Monday, March 27, 2017

Winning over the Other Side (Part 1 of 3)

Do you think there something wrong with me? I not only read the New York Times  and listen to NPR and Democracy Now, but I also tune into to Rush Limbaugh, check  Breitbart’s website, and, gasp!, actually follow Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. 

You might diagnose masochism but I’ve long forced myself to listen to the other side. Yes, Rush Limbaugh has helped me understand why it is so hard to counter demonization of gang members in court.  

Of course I’ve found the obvious: tens of millions of people in our country live in radically different worlds.  Within these separate bubbles, people choose their media outlets, e.g. CNN, Democracy Now, Breitbart or Fox, to reinforce their pre-existing views. We are witnessing what psychologists call confirmation bias on a grand scale. While we convince ourselves we are using reason, Benferado says “really our minds are bending the facts, sawing off inconvenient corners, and tossing away contradictory information so that everything can be fit into ready-made boxes.” Not just them, us too. And unfortunately that is also how juries work.

If you encounter a fierce partisan from “the other side” on social media or in real life, you might realize it is virtually impossible to have a rational disagreement.  Sooner of later you conclude “they must be crazy,” and if you haven’t figured it out, they think the same about you.  They look only within their frame and you look only within yours.  

What is a frame? “Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world”, social psychologist George Lakoff says. Think of a picture frame when you focus on what is inside and pretty much ignore what is outside of it. It is what mass media do routinely, pointing your attention to one aspect to what is a more complex picture.  Lakoff (2004, 115) argues that “frames trump facts.”  He claims you cannot win an argument with facts alone, a sober realization that also applies in the courtroom. 

Frames are psychological cousins of the “social construction of reality,” a concept introduced by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman.  In 1967 they asked philosophically (p 13), “What is real? How is one to know?” Their sociology of knowledge explains how reality becomes “institutionalized” and legitimated through secondary socialization. Today that socialization is fueled by one’s media choice. The proliferation of alternative media has led us into polarized camps, each of us drinking different flavors of cultural Kool-Aid.  Does this mean there is no “objective” reality? No, only that reality is contested.

This, of course,  brings me back to gangs.  The reason I stopped running gang programs in Milwaukee in the early 1980s was that while I directed a successful diversion program, it had no effect on what politicians or the public thought about gangs. In short, gangs were framed as evil incarnate and what the people and public officials wanted most was more police and longer prison terms. 

My solution was to do research to “reframe” the problem.  My first study, which became People & Folks,  won a front page headline in the Dec. 12, 1986 Milwaukee Journal, reframing the gang problem as a lack of jobs.   Some good that did.  Thirty years later on August 13, 2016 in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood where I had done much my research,  gangs and other youth rioted because of lack of jobs  and persistent police brutality.  If anything has changed, it’s been for the worse. And in 2017 the mayor still wants to hire more police. I failed to change public opinion.

More recently President Trump said illegal immigrant gangs were the cause of most of the violence in Chicago. He has threatened to “bring in the feds” unless the city gets its gang problem under control.  Simply stating the facts,  like 3/4 of homicide victims and offenders are African American, not immigrants or Chicago’s homicide rate is considerably lower than the rate in Detroit or St. Louis,  is hardly persuasive.  Logic doesn’t change the beliefs of racists on the alt-right or divert Chicago’s violence-torn black community from fears of much-too-frequent violence.

This is the problem I’ve confronted in all of my gang related trials. In court, reality also has two sides: the prosecution insists the facts prove guilt; the defense says they do not.  In a trial, both the prosecution and the defense construct theories or frames that explain and dispute the facts.  Demonizing gangs and reinforcing stereotypes is a winning strategy for the prosecution, constructing frames so hard the facts will bounce off.  Thus my job as expert witness is to use research to combat stereotypes and try to reach a judge or jury.  But if disputing the facts is insufficient, what rational tools do we have to combat stereotypes?

In a trial, the defense goal is often to win over just one juror to not convict, which is much harder than it might seem. In the court of public opinion, we are looking for ways to win over millions of people who may be open to not getting on the Trump train or might want reasons to duck out.  My work in court exemplifies this problem of the limits of rationality. In my next two blogs I’d like to outline a few of my ideas on the power of stereotypes by applying concepts from the works of George Lakoff and Daniel Kahneman. Coming next week:  Two Opposed Ways of Thinking.

Benferado, Adam. 2015. Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice. New York: Crown Publishers.

Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckman. 1967. The Social Construction of Reality. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company Inc. Anchor Books.

Lakoff, George.  2004. Don't think of an elephant! : know your values and frame the debate : the essential guide for progressives. White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green Pub. Co.