Challenging the Cisgender White Christian Male Default

Old new Dillon Reservoir

What do you take for granted?

How must you adjust your words, your actions, your facial expressions—your very presence, to fit into the world around you?

These questions arose for me again recently reading Seth Godin’s blog post from June 17, “The Dominant Culture.”

One of the great cartoons involves two goldfish in a tank talking to one another. One responds in surprise, “wait, there’s water?”

When we don’t see the water, it’s a sign we’re benefitting from being part of the dominant culture.

Visit a country where they don’t speak English and you’ll probably remind yourself all day that you speak English, something you didn’t have to think about last week. You’ll have to work overtime to understand and communicate. Back home, that stress disappears.

Living within a dominant culture means being reminded of this all day, every day.

It reminded me of the famous 2005 commencement address given by David Foster Wallace, the transcript of which was later published, entitled This Is Water.  He admonishes graduates of Kenyon College to open their eyes and minds to the automatic, mindless ways they make meaning from mundane life experiences, to acknowledge and exercise keen awareness of the inescapable interconnectedness of humanity (my interpretation):

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

I started to think and wonder…  For cisgender, white, Christian men (CWCM), the dominant culture in the United States, the ‘rise’ of ‘other groups’ to ‘power’ can be understandably threatening–Black Brown Asian Gay Trans Muslim Female Other…

But there are CWCM who seem not to feel threatened, and who actively ally/accomplice to help other groups rise, to help them claim agency and work toward inclusion and equity.  They are what I imagine Chip and Dan Heath might call the ‘bright spots’ (see Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard) of the Patriarchy.

While engaging (fighting, overcoming) those who resist, why not also study and amplify those who assist?

What is it about these men, their networks, their environment, or whatever else, that facilitates their allyship with marginalized, non-dominant-culture people and groups?

Or even better, how does their conversion occur?  How do they overcome the perceived threat, conscious or not, to see the benefits of equality, and then join the fight to advance it?  What happens there, and how can we replicate and scale that conversion?

Last week on vacation I started reading Four Days to Change by Michael Welp, recommended to me by a wise old white man.  Welp and his partners run the White Men’s Caucus, the flagship retreat program of White Men as Full Diversity Partners.  As I understand it, the organization strives for exactly this conversion of awareness, enlightenment, and action.  On retreat, white men are provided the space and safety, as well as the excruciating challenge, to explore, without shame or suppression, their personal and shared experience of cultural privilege, entitlement, and responsibility.  I have a feeling this will be a transformational book for me, a cisgender, East Asian, Cathuddhist woman.  How’s that for intersectionality?

The author, speaking to White Men’s Caucus attendees:  “’If we created most of the institutions we dwell in today, they are going to reflect our culture.  But we don’t see this cultural water we swim in because we never have to leave it.  So we equate it with just being a good human.  Others assimilate into it, so it looks to us like it’s everyone’s culture.’”

He goes on to list the ‘core threads of the fabric of white male culture in the United States’ (how do they land on you?):

  • Rugged Individualism
  • Low Tolerance of Uncertainty
  • Action over Reflection
  • Rationality over Emotion
  • Time Is Linear & Future Focused
  • Status & Rank over Connection

After discussion with participants he notes, “’Notice that the guys who bring the skills less emphasized in the culture can more quickly identify how the culture works against them.  You might imagine the same experience for women and people of color.’  …It’s even more critical in today’s global world that we as members of the dominant group understand our water.”  I can’t wait to keep reading and see hearts broken open, as Parker Palmer says, to the power and potential of inescapable interconnectedness.

Lastly, I watched again Michael Kimmel’s 2015 TED talk on gender equality. I mentioned it on this blog in 2016, writing about Brock Turner and white male privilege.  At 1:08, listen to his story about the moment he realized he was a middle class white man.  In 16 minutes, he eloquently addresses gender and racial inequity, with evidence for the myriad societal benefits of dismantling them both.  “Privilege is invisible to those who have it…  It is a luxury, I will say to the white people sitting in this room, to not have to think about race every split second of our lives.”  It’s the water we swim in.  To white men the water is body temperature, almost like a sensory deprivation river, holding them up, always flowing in the direction of their dreams and aspirations, never a hindrance.  For too many others, it’s exactly the opposite.

It’s not that we should make water harder for CWCMs to swim.  It’s that white men can and must learn to see how the water hinders so many others, and then use their advantages to help those who struggle.  The collective benefits far outweigh the costs, as Kimmel describes.  The perceived personal risks loom large, however, and it’s ever clearer to me that only white men can truly lead other white men to overcome their visceral, existential risk aversion.

I’m still figuring out my own role in all of this Work.  I trust that I will know soon enough.

Elephant to Elephant:  How to Change People’s Minds

 

Friends!!  If you read only one thing today, stop here and click on this link to James Clear’s essay on why facts do not change minds.  It’s very similar to Ozan Varol’s post of a similar title from last year.  That piece prompted a prolonged conversation on my Facebook page two months ago, which I described and shared here.

The Trigger

I’m thinking hard again about facts and changing minds now, as the number of new measles cases skyrockets not just in the US but around the world.  I’m so angry that we have to fight his war again—a war we had won as of 2000.  I’m so frustrated that because of the actions of a relative few, the health and safety of the very many and vulnerable are once again at risk.  I know my colleagues and many in the general public share my sentiments, and we often end up shaming and deriding our ‘anti-vaxxer’ peers.  We hurl facts and statistics at them, incredulous at their intransigence to the truth of science.

In the end everybody digs in, feelings get hurt, relationships suffer, and the outbreaks progress.

There is a better way.

James and Ozan (I imagine them as friends and so refer to them by first name) explain it eloquently in the posts I share here, and I really encourage you to click on those links.

The Metaphor

Personally, I return often to Jonathan Haidt’s analogy of our mind as an elephant (the emotional, limbic brain) and its rider (cognitive, rational brain).  We think, as rational beings, that our riders steer our elephants.  But psychology research and evidence tells us that the elephant goes where it wants; the rider rationalizes the path.  That is why facts do not change people’s minds—they are the rider’s domain.

Chip and Dan Heath, in their book Switch, take Haidt’s idea further in their formula for behavior change:

  1. Direct the rider (provide the facts, rationale, and method),
  2. Motivate the elephant (make the message meaningful on a personal, emotional level), and
  3. Shape the path (shorten the distance, remove obstacles).

It occurred to me recently that when I flood you with facts about measles and vaccines, I speak only through my rider.  You listen (or not) as both rider and elephant.  But as Simon Sinek describes eloquently in Start With Why, the elephant limbic brain has no capacity for language.  And facts, conveyed in words, have no emotional meaning or context.  So unless your rider is somehow really driving in this moment, my rider’s appeal will not move you.  Your elephant does not understand my rider, thus I cannot steer you where I want you to go.

The Approach

So how can I motivate your elephant?  If I’m using words, I can tell a story.  But the words of any story matter far less than the emotions the story evokes.  If I can relate with your own past experience, point you to a loss, a gratitude, or some shared connecting experience between us, then your elephant may hear me.  If I tell my story with honesty, authenticity, and humility, then my rider serves as translator for my elephant, communicating directly with your elephant.

But the most important connection between our elephants, if I really want to change your mind, is my presence.  Researchers agree that a vast majority of communication, up to 90%, occurs non-verbally.  Even if my rider interpreter tells a great story, my attitude carries the real message.  This manifests in my tone of voice, facial expressions, posture, stance, and all kinds of other subtle, nonverbal, subconscious cues—all seen and understood by your elephant, because they emanate from mine.  Even if my story tugs at your heart strings, you will defend your position if you feel me to be righteous, shaming, condescending, etc.  Elephants are smart; they know not to come out if it’s not safe.  And if my elephant is at all on the attack (see anger and frustration above), your elephant knows full well not to show itself.

It’s not the words we say or the things we do—it’s not the method that counts.  It’s how we are, how we make people feel—the approach—that gains us access to people’s consciousness and allows us to influence their thinking (which is really their feeling).

So I calm my rider and elephant first.  Deep breaths.  Then instead of my rider jumping off my elephant and charging at you with a wad of sharp verbal sticks, she sits back in her seat.  My elephant humbly ambles alongside yours on the savannah of community and (humanity), shares some sweet grass, points to the water hole where we both want to go.  I invite your inner pachyderm lovingly on a shared adventure toward optimal health for us all.  Rather than rush, berate, or agitate you, I wait.  I encourage.  I welcome.

James Clear writes, “Facts don’t change minds.  Friendship does,” and “Be kind first, be right later.”

My elephant fully concurs.

 

Some Facts, because I’m a doctor after all:

  • As of last Friday, May 3, 2019, there were 764 known cases of measles in the United States. According to the CDC, “This is the greatest number of cases reported in the U.S. since 1994 and since measles was declared eliminated in 2000.”
  • About 2/3 of patients are unvaccinated; 1/10 have been vaccinated, and the vaccination status of the rest is unknown.
  • 44% of patients are children under 4 years of age.

See this article in the Washington Post from today for more statistics.

For answers to frequently asked questions about Measles, please refer to the CDC measles FAQ webpage.

Please talk to your doctor if you are unsure about your risk.

 

“People Don’t Care…

Lily Pad Lake trail weather coming

…how much you know until they know how much you care.”   –Teddy Roosevelt (the most common attribution—but at this point, who knows?)

Friends, I had a great conversation on Facebook this week that really made me think!  I have pasted it below so you can decide what you think of it—please share your impressions, as my own have evolved as I reread it.

I initially shared an article by Ozan Varol entitled, “Facts Don’t Change People’s Minds.  Here’s What Does”.  In it he outlines steps to help others and ourselves change our minds rather than dig in:

  1. Make it psychologically safe to admit they (or we) were wrong before—stop shaming one another for our diverse beliefs
  2. Disentangle ourselves from our beliefs—hold them loosely rather than in identity-defining death grips
  3. Practice empathy
  4. Exit our echo chambers

I thought this was all pretty good, and my friend agreed that the method is effective, and also ‘morally ambiguous.’  At the end of the conversation my understanding of his perspective (again, please see for yourself below) is that he opposes ‘tricking’ people by manipulating their emotions into agreeing with us, while ignoring facts and evidence.  I agree with this opposition, and I also see this article as not actually suggesting we do this.

Basically it got me thinking:  It’s not that we can either argue/convince with facts or we can’t.  It’s that we have to make a personal, emotional connection before someone in opposition can be open to our facts and evidence.  This is not an either/or proposition.  It is both/and, as most things are.

After the two-day thread concluded I felt an urge to listen again to Never Split the Difference, a book on negotiation by Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator.  Funny how that came up…  In it he references Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Kahneman describes two aspects of mind, System I, our intuitive, limbic, subconscious mind, and System II, our rational, logical, cognitive mind.  Voss’s and the FBI’s most successful negotiation strategies are founded on the understanding that System I is the primary driver of human behavior and action, though we would like to think otherwise.  This reminded me of Jonathan Haidt’s analogy of the mind as an elephant (System I) and a rider (System II).  He also posits that though we assume the rider steers the elephant, really the elephant goes where it wants and the rider rationalizes the path.

None of this is meant as a negative judgment on humanity or to say that we are not the super-intelligent, creative, and highest order creatures we claim to be.  It is simply the reality of how our minds work, a consequence of evolution for individual survival and tribal living.  When confronted with someone I perceive as an enemy (someone who shames me, threatens my sense of self and belonging, even if unintentionally), why in the world would I open my mind and experience to her point of view, even it would benefit me in practical terms?  Under threat of attack (of my ideas, beliefs, and identity), the elephant will stampede and trample, not stop, put its snout to its forehead, and consider thoughtfully.  But if my own tribe member, whom I already trust implicitly and with whom I feel relaxed and open, encourages me to change our usual path to the water hole because she has found one that bypasses the lion pride, I am far more open to the idea.

Similarly, if we consider ‘changing our minds’ as analogous to behavior change, we see how knowing the facts and evidence is definitely not enough to change anything.  I know I should eat less if I want to lose weight.  I know added sugars and simple starches are not healthful staples for my diet.  I know that eating late wrecks my metabolism.  So why do I still eat big, yummy brownies at 10PM?  Some days I can muster the motivation to head off self-sabotage; other days not so much.  I stress eat, especially when I’m sleep deprived.  So now I’m also listening again to Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.  They propose a three-pronged approach to behavior change at the individual, organizational, and societal levels:  1. Direct the Rider (know the facts and have them ready to present).  2. Motivate the Elephant (find meaning for motivation).  3. Shape the Path (make it easy, remove obstacles).  All of these articles and books reflect the same reality: we are emotional beings who think, in that order.

Of course changing people’s minds, especially about emotionally charged and controversial ideas, is hard!  And of course facts and evidence are crucial and we absolutely should not ignore or abondon them!  And, we would all benefit from practicing a little more generosity, patience, empathy, kindness, and charity in our approach to one another—whether we’re trying to change minds or not.

 

*    *   *   *

CC

Friends, please read.
Applies to vaccines, politics, family conflicts, and relationship communication in general.

 

JM

I’m a total believer in the successfulness of this philosophy as a general rule, and I also find it Machiavellian and morally troubling. A great many people have a severely limited ability to understand the facts they believe. They can hold contradictory views easily and they prize simplistic notions of tribal loyalty, common sense vs actual knowledge and nostalgia for a past that never existed. Until we prize critical thinking as a a skill, we won’t display it as a people. And of course, this article correctly but tragically argues that since we don’t, and since we all just walk along blasting confirmation bias all over the place, it’s pointless to attempt persuasion with critical thinking skills and one should instead seek to trick people into doing what’s right through revisionist personal histories (you aren’t responsible for your past failures in critical thinking) and personalized sales pitches (who cares about the principled notions of the greater good or what’s just! Let’s talk about you and your family’s short term best interests!)

 

CC

Thanks, Jonathan. I wonder what you think of this post that I wrote, then?https://catherinechengmd.com/…/talking-to-the-opposed…/

 

JM

In this article you don’t have a clearly stated goal. So while I gather that you support vaccination, you don’t seem too bothered by patients who opt not to vaccinate. I see this as raising a question. If you learned that a parent was deliberately harming a child you wouldn’t casually suggest the idea that next year you revisit the benefits of not abusing kids. You’d act. You’d report. You’d get authorities involved. You’d protect the kids, even against the parents wishes. And you would do it now. So as I said, it raises the question: how bad is it to not vaccinate? Your article implies that it’s not that bad. In fact, you give two examples of outcomes: one of a child who gets autism and one of a child who gets whooping cough. Can you see how this implies balance in the perspectives? Are these views equally valid? Sympathy towards the emotional struggle of making the right decisions for kids should not be conflated with sympathy for endangering children -both one’s own and others in the community. Is there reasonable doubt about whether vaccines cause autism or not? That’s not only testable but actually repeatedly and widely tested already. Let me state it in reverse: I currently vaccinate but if verifiable scientific evidence started raining doubts about whether vaccines caused autism, I would want my doctor to tell me ASAP and explain it emphatically and with little regard to my previously erroneously held belief.

 

CC 

Thanks for your feedback, Jonathan. I actually do state a clear goal: “my primary objective is actually to cultivate our relationship.” Of course I think it’s harmful to both the child and the community to not vaccinate. I am absolutely bothered by non- and anti-vaxxers (as evidenced by multiple posts on this page). And I also have to take into account the likely outcomes of my actions. My goal is to get everybody vaccinated, no question. But demanding it now, as if it’s really the same as witnessing a parent beating a child physically, is not often productive. I have learned in multiple relationship settings that chasing agreement and acquiescence gets me the opposite result. In this case, taking the long view and strategy, with a soft front, works.  Just this flu season, I estimate my ‘conversion’ rate at about 60-70%, which I assess as successful. And I did so while maintaining and strengthening the physician-patient relationship, which is even better. And for those who continue to defer vaccination, at least they are still with me and I have more chances to continue the conversation and eventually make an impact. To me that’s worth a little waiting in the short term, which could be long term waiting and making people dig in harder against, if I came at them too aggressively.

 

JM

all that sounds great. My comments were only about that article, not your actions.

 

CC

Huh, okay… The article I wrote speaks directly to my actions, so I am not sure what the distinction is? Regardless, I respect your opinion so I hope I have your confidence in me as a physician and a steward of public health.

 

JM

you do!
—next day—

CC

 I’m beating the dead horse! Feel free to ignore. Here is an article along the same lines, which I saved at the time it was published. Interesting to read it again now.https://hbr.org/…/how-to-build-an-exit-ramp-for-trump…

 

JM

Yup. Same deal. Machiavellian. Ends justify means. Critical thinking is not taught or valued so let’s ditch it in favor of methods that are effective at achieving the desired result. That may actually achieve the most social good in the end. But it’s still morally ambiguous. When does an elephant in the room become so large that you simply can’t claim not to have seen it? Must we always pretend that it’s reasonable to have thought it was a grey desk to give people an out? These articles seem to say yes. They might be right. I’m just not happy about it.

 

Oh, and I do apply this to “both sides”. There is a position I’ve heard espoused on the Left that argues that holding people accountable for stupidity is a form of prejudice. <insert shock face emoji here> It’s apparently “ableist”. And that it’s inappropriate to expect people to all be able to reason and know things. Any things. That one leaves me speechless. It seems more about a race to decry the most possible prejudices than an attempt to help improve our world. Virtue signaling. I’M SO WOKE! I’M EVEN MORE WOKE! I WOKE UP WOKE!

 

CC

Thank you for engaging, Jonathan! Your perspective is so interesting to me, I don’t see it these strategies as nearly as manipulative as you see them. To me, they are enlightening paths of empathy, leading to clearer and more compassionate, understanding communication. Underlying the methods I see an implication that we all may be more open-minded than we know, if given space and connection to explore alternative perspectives to our own. The methods themselves are simply a way to uncover and allow that openness, and thus possibility for change and growth, to emerge. If one practices these strategies with NO commitment to a particular outcome, but simply for the sake of continuing a conversation or relationship–an exchange of perspectives for mutual understanding and respect–if we all practiced this we all might end up changing, little by little, for the better, and better together.

 

JM

We’d be more open to dialogue in the non-judgmental world you describe. But, while it’s popular to embrace profound egalitarianism as positive, that is a disaster in practice. Not every viewpoint should enjoy the same privileges. For instance, slavery is a viewpoint. Might makes right is a viewpoint. The Nazis had a viewpoint. Should these all be engaged with with respect for a differing worldview? I don’t think so. Determining your actual reason for why not is key. It’s because we believe deep down in hierarchies. Even egalitarians tend to believe that egalitarianism is BETTER than non-egalitarianism. There is a Buddhist parable in which the student asks: “If we meet bandits on the road, and they try to kills us, how are we to act compassionately as our noble truths dictate?” The teacher answers “You must cut them down with your sword, compassionately.”

 

CC

I agree with everything you write here. But is this not a tangent? Do any of these articles or any of my comments claim that all viewpoints are equal? This conversation is not about ‘profound egalitarianism’ and its merits or lack thereof. Being slightly more open minded and empathetic toward our fellow humans (which is the point of these articles, in my view) does not equal throwing away all forms of morality and ethics, absolving ourselves of any and all judgment, or elevating slavery, xenophobia, and genocide to anything remotely acceptable. So I’m curious. When you encounter people whose opinion or whatever is opposed to your own, how do you engage? What are your objectives when you interact with them on these topics? For instance on this thread–why are you still here? You go first and then I’ll tell you mine. 

 

JM

Firstly, I’m arguing from the edges. Is an approach sound? You can test it by how it handles just such situations. The articles discuss a successful methodology for achieving a change in position. You can describe that most generously as sympathetic openness combined with non-confrontation. That is presented for its effectiveness. When I engage with people with differing opinions, it matters greatly what the opinions are. I evaluate them based on the soundness of the facts and theory underlying them. When more sound than my own, I change my views. When less sound, I can safely place them back in the bin of the disproven, false or less effective. I’m typically delighted to be convinced of a new position. I don’t view all positions as being basically equal. I view positions as very often being hierarchical. Some are intrinsically better than others. That means when I change position for just reasons, I am improving myself and the world at large. My engagement here is based on the warmth of our relationship and the desire to see higher truths recognized wherever possible -the ultimate purpose of information exchange. If the real purpose of the articles is to “be suuuuuuper nice before and while presenting your logic” then that’s just “getting more bees with honey than vinegar”. I don’t disagree. But some part reads to me like an acceptance of tribalism. In other words, this system doesn’t increase the likelihood of the “right” answer or the just answer. Just the answer of the person most effectively using the technique.

 

CC

THANK YOU, I understand you much better now!! I very much appreciate what you wrote here, and I wholeheartedly agree, especially with the self-improvement part. You have elevated my point of view and I will refer back to this conversation often now! So on my end, I engaged because I noticed myself feeling defensive and I wanted to understand what I was feeling a need to defend against. Now I don’t feel defensive at all, and I am so glad we continued the exchange! Big hugs, old friend! 😀