If you want a nation to follow you, don’t convince them of your principles or policies. Just tell the public carefully chosen stories. Sell images.
Adolph Hitler did this well. His marketing consultants flooded Germany with pictures of a smiling Hitler and happy children. (In the picture above, Hitler is with a young Jewish girl named Rosa.) People saw these images of a benevolent leader with adoring children — and they found it easier to believe he was a good man they should follow.
Joseph Stalin did the same thing in the Soviet Union. Chinese communist dictator Mao Zedong did it, too. How could these men be cold-blooded murderers if they loved children and children loved them?
Unfortunately, the rest of us have learned the same techniques in this age of video storytelling. Our politicians sell themselves this way. Companies sell products this way. In the era of social media, we have adopted the same techniques to convince others that we’re right about whatever we believe.
But it’s something I don’t want to do anymore.
When I first started writing political content online, I did the same thing that almost everybody does today. I wrote about (and shared links to) stories which were outrageous — incidents that reflected the negative consequences of the people whose policies I oppose.
I quickly found out that it works. People who agreed with me were eager to share those stories with their friends. My links were all over Facebook and Twitter. This approach attracted many new readers for me, all of whom already agreed with me about some particular issue.
But over time, I realized that’s all it did. Nobody who disagreed paid any attention. There was no reasoned dialogue. It simply promoted people beating their friends over the head with these links, essentially saying, “See? I’m already smart enough to believe this.”
I’m far less likely today to share outrageous political or social anecdotes, because it’s becoming increasingly obvious to me that “argument by anecdote” is all the popular culture seems to understand — and it’s worse than useless.
The problem is that doing this is intellectually shallow and is frequently misleading.
I occasionally reference something that has happened in the news (mostly in broad terms without a link) if I think it’s a fair way to make a broader point, but I would never do what I might have done six or eight years ago — take some outrageous story and attach it to a political point and write a full-length article goading “the choir” into being outraged. (I used to derisively refer to it as giving the readers “red meat,” like the tigers in a zoo at feeding time.)
This sort of anecdotal outrage is dangerous. It’s what most of our news has become and it’s what most political debate has become.
It’s shallow. It’s anti-intellectual. And it never leads to understanding.
If someone can be persuaded by the emotional appeal of my anecdote, he will be just as persuaded tomorrow or next week by someone else’s emotional anecdote for another position. The truth is that the world is filled with terrible people and terrible incidents. I can easily find an anecdote to make your ideas look bad. You can easily find an anecdote to make my ideas look bad. When we’re all doing this, it’s nothing but a race to the bottom — to the point that we’re doing nothing but trying to find and spread the most horrible anecdotes possible.
I would prefer instead to speak of principles and hope some people will understand the reasoning and moral truth of my positions. It rarely happens that people change their core beliefs, but the only way that happens for good is when people are persuaded about the logic and morality of an idea.
It might be a vain hope that this is healthier for public discourse. I know I’m not going to change the poisonous nature of social media and the ugly ways in which we spread these stories.
But I don’t want to be part of something which I consider truly dangerous for society. In time, maybe some small number of us who disagree with one another can learn to trust each other and have reasoned discussion again — because we often find that most of us want a world more similar than we sometimes imagine.