|The Idea: If we really want to break people out of their frames, we should make less use of satire and more use of analogous thinking based on an extension of the ‘golden rule’ .
By now you’re probably tired of reading about the need to ‘reframe’ debates and discussions in order for the ‘other side’ to appreciate your worldview and where you’re coming from, and hopefully see it your way. The problem is, it’s hard to reframe something from within your own frame, and unless you yourself are able to understand where the ‘other side‘ is coming from. Perhaps a useful exercise to practice, to become better at understanding opposing views, is ‘If the show were on the other foot’ scenarios.
I suggested one of these a couple of years ago to try to explain to Americans why most Iraqis viewed ‘Shock & Awe’ as invasion and oppression, not as liberation. Imagine, I said, if foreign governments, concerned perhaps about the anti-democratic practice of gerrymandering, and the possibility that the 2000 (and 2004) elections were stolen, and believing that in fact a quiet coup had occurred, decided to ‘liberate’ Americans from an illegitimate and extremist government. In such a scenario, does anyone doubt that even the most cynical and disenchanted liberals would join in a non-partisan resistance movement to oust the invaders, even at the cost of their lives? So why is it so hard to understand Iraqis of all stripes doing the same to defend their country?
US president Kennedy used this thinking in his anti-segregation speeches to whites in the 1960s, to try to get them to imagine what it is like facing discrimination strictly on the basis of skin colour.
We need more of this kind of thinking, because ‘If the shoe were on the other foot’ analogies are essentially stories, and as such they can be made context-rich, memorable and persuasive, and transcend thinking that is rooted in ‘frames’.
Example: The Republicans in the US are about to use their majority to bring about an end to the strange but honourable tradition of filibustering, in order to force through approval of some of the most frightening right-wing extremists the US has ever seen into powerful positions in the judiciary. This is might-makes-right thinking (in more ways than one) and its purpose is to extend the power and influence of unelected ultraconservatives well past the next election. But what if the shoe were on the other foot? What if, in the past or in a few years or in a parallel universe, some ultra-liberals were to use leverage on a moderate-progressive majority in Congress to push through judicial nominees who favoured the abolition of prisons, the elimination of private property, and unlimited, free abortion right up to the moment of conception? (oops, I meant birth — thanks, Richard). Would conservatives not want access to filibusters as a means of blocking extremist nominees and actions if the shoe were on the other foot?
Another example, from a different political perspective: Several countries in Europe are prohibiting any manifestations of personal religious belief in schools, workplaces and other ‘secular’ institutions. Clothing, symbols and rituals of faith are permitted only in private homes and churches. Young women who wear headscarves to school are told by school authorities that they have been brainwashed into supporting a religion that oppresses women, and suspended from class. But what if the shoe were on the other foot? What if, in the past or in a few years or in a parallel universe, Europe were taken over by a religious frenzy and only the clothing, symbols and rituals of that single religion were tolerated in schools? Would those of differing views not feel oppressed and outraged if they were told that clothing they thought perfectly respectable was blasphemous and that wearing a symbol of secular belief (like a peace sign) was grounds for expulsion from school?
Books like A Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 are (while excellent literature) usually quite ineffective at bringing about a change in worldview because they tend to preach to the choir — to those who already see the danger their cautionary tale warns about. To tell someone of a particular belief, however, what the world might be like if that belief were ubiquitous and pushed to an extreme, is unlikely to win any converts and will be dismissed by this audience as scaremongering and exaggeration.
A more effective means of changing someone’s worldview, I think, is to tell ‘If the shoe were on the other foot’ stories. I think mothers understand this particularly well: What mother hasn’t started many a dressing-down to her child with “How would you have felt if someone had done that to you?”
But it won’t be easy. Such thinking is uncomfortable, and exposes us to our own biases and presumptions as well as those of the people we seek to caution. It will take a lot of practice, and, perhaps, by the time we get really good at it, we’ll have broadened our thinking so much we won’t actually need to tell the stories anymore. The ‘golden rule’ is ubiquitous in all human cultures. We need merely extend it from ‘treat others as you want to be treated’, to ‘treat others as you would want to be treated if your situations were reversed‘.
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