We Need More ‘If the Shoe Were On the Other Foot’ Thinking

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’ .

whitehouse2By 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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5 Responses to We Need More ‘If the Shoe Were On the Other Foot’ Thinking

  1. Richard says:

    “free abortion right up to the moment of conception”Hate to quibble, but I think you meant “birth”: conception is when a sperm fertilizes an egg, meaning abortion can only take place *after* that’s happened.

  2. Jeb Carlisle says:

    Dave,I think there are severe logical flaws in your position. For instance – In the case of the destruction of the fillibuster (the loss of which, will end democracy in the United States) the Democratic party has made repeated public and private pleas for “shoe on the other foot” thinking to Senator Frist. No change in Frist’s thinking is evident. The reason – Frist knows (along with the corporate/religious right) that complete takeover is at stake. If he doesn’t use the “nuclear option” now, he’ll miss his chance for total right wing dominance of policy in the U.S. That has been, and remains the goal of the empire we are watching be born. They openly and willfully reject a broad view on this subject (along with almost every other). How do they do it? They ignore, distract, and obfuscate all evidence, thinking, or discussion and try to narrow the dialog to match their prescribed conclusions. It’s a sales job! The right is making an offer we can’t refuse… they are assuming absolute power and we’d better learn to like it. Tyranny and total control will probably come to America this week and Frist plans to be appointed the next “President” for doing the evil deed. In your secular schools example you have forgotten to apply the equivalency test. Is secular equality by exclusion of religious or group symbols (in school ONLY) equivalent to dominance by one religion. NO! In order to maintain an atmosphere of fairness, and equal treatment for all, such displays were disallowed. The reason – religious and group symbols compete to control (limit) thinking and interaction, both of which are essential to a full, diverse, and open minded education. Europe knows most of all the power of group political and religious symbols to divide and distort perceptions of reality, and to destroy whole civilizations. You forget Dave, that power and dominance require a well nourished blind eye so that your “shoe on the other foot” examples will have no effect.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Richard — thanks for the correction (how embarrassing). Haste makes waste.Jeb: Sigh, you’re probably right. It’s just in my nature to believe that 95% of the population would behave fairly and reasonably if given the chance and the information. And while I’ll confess that no analogy is perfect (that’s what makes Shoe On the Other Foot thinking so difficult), and perhaps I could have used a better one, I do think that secular governments can be just as tyrannical and restrictive as religious ones — and would assert that telling French girls they cannot wear Islamic headscarves is wildly misinterpreting their meaning and overstepping reasonable limits on personal freedoms. I’ll have to think of a better ‘Shoe on the Other Foot’ analogy for this.

  4. Odd Utgard says:

    Just a quick comment to your ‘shoe on the other foot’-thinking. The secular movements in Europe (most notably in France, but also Holland and other countries) really rose to oppose the ‘religious frenzy’ that controlled people in schools, government and church. In France you could say the religion/state-division is part of the ‘social contract’. It is really this continuing dynamic of power-shifts that make democracies interesting. My point though: different shoes on different feet balance each other many times. Religions will not change world-views. So maybe we need more French governments?

  5. Pearl says:

    I think I’m of the same frame of mind that anyone who is given the message of shoe on other foot in a way they can understand, will naturally change. It can work. I’ve debated for the side of maintaining diversity in class. People nudge over and I’ve seen lights come on when I put the question to them of a group being treated all the same (whether people with Japenese bloodlines being interred in WWII in Canada, gays having the right to be free from harrassment and punishment based on their birth, etc) Drawing comparisons can break down the us group and them group and further people on the path from fear to acceptance to releasing long held prejudices. But they are deep. They took thousands of subtle instances to form and need a tender continuous questioning to reform. I’ve rambled long enough. I do enjoy your engaging writing.

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