This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
For obvious reasons, last year saw a surge of discussion around how to engage with people who hold prejudiced or racist views—and if those people should even be engaged with at all.
This debate tends to fall into two broad themes. The first is to say, essentially, fuck you: Your prejudice is your problem—why should people of color or anyone from the LGBTQ community have to go out of their way to fix what is largely a straight, white problem?
The second approach emphasizes the need for empathy—for talking people around—no matter how repugnant their views. At the end of 2016, Barack Obama made it clear that this is the strategy he prefers. "There have been very few instances where I've said, 'Well, that was racist, you are racist… I don't think that trying to appeal to the better angels of our nature, as Lincoln put it, is somehow compromise."
While this discussion might have generated plenty of pinned tweets and rage posts, there appeared to be very little data on what actually works. However, in April of last year, a study was published that seemed to offer an answer. "Durably Reducing Transphobia: A Field Experiment on Door-to-Door Canvassing" by David Broockman and Joshua Kalla was hailed as the first large-scale experiment to achieve significant results in creating long-term change in prejudice.
To put it in very simple terms, this experiment reversed how door-to-door canvassing is usually done. Most of the time, the canvasser floods the participant with information and statistics as quickly as possible. In this experiment, Broockman and Kalla used techniques developed with the LA LGBT Center and let the voter do most of the talking.
Using the issue of transgender rights legislation, Broockman and Kalla got people to open up about their own experiences of discrimination. Once they had achieved a nonjudgmental common space, even voters who had been initially hostile or transphobic were able to gain empathy, and said they would vote for transgender rights.
Crucially, this opinion change held even after three months, and after participants had been subsequently bombarded with anti-trans attack ads. This was a unique set of results, hailed as "monumentally important" by Betsy Levy Paluck, a leading professor in the field. The study was immediately seized upon as giving weight to the strategy of not "calling people out," but establishing empathy and common ground.
I caught up with David Broockman to talk through the implications of the study on the climate we find ourselves in at the start of 2017, with xenophobia whipped up by the Leave EU campaign still pervasive, and the hatred stoked by Donald Trump's politicking set to become further entrenched after he's inaugurated later this month.
"The vast majority of experiments on prejudice take place in labs," said Broockman. "Ours was unique as we were out in the real world, and the outcome stayed relevant months later. Our method is based on 'active processing'—when you get the voter talking, you get them thinking. Research indicates that when people engage more effortfully, they are more receptive and more likely to remember whatever they decide. It's a simple matter of time and effort."
The idea that people engage more openly with a subject when they are forced to stop and think about it in more depth makes sense, of course. But what's more interesting is how Broockman and Kalla's method harnessed the problematic dynamics of confirmation bias (people interpreting new evidence to confirm the beliefs they already hold) and the "Backfire Effect" (when people confronted with conflicting facts actually "dig in" further to their preexisting prejudices).
"We use Active Perspective Taking—getting people to talk about their own real, lived experiences," said Broockman. "We don't bombard them; it's better they talk about their lives. If they say something discriminatory, you ask, 'Well, has anyone ever treated you like that?' Then they realize: 'Wait, I've maybe never even met a transgender person, but now I see we have something in common…' When people tell their own stories, they empathize with the experience."
This all sounds fantastic, and it's wonderful that it seems to work, but a) how easy is it to engage a racist, homophobe, or transphobe in a sensible 20-minute conversation? And b) how likely is it that they're going to delve into their own experiences? Is this all just a bit too much like wishful thinking? Perhaps surprisingly, Broockman seems to take this onboard more than some of the hyperventilating press that surrounded his work.
"I don't think the takeaway from this is that it's never productive to call people racist or transphobic—we didn't try that [so] we don't know," he said. "It's complicated. But the idea that it might make sense to take a person who is racist or transphobic and make them believe that they have something to lose if they express that… experiments suggest that it might be useful. Crucially, they are less likely to pass those attitudes on to their children."
Broockman also recognizes one of the main differences between this study and arguments happening out in the world—most of the conversations around these issues now take place online.
"Face-to-face does have a special ability to get people to think and open up. I'm sure people do some of that on a Reddit forum, but maybe there are things we can develop to get people to open up more online—I'd like to do a study on that…" said Broockman. "But where I remain optimistic is what I saw out canvassing: that many of us who exist in this world of arguing on Twitter come to believe that everyone is walking around with this impulse to dig in—and that is a tendency. But more often than not, what we found was that when you knock on someone's door and listen to them and talk about both views, people will talk, and will express uncertainty—most average people will."
So is there a simple formula in all this? Unfortunately not. Shouting 'racist!' at a racist is never the best response, but sometimes it's the only response available and it's certainly better than no response at all. There's no one answer to tackling prejudice. These are hard, complicated battles. They are battles that take time, energy, and multiple strategies. And they are battles we are all going to have fight over the coming years.
Follow JS Rafaeli on Twitter.