I was on debate team for about half a season in high school and absolutely hated every second of it. To me, it was a miserable collection of pride, egos, and regurgitation from collections of quotations that were, in the name of Lincolnian posterity, called “Squirrel Killers.” There was absolutely no interest in furthering thought, only in proving that one group was right and the other was wrong. Teams literally picked sides before they did research on the topic. It was a giant exercise in confirmation bias. Worse, one cannot emerge from a debate as “chief compromiser” or “peacemaker.” You can only win or lose - never learn. And you certainly aren’t going to be changing anyone’s mind or behavior.
Welcome to the new media environment; the modern squirrel slaughterhouse.
You can only win or lose - never learn.
Behavior change is possibly one of the trickiest stunts of social gymnastics a human being can pull off. When you think about what you’re doing, it’s not that much of a surprise, either. You’re attempting to reach into someone’s brain, reach into literally years of ingrained habits and beliefs, and start moving things around. It’s like walking into someone’s house and re-arranging their furniture, but instead of furniture, it’s their mind.
It can actually sound kind of sinister when you put it that way, and in some ways it is. Thankfully, we have a natural resistance to it. Not just anyone can rearrange the furniture of my mind (I am trademarking the hell out of that phrase). Can you imagine what would happen if it was that simple? Any random joker could come in there and start putting ficus trees on top of your couch or painting everything salmon pink.
But there are people we let rearrange our furniture. There are people we let influence our opinions and thoughts, but only after we give them permission to do so. Think about it this way: if you’re a parent, and that frizzy-haired, beady-eyed jerk of a woman in the grocery store gives you not-so-subtle advice on what your child should/should not eat, how quickly are you Googling the legal penalty for assault? Is three to five years in jail really that bad?
How quickly are you googling the legal penalty for assault? Is three to five years in jail really that bad?
Contrast that to some advice from a close friend, or that of a renowned expert on parenting whose book you have purposefully sought out. What’s the reaction there? You may still want to strangle your friend, but it will be a much friendlier throttling, and I guarantee you’ll still consider what they said.
We need permission to influence people before we attempt to do it. Salespeople try to obtain that permission in quick, gimmicky ways, through manipulations of social constructs like reciprocation and waving a pocket watch very slowly back and forth in front of your eyes. We are all salespeople in one way or another, but there are honest and dishonest ways to go about it.
Receiving permission to influence starts from many different places. Like trust, it is difficult to gain and easy to lose. But we have to start somewhere, and here’s a hint: it starts with a little bit of love. Maybe love for what you do, maybe love for the person you’re interacting with, but there has to be a touch of it in there to make it effective.
Love means a lot of things to a lot of people. It means openness, honesty, genuineness. I’m not going to sit here and try to give anyone advice on how to do it, because, in fact, I’m not sure how anyone does it but me. Half the time I’m not even sure how I do it. But I know that it’s a necessary ingredient for change - whether that’s for another person, for society, or for yourself.
So do yourself and the world a favor: resist the urge to be part of the modern squirrel slaughterhouse. It didn’t create any useful learning in debate team, and it’s not going to create any useful learning now.