpret it as signalling. It feels like they're against poor people or against sick people. Don't blindly trust that feeling; they may just be economically literate.

4. If you think someone is working against their own self-interest, that's a major red flag. I occasionally hear liberals talk about how lots of conservatives vote against their own interest because they're conned by Rupert Murdoch. That sort of thing should be considered unlikely a priori, so you better have a strong case for why people think they're following their own self interest. "Because fox news told them so" is not, by itself, a strong case. The rent control example is a strong case - something that has bad consequences long term seems good at first glance. If you want to argue that people are voting against their interest, then you should also figure out why it looks good at first glance.

Assuming that you know what is good for a person better than that person may be the fastest way to get labelled a "smug liberal". Of course, there will be cases where you do know what's better, but that does not mean it's a good idea to say so! The relevance of signalling is left as an exercise to the reader.

Closing reminder: please remember that the point here is how to talk to conservatives, not who's right. Just because I suggest avoiding an argument, does not mean that the thing the argument supports is wrong.

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