Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Calling Uncle Fred a Jerk Won't Help: The Having of Hard Holiday Conversations, 2014 Edition

For most of the last several years, we've shared ideas about how to talk about climate change at holiday gatherings. Welcome to the 2014 edition! 

With PRI's educational work in evolution, climate change, and, more recently, hydraulic fracturing, we think about how to address controversial issues all the time. I share things about all of this stuff on my Facebook wall and I'm connected to a number of groups where we hash this stuff out. Today's post comes from a Facebook exchange that grew out of a friend's concerns about Thanksgiving with a brother-in-law who doesn't accept that climate change is real and human-caused. 

While the focus of what follows is on climate change, it highlights general ideas related to talking about many controversial issues. I'll spill the beans early - once you insult someone's motives or intelligence in an argument, you've likely lost your opportunity to help them understand your point of view. Treating those who disagree with you as the enemy may have its place, but its almost certainly not the holiday dinner table. And, we should consider how much of a place it has at all. The post is largely about how to make an honest change in the direction of the discussion that might yield more productive results. 

While I'm updating this text that was mostly written in November, I'm also thinking about the horrible things that have been going on related to police both giving and receiving brutality. So much of that national discussion has simply been ugly and unhelpful. I invite you to think about how the thoughts I share below about climate change connect to discussing other controversial issues. 

Cutting to the chase

Most of the rest of the post is my response to a long back-and-forth exchange about how to talk to a relative with a vastly different worldview from the person who raised the question. Many of the posts by others in the conversation detailed the science of climate change and pointed to resources to back up evidentiary claims, that is, to ground the argument in the science. I was a late comer to the discussion, and read through the exchange before piping in. I've lightly edited my contribution to fix a typo or two, and to make it more clear, but it's essentially what I wrote in response to a long series of posts about what evidence to use. 
I read through this thread this morning, and have been mulling if for the day. Obviously, the science is essential - but it's also pretty obvious that just dishing science isn't sufficient. My educated guess is that your brother-in-law's worldview makes it next to impossible for him to accept the science.
 That's likely grounded in concerns about what the commonly proposed solutions will do to his way of life (and the American way of life).
 It's obviously not an indication that he's stupid - as you note, he's not. Getting heated about it likely will make matters worse - advocates tend to deepen people's convictions more than they deepen people's understandings, and many advocates manage to deepen convictions at both poles of polarizing issues. That's partly because they often insult those at the pole that's opposite from theirs, and that's a terrible strategy. I don't get the vibe from reading Fred's (not his real name) comments that he's likely to do that, but it's a common problem – a really common problem.
 Think about big ideas you've changed your mind about and what led to the change of heart. It likely wasn't sped along by anyone who insulted you, and it likely took a long time. It may have involved someone with kind reassurances about accepting whatever idea wouldn't ruin your life. That could be explicit, or it could be by example. I think gay people coming out of the closet and basically just being as nice as anyone else is fundamental to the change in attitude about gay marriage. For climate change, it makes more sense to talk about other issues that have the same root cause - wasting energy, particularly from fossil fuels. Almost no one will admit to liking waste as part of his or her value system. And, the waste from fossil fuels is often truly filthy and despoils the environment in a wide range of ways. If he's amused by the rolling coal movement (Google "Rolling Coal" if you don't know what it is), you can point out that it's not only filthy, it's also unpatriotic - wasting oil helps keep its price high which helps support groups like ISIS, even if the petroleum wasted comes from the US. With oil as an international commodity, wasting it anywhere helps support those nasty people.
 It's also allowing freeloaders to use our shared atmosphere as dumpsite for their waste. Nobody likes freeloaders either.
 You might well be able to get him to agree to all of that. It's not global warming, but it's got the same set of fixes.
 Another thing about changing your mind on big issues - it usually takes a long time, and a gradual build up of evidence that fits into a bigger picture. You likely won't win him over this Christmas, but maybe if you keep at it in a kindly fashion, it'll happen down the line.

There's a lot more to say on this issue, but keeping it civil and reflecting on important ideas where you've had a change of heart could go a long way toward improving the discussion and maybe making some progress. 

This year's edition has a somewhat different spin than earlier years. If you'd like to look back to previous years, here are the links:
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Happy Holidays!
Don Duggan-Haas