Empathy pilling the elite
Should we shape the choices of key decision makers through empathy inducing experiences - without their knowledge?
What’s your theory of change is a common question when discussing social movements. It’s the how and why a change you’re seeking will actually come about. In answering this question you usually end up debating whether change can happen from inside a system or if it has to happen from the outside. Put another way, does power need to change hands in order to make progress or is it possible to change the minds of those in power to achieve the same goal. I generally believe the former but recently have been thinking more about the latter. Mostly because I keep hearing about Joe Manchin.
He’s in the news a lot these days because he’s the one person holding up the Democrat's plans for addressing climate change. Now this isn’t strictly true, there are probably a few other Democratic senators who would also vote no on Biden’s plans but don’t have to publicly do so because Manchin is taking all the heat as a “swing vote”. If you zoom out however, the salient point remains that potential progress on climate hinges on the mindset and decision making of a strikingly few number of people across the globe. Take Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, for example. His newfound passion for addressing climate change has caused ripples throughout the financial industry after years of disinterest. The ultimate impact of Fink’s new tune is yet to be seen but it’s clear that when those with outsized political or financial power switch positions, the effects are significant. So how do we foster more of these changes of heart?
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My summary after reading various articles and papers is that getting anyone to shift their views on a given topic is difficult but not impossible. Presenting someone with facts and statistics is the least effective method whereas allowing someone to feel like they came to a new position on their own works best. What’s most interesting is how a more empathetic understanding of someone or something can lead to a lasting perspective shift. Two examples that come to mind are Catherine Flowers - an activist fighting to improve living conditions for her rural Alabama hometown and Daryl Davis - a Black musician who decided to meet with a member of the KKK.
Flowers has a great book titled Waste that details her life and her effort to improve the wastewater crisis in her community. What’s relevant is that over the years she’s invited a number of politicians from both sides of the aisle to witness the struggles neighbors face when untreated wastewater floods their yards and homes. No matter their existing positions, visitors have made an honest effort to take up her cause after the tours. The night and day changes having seen first-hand the conditions stands out as you read the book.
Here’s a full account of Davis’s story. He wanted to understand how someone could hate him without knowing him. So he scheduled an interview with a Klan leader named Roger Kelly. Over the years the two actually became friends which ultimately lead to Kelly leaving and denouncing the Klan. While Davis was attempting to understand Kelly, the reverse was also happening whether either of them realized it or not. It took some time but getting to know Davis certainly had a lasting impact on Kelly’s worldview.
The process of putting ourselves into someone else’s shoes is more formally known as cognitive empathy. This is different from emotional empathy which is when we feel the same emotions as another person. My personal theory is that there’s a spectrum for what it takes to cultivate cognitive empathy. Some people can read a book about the plight of those in the Global South already reckoning with the climate crisis and then cut back on flying the next day. Other people need to hear live in-person accounts from those who have experienced climate disasters before they take up action. And then there are the people who will only “get it” once they themselves or someone they personally know experiences hardship caused by climate change. It also can’t be ignored that some will never be swayed. All this is to say, different approaches are needed for different people when trying to foster cognitive empathy.
To bring it back to Joe Manchin - my thought is that if the few thousand power brokers and capital allocators that underpin our global economy had more perspective altering experiences, progress on climate would be much more rapid. The goal of making this group empathize with people most affected by climate change doesn’t need to be explicit action on climate. Just less resistance to change and creating some doubt about their existing positions. In combat sports a tried and true strategy is tiring out your opponent before going in for the finish. You make them bear your weight as much as possible to take the fight out of them. That way when the haymakers come their arms are down. Cognitive empathy is pinning the opponent against the ring and movements like Ende Gelände are the blows that usher in change. To expect more than reluctant acceptance is too audacious, but softening up the global elite’s positions is a victory unto itself.
Now in one sense people have always been working on this approach. Advocacy groups, NGOs, and activists continually strive to be heard by those in power. There’s no lack of organizations focused on getting inside the heads of decision-makers. Joe Manchin has been confronted by the Sunrise movement multiple times this year but to what effect is unclear. What’s lacking is subtlety. The surest way to get someone to dig their heels in is to call them out or make your persuasive tactic too obvious - it’s called the backfire effect. What’s needed is a more indirect and highly personalized approach. One where those who have political or financial power are led to have more empathy inducing experiences without raising their suspicions. It’s the plot of Inception with a different implementation plan (no drugging people to enter their dreams). Meanwhile advertisers have been planting desires into our minds for decades. Here the added requirement would be to personalize the message so that it perfectly resonates with the individual being targeted. The explicit form this approach takes might have nothing to do with climate change. But the goal would be to tweak the perspectives of specific decision-makers in a way that makes them believe they are changing their views on their own. The ulterior motive is the point.
Exactly how this would work in a repeatable manner is not clear but we can look to a hypothetical example for a rough idea. Imagine Gus - the governor of a medium sized state. In the next few months legislation to increase liability protection for those who make food donations will come to his desk. It’s being heralded as a food waste and climate change solution by its backers. Gus is a lukewarmer so anything that’s pitched as a climate solution is immediately met with heavy skepticism. There’s a good chance that he will veto this bill because he’s not bought in on the underlying premise despite the good that the bill would do for various communities. Here’s how that position might be changed -
Our “empathy agents” would first build an understanding of Gus’s social and information networks. Who are his close friends and what are his sources of news? This is groundwork for knowing where to insert stories, conversations, and media that Gus would eventually come across.
Simultaneously they’d also attempt to learn everything about Gus’s life history and formative experiences. Where did he grow up, what was he like in high school, who does he respect, when did he experience adversity? This part would not be easy. How long it would take and how feasible it would be depends on the tactics deemed appropriate. Is hacking into a laptop acceptable? What about paying friends and acquaintances for relevant information? To personalize a message that moved Gus, such knowledge would be important to have.
The next step would be tailoring an experience or narrative that would specifically get Gus’s mind churning on the relevant issue. Say a friend of his from high school had relied on a local food bank in the past during a particularly hard time. This episode could be incorporated into a piece on how better liability protection for food donators would be a major benefit to food banks across the state. Matching the contours of Gus’s life to anecdotes that could shift his thinking forms the core of this approach.
With a crafted narrative in hand, the final step would be finding ways to have Gus stumble upon it in a seemingly natural way. Maybe the wife of a respected colleague brings it up at a party, or a trusted friend is co-opted into sending him a link to the piece. The level of underhandedness for these tactics is again up for debate. But the goal is to ensure that the narrative finds its way to Gus in an organic manner.
Success would be determined by whether or not Gus signed the legislation when it came across his desk. Attribution would undoubtedly be difficult, just as it remains within the advertising world. And it would probably take multiple empathy inducing narratives not just a single story in order to get the desired effect.
Would this specific plan work, probably not. But it illustrates the type of non-traditional tactics that are needed in order to disrupt the status quo. Obviously it also raises the question: Is this morally acceptable? The answer depends entirely on whether you’re in the ends justify the means camp or in the means must justify the ends camp. Given the immediacy of the climate crisis and the fact that a deeper understanding of other people’s experiences never hurt anyone, my answer definitely tilts towards "It’s fine". Now there are ways to be even more manipulative as I touch on in the outline above. How “blackhat” such an approach becomes depends entirely on how dire one deems the climate crisis. My thinking here is shaped by a book I recently read - How to Blow Up a Pipeline by Andreas Malm. The book explores why there aren’t more radical climate organizations given the stakes at hand. Malm’s claim is that so far almost all climate groups have placed utmost belief in the supremacy of non-violent tactics. While ignoring that historically, social progress has been a result of both non-violent and violent tactics. We might not be comfortable with methods labeled as not-acceptable by polite society today but something that is "not-acceptable" doesn't mean it's not effective. And we shouldn't forget that when staring down a crisis that is nothing short of existential.
When first writing this post I wanted to focus on the concept that increasing empathy across society is the best climate resilience tool we have at our disposal. A neighborhood with high empathy will recover from a climate disaster much more easily than a community fully equipped with Tesla power walls but no ability to see themselves in others. But as it turns out this idea is not new. Many people have written about it and this paper by Robin Krznaric best captures my own thoughts. What I’ve outlined above hopefully expands the discussion on empathy as it relates to climate in a new direction even if the ultimate conclusion is that such tactics would set too dangerous a precedent. The world is a massively complex place, but I still keep thinking about Joe Manchin and how a few thousand people stand in the way of progress that helps the rest of us. Some of them will never be persuaded, but some of them are not as stubborn. So we should at least make an effort to see how we might change their minds - with a new kind of ploy that's intentionally not obvious.
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