Personal Responsibility, My Ass
August 27, 2014 4:29 PM   Subscribe

A close-ish friend and colleague of mine has started to show his true colors in the past few weeks with inflammatory statements on various social issues. I am disgusted, but I want to turn our conversations into learning opportunities. He's just now starting to realize that his beliefs are problematic and he's open to educating himself, but I don't even know where to start.

Examples of closed-minded statements he's made:

- "Mike Brown (the young man shot in Ferguson) and anyone shot by the police was asking for it. They shouldn't have been agitating the police; I (a white, straight, middle-class, male) will never get shot by the police because I know how to behave. Everyone's responsible for their own actions".

- "Victims of international human trafficking tend to be the lowest of society, they're more likely to make bad decisions that put them in these situations. Everyone's responsible for their own actions. That would never happen to me because I'm resourceful".

- "People on WIC and food stamps are lazy and it's a waste of my tax dollars"

Obviously, we got into heated arguments about this, but he did admit that he didn't know a lot about the topics at hand and humbly and sheepishly ask me to give him more information.

I guess my problem is, how do I help someone realize that their entire worldview is warped, that people have different abilities and experiences and that extrapolating your life experiences onto other people's is problematic. Trust me, I would have walked away in a heartbeat if this person didn't seem open to changing and gaining more insight. I have no idea where to start. I don't want to attack him, I just want to create an open dialogue. And I, in turn, want to learn more about him and why he believes what he believes.
posted by chara to Human Relations (21 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
The best way that you can have these conversations is actually not to come at them from the perspective of trying to help them realize that "their entire worldview is warped," but to come at it from the direction of trying to come to the truth together. "Hey, you say that, but I've heard/seen studies/what have you that actually say X. What do you think?" Make it a conversation - and be genuinely willing to listen to him as well if he comes up with studies. Give equal time, don't preach. People don't want to be converted, but they're sometimes willing to change their mind if they don't think they're being condescended to or told they are Wrong and should Feel Bad.

I've personally had good results by saying things like, "I will read your book/look at this article/watch your newscast/check out that newspaper if you will do the same for mine."
posted by corb at 4:45 PM on August 27, 2014 [11 favorites]

There are some ideas about why people might take take hardcore individualistic positions favouring meritocratic ideals -- because they prefer simple solutions and dislike complex reasoning; because they want to identify with a "winning" group, as they feel defensive about their own position; because they're protecting the wins they've got, which they've interpreted as resulting from their own hard work, and want to distance themselves from the idea of luck or powers (including social ones) larger them themselves. Not sure you can do much about much of it, imo, not least because the positions he's taking are working you up. He might be marginally more open if he feels safe, comforted, and unthreatened. Guessing at what it would take to make him feel those ways would be a real trick, though, and so would avoiding accidentally tripping on words or ideas that trigger whatever associations lead to defensiveness for him. Also, people really hate being told what to do and think.

I guess if he's up for talking, though, you could maybe flatter him by praising his willingness to be open (not in an embarrassing or insincere way, though; it helps that you do actually appreciate it), and trying Socratic questioning to get him to uncover his own logic.

(Probably less successful but maybe worth a try would be finding ways to get him to remember times he was in a comparable situation, but actually making the explicit comparison to the kinds of situations you describe is likely to lead to him distancing himself from them and doubling down.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:47 PM on August 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

Ask questions. Ask questions. Ask questions. Ask if he is truly unable to come up with counter examples. (Such as well-dressed white guys who aren't always on best behavior.) Ask if knows how many people on assistance have jobs. Ask if he knows the average time a male between the ages of 25 and 35 spends on assistance.

Show him that he doesn't have facts.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 4:48 PM on August 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

Well, he isn't wrong, everyone IS responsible for their own actions. But much of what he is talking about isn't a matter of personal responsibility but rather circumstances outside of ones control such as racism, born into poverty, poor education, etc.

What got me turned around on my thinking on a lot of social issues that are kinda inconceivable to a white, well educated, middle class citizen of the US is that so, so many people don't have/don't live in the same reality I do (even coming from a bottom of the middle class white person background).

Metafilters own J. Scalzi has a really good essay on his blog (name of the blog:whatever) called playing on the easiest difficulty about this reality.

BTW my viewpoint on it isn't my biggest advantage is my race (it doesn't hurt-just saying it isn't the biggest, ymmv) it was having a loving, supportive family who instilled in me both good values/work ethic and basic life competencies. A lot of people never get this through no fault of their own.
posted by bartonlong at 4:51 PM on August 27, 2014 [8 favorites]

I think it's easy to be ignorant of a faceless group. Personalize it. Pick 3 to 5 examples of each that he can't argue with, people with stories, and challenge his generalizations.

He keeps saying everyone is responsible for their own actions. Make him acknowledge how systems influence actions. Point out the advantages he has as a white middle class person that he may not consider.

Point to institutional evidence of racism. The fact that people with african american names are less likely to be hired in studies then people with traditionally white european names. The regressive nature of taxes.

If money doesn't have an effect, then wealthy people should regularly become poor.
posted by gryftir at 4:52 PM on August 27, 2014

For human trafficking, tell him to start with the wikipedia page. If you can figure out a way to subtly needle him for being so lazy about such an important issue that he can't even look it up on wikipedia, you should do that. I certainly wouldn't be able to, but enh.

More locally, I recently listened to a presentation given by one of the investigators that works human trafficking in my city. Most of the cases he works are local, and in 90%+ of the cases he works, the trafficked victims are victims of sexual and/or physical abuse in their homes. They flee their homes at young ages (6 years old+), come to the city, and have zero resources. Police without the right training often send them back to their abusive homes, lots of shelters and homeless resources do the same thing, and it's not even legal for them to work. So, they engage in survival sex. If he were a resourceful 12 year old on the street, he'd probably do the same thing. It's that, steal, or starve.

If he can explain to you how a twelve year old is somehow "responsible" for being raped by her father or uncle, you should probably fire him into the sun with a giant catapult.


I like Lesser Shrew's approach. Ask him if he knows how much money EBT is, or what it can be used for. Ask him how well he'd get along on that income. A while ago some coworkers were talking about "government phones" and what I should have asked them at the time was "what government phones? How do you get them?"

I've seen people see a middle aged black man sitting on a porch at 2pm and having a smoke and assume he's unemployed. I tell them that I used to work night security at an office building and every night a cleaning crew that was all black + latino cleaned the entire building. They worked harder than I did for less money. What evidence does anyone have that people aren't working nights?


Regarding police shooting: here's a video of a trooper shooting a 70 year old man that was getting a cane from his truck bed. Here's a video of a cop getting killed on a traffic stop. I link the second to contextualize the first.

If a police officer thinks that you present a threat to their life, they're going to shoot you.

Now, consider that white people tend to show less empathy for black pain and think that black boys are older and less innocent than white counterparts.

Consider how subconscious biases may affect an officer's evaluation of the threat presented by a given person, as well as the relative seriousness of taking that person's life.


More broadly, I think the biggest thing would be to get him to think about how his view of the world is profoundly simplistic. We have, what, almost 7 billion human beings on the face of the planet? Something like 400 million here in the U.S.? Poverty as well as affluence that persist through many generations? And he thinks he's the guy that finally figured everything out with the two-word thesis "personal responsibility"?

We all wish the world were that simple, but it's not. It is, in fact, almost infinitely complex.
posted by kavasa at 5:04 PM on August 27, 2014 [13 favorites]

Oh, another thing I remembered - definitely avoid buzzwords. At a nonprofit I worked at once, we had a really good media person who explained (and demonstrated) that people will sometimes agree with you, if you're not using the buzzword they are trained to think of as the opposition.

So don't say "food stamps" because it's already laden with negative connotations. Say, "government help with groceries," for example. Don't say "WIC." Say, "Help for women who have babies."
posted by corb at 5:10 PM on August 27, 2014 [13 favorites]

Two of your three examples included language to the effect of "that would never happen to me..."

This tends to signal that someone feels threatened. He is trying to assert that HE is safe because HE has virtues. When people feel that defensive, it can be a real minefield to try to educate them because giving them the facts about what all really goes into x, y or z outcomes undermines their sense of security or invulnerability.

In rape cases, the prosecution wants to fill the jury with middle aged MEN. Middle aged men have wives, daughters, sisters, mothers and other women in their lives whom they want protected from a rapist. They will listen to the testimony and blame the man. They want him off the street and behind bars so their loved ones are safe.

In contrast, women routinely go "I would never dress like that" or "I would never be caught dead in that part of town" and they find him innocent because it is scary for a woman to think that she can do all the right things and still get raped. So they blame the victim in order to go "LA LA LA NOT LISTENING" and protect their own perception of security.

So I will suggest that whatever approach you take, you tread lightly. Making him feel too threatened will likely shut down the discussion.
posted by Michele in California at 5:12 PM on August 27, 2014 [13 favorites]

For this kind of thing I don't think there's a better classroom than MetaFilter. I would look for (or ask for, maybe as a MeTa) good examples here that include people sharing a lot of the lived experiences that debunk stereotypes. Then I'd let him read it over at his leisure and let it slosh around his brain. Just as many people changed their views on homosexuality and SSM when someone close to them came out, perhaps hearing personal stories will help him empathize more. I know MeFi helped me in that regard.

Alternatively, just make him read all of scody's comments, ever.
posted by Room 641-A at 5:16 PM on August 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

Ask him to read Walking While Black (pdf) by Georgetown Law professor and former federal prosecutor Paul Butler. He was my Criminal Procedure professor and discussed the issues in that article at length, and I have never heard or read anyone put the issues in such clear perspective as he does.
posted by The World Famous at 5:42 PM on August 27, 2014 [8 favorites]

He is trying to assert that HE is safe because HE has virtues. When people feel that defensive, it can be a real minefield to try to educate them because giving them the facts about what all really goes into x, y or z outcomes undermines their sense of security or invulnerability.

Exactly. He is manifesting what's known as the Just World fallacy. Basically, it contends that when bad things happen to other people, it's because either they are good people who made bad or stupid decisions, or they are bad people getting what's coming to them.

This is a position that's psychologically comforting for some people, because it allows them to feel that things do not happen randomly, and that there is no real injustice in the world. Mike Brown got shot because he did something wrong (so it has nothing to do with racism, so we shouldn't be upset). Poor people are poor because they are lazy (so we don't need to help them and we don't need to be concerned about poverty in general). Women and children around the world are sold into slavery because they didn't pull themselves up by their own bootstraps (so I don't have to consider the horror that millions of people are enduring right now).

This worldview has a kind of progression of implications. At its first level, it allows the person who holds it to feel safe: i.e., "nothing bad will happen to me, because I am a good person and I always make good decisions." Second, it engenders a sense of denial: "I don't really have to look at the bad things happening in the world, and if I don't look at them, it means they aren't really happening or don't really matter." Third, it suppresses empathy and compassion: "people who suffer when these bad things happening aren't like me, so I don't feel bad for their suffering." Finally, at its most extreme, it warps into a capacity for dehumanization: "those people suffering are basically just subhuman, so I am glad that they are suffering."

Where do you think your friend falls in this range? If he's a basically decent guy who just wants to keep his head in the sand about the horrors of the world because he'd otherwise be overwhelmed, then I think the place to start is by presenting him with information that, in addition to facts and statistics, stresses the humanity of the people suffering. If, however, you perceive he's someone with a genuine deficit of empathy, then the task at hand becomes a lot harder, and in many ways this becomes a question of philosophy/ethics as much as politics.
posted by scody at 6:09 PM on August 27, 2014 [15 favorites]

Walking While Black is an excellent read and kind of hit a nerve for me. I am currently homeless and have interacted with the police quite a lot more in 2.5 years on the street than in the 47 years before that (when I was a middle class white woman). So, in light of that, I will also suggest the book:

Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women

It was the main text for my class on homelessness that I took many years ago through SFSU.

Though, I am reminded of the scene in the movie Soul Man where James Earl Jones' character says something about what the white kid learned about what it's like to be black and he says "No sir. If I didn't like it, I could wash it off." Homelessness is something I can "wash off." All I need is to solve my problems and get off the street (which is, obviously, easier said than done but can be done). But people of color can get rich/successful and all that and still can't wash it off, as the article Walking While Black demonstrates fairly well.
posted by Michele in California at 6:09 PM on August 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

You can help him learn about the Cycle of Poverty, how it changes a person's thinking, how it limits their options and opportunities for education, work and class change.

It might be helpful to work though an exercise with him even. i.e. "Let's pretend you make X dollars at your job, here are you unavoidable expenses... see how little you have left? Oh, your car needs $100 in repairs or you'll lose your job! Your kid has an ear infection and you have to miss work to take them to the doctor... a thing you can't afford, don't have insurance for AND you're in danger of losing your low paying job over."

I am putting together a fairly large proposal to raise entry-level wages at my retail focused non-profit... a lot of my citations for it are related to business, but here is a really good one about why the minimum wage should be raised and would likely not affect employment. Raising the Federal Minimum Wage to $10.10 Would Lift Wages for Millions and Provide a Modest Economic Boost
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:38 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Is he coming from the perspective of preferring individualism or from trying to decide how the state and society should best control people?
posted by michaelh at 7:08 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Gift him a MetaFilter account! Years of arguing with all y'all brought me around on several issues, you commie pinkos, you! :D
posted by Jacqueline at 7:27 PM on August 27, 2014 [10 favorites]

There's an online "game" put together by the Urban Ministries of Durham called Spent. The player is faced with various challenges to select between various options re: taking a job, finding a home (balancing rents vs. travel costs), healthcare, etc. One very easily begins to see the narrow range of options people can sometime face. Your friend may (or may not) see how his ability to be "resourceful" is not always as he expects.

There's a similar poverty simulator here.

I don't know if there are other games like this with a more legal or social and less financial focus, but this might be a jumping off point for him to understand that others' lives are unlike his. I don't suggest just having him play the game, where he can say "Well, I just won't have children" or "I'll just do X" but engage him in conversation about how these realities are faced by others.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 9:04 PM on August 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

Point him at Jane Elliott.
posted by flabdablet at 5:36 AM on August 28, 2014

He could be under stress (even if white male first world problems) and projecting. Trying to "man up," as he sees it. Don't engage the debate, try to find out why. At a more personal level, many people ashamed of their own weight go around calling others fat.
posted by bad grammar at 8:32 AM on August 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think personal health/fitness is a good model for thinking about "personal responsibility" and counteracting fundamental attribution error.

If you don't go to the gym three times a week then you are shaving years off your life expectancy. I (and many people) would value several years of life highly and certainly higher than the time expended at the gym. But I don't go.

It might be rightly said that I'm quite lazy. But generally people will have ten other excuses. I think the truth is we can think about other people's lives on an abstracted logical way. But our own lives are lived moment to moment and decisions are made in a much messier way.
posted by Erberus at 8:36 AM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

It may be helpful to point out that the situation in Ferguson has inspired discussion about facets of America that seldom are dealt with in the media, until something happens, when the talking heads drag out their favorite drums to thump. Allow that your friend has some good points to make. Once you both establish that you are not talking as if you know what actually happened that night, you may then proceed to talk about such things as community involvement, and the role government ought to play in one's life. A statement about Brown or the man who shot him is speculation right now, and it would be wise to not attribute generalities, trends, or even factual anecdotes about racism to what happened that night.

Being black in America is a topic many Americans don't seem to be aware of. If you know something about that, I guess you might have a good opportunity to share your experiences. If you know something about being a police officer (other than what data you pick up on the news), then that would be good information to share. Taking sides about "Ferguson" is a seriously misdirected option, but the forces and notions that helped this event come about are seriously relevant. The issue here is that the "event" had not been very well defined--thug or nice teen, good cop or bad cop (and any other permutations the talking heads have come up with). Examining prejudice in America is a seriously relevant topic. Other themes are worth exploring, such as the ongoing militarism of police forces: is it real or imagined? If real, then WTF?--is that good or bad? This may even lead to topics such as voter registration, and how, if you want to get on the jury, you need to register to vote.

The political left and the political right seem to come from bottom up and top down theories regarding the role of government. Perhaps it would be useful to realize that no discussion is likely to change the sort of paradigms that inspire these two versions. But left and right can agree on some things. It's left to the individuals to figure this out. If all you want to do is educate your friend so that he will come around the proper way of thinking, you may have to resort to putting a funnel in his ear and pouring the right stuff directly into his brain.
posted by mule98J at 11:12 AM on August 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I concluded many years ago that trying to change other people's minds only caused me greater pain and frustration.
posted by humboldt32 at 12:30 PM on August 28, 2014

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