Monday, April 3, 2017

Winning Over the Other Side (Part 2 of 3)

There are some people you can’t win over, at least in the short term. That doesn’t mean you don’t try, but presenting the facts alone won’t cut it.
A few years ago I gave a talk at the Tennessee Judicial Conference, an annual meeting of judges. Tennessee is a death penalty state and judges there, like everywhere, are hostile to gang members who are on trial.  I made my standard presentation on stereotypes, drawing a laugh here and there at my powerpoint graphics. But otherwise the judges were silent. After a while I suspected most had stopped paying attention.  

When I finished I asked for questions and there were none….. just stares.  This same talk had received enthusiastic applause and numerous questions at a Vanderbilt University law conference the year before, but the judges hated it. Why?

Trying to figure this out I have turned away from sociology and have been exploring social cognition literatures, defined by Susan Fiske as “how ordinary people think about people and how they think they think about people.”  In the academic tradition where I was trained, there is an unstated assumption that rigorous research will produce facts that will persuade others.  I found it seldom works that way.

WYSIATI means "What You See is All There Is"
Daniel Kahneman had made the important discovery that we think in two distinct ways.  Kahneman points out we are generally lazy thinkers and prefer to use what he calls our System 1 thinking that looks for simplified cause and effect patterns consistent with our prior beliefs.  “System 1 is designed to jump to conclusions from little evidence"  when that evidence is consistent with our stereotypes.  System 1 is our default way of thinking and it includes a gendered ethnocentrism and identification with one's own group.  It operates mainly by associations and in frames, not by logic. It requires effort by more complex System 2 thinking to break stereotypes and most people typically would rather not put in that much work. 

For example, in several of my court cases, police officers have taken the stand to explain that a murder was committed “to advance the defendant’s status in the gang.” This sometimes makes a crime “gang-related” and eligible for enhanced penalties.  In every case of mine where this assertion was made by police, there was absolutely no evidence that “advancing in the gang” was any part of a motive.  The defendants denied it and there were no interviews with other gang members who could confirm such a dubious claim.  

Where did this imaginary but useful notion come from? From police "training" on gangs,  of course!   According to the American Prosecution Research Institute manual on gang prosecutions, such “expert” testimony by police gang squad officers "explains the inexplicable.”  In other words, a wholly made up “motive” works because it fits with juries’ stereotypes of gangs.  Juries tend to accept these allegations unconsciously through their System 1 thinking. Unless challenged, such imaginary motives are accepted as facts.

On a grander scale, Donald Trump’s unsupported claim that millions of people voted illegally fits with stereotypes of “aliens” taking advantage of "our" America. Trump repeats this lie and millions accept it by relying on the frames and confirmation bias of their System 1 reasoning.  

While Allport explained long ago that we all think in categories the content of our stereotypes largely depends on our world outlook. Many Trump supporters and the Tennessee judges, I suspect,  share what George Lakoff calls the “strict father” world view. 

The strict father outlook is fundamentally authoritarian asserting “following the rules is most important.” For my judges and millions of others, evil exists and the world is a dangerous place. The law protects us from the “other” who need to be harshly punished.   Criminals’ less-than-human status also means they are incapable of rehabilitation.  By punishing “them” we reaffirm “us,”  what Durkheim called the organic solidarity of society.  This outlook underlies our policies of mass incarceration which have put a disproportionate number of African Americans in prison.  Preserving the dominant white culture against dark-skinned threats like gangs is a core element of this view.

Gangs, to the Tennessee  judges,  are essentially evil and an insult to authority.  In a world with absolute rights and wrongs, gangs are simply wrong. Many harmful stereotypes of gangs are accepted on their face since they fit into a popular story line reinforced by prosecutors of gangs as intrinsically evil.  While gangs can be a “scapegoat” for white anxieties, a deep antipathy exists in our culture for the dark other, and gangs are a metaphor for what is perceived as an existential threat to white identity. 

The main reason I couldn’t get through to the judges was that they and I were operating within different frames and with different values. The judges never moved beyond System 1 thinking because I was unable to “reframe” my comments in ways they could understand.   While I’m sure I could have done a better job, one thing I’ve learned is that there are a large number of adherents to this hard core authoritarian outlook who cannot be won over in the short term no matter how persuasive we are.  We are literally living within different worlds and talking within different frames. Tune in to Rush Limbaugh and hear this for yourself.   Some arguments can only be won at the ballot box, in the streets, or by jury verdicts.  The courtroom, unfortunately, is an inherently unfriendly theater with the defendant playing “them” and judge, prosecutor, and jury playing “us.”

Lakoff points out all people have both strict father and what he calls nurturant parent outlooks. I’d call the two polar outlooks authoritarian and empathetic.  These viewpoints do not coincide with “left” and “right” or Democrat or Republican. Leftwing authoritarianism has been responsible for mass murders in Russia and China and is characteristic of those who exercise bureaucratic power, e.g. Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy.”  Some Christian conservatives can be deeply empathetic to the poor and the “other.”  Prosecutors claim they are empathetic to the victims of crimes, but not to offenders. 

While a minority of the population consistently holds one view or the other,  most people have elements of both. The key to persuasion of those in the middle is to activate frames based on your values that resonate with theirs.  In my final blog in this series I’ll turn to how Lakoff and others suggest we win over the undecided through an example from my court work.


Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

Allport, Gordon W. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Durkheim, Emile. 1933. The Division of Labor in Society. New York: The Free Press.

Fiske, Susan T., and Shelley E. Taylor. 1991. Social cognition. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Kahneman, Daniel. 2011. Think Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

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.

Michels, Robert. 1962 {1915}. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. New York: The Free Press.