The Little Book of Revolution:
A talk with author David Akadjian
I recently read a book that literally makes you see things differently. The book is The Little Book Of Revolution- A Distributive Strategy for Democracy by David Akadjian, and to say the book was an eye-opening experience isn’t hyperbole- it truly can shape the manner in which you perceive and process information. I wrote a blog for years, and other than “preaching to the choir”- i.e- my immediate circle of friends- I was never able to sway anyone to “my side”. Sure, I would get your basic internet trolls with their witty tripe, but I was never able to engage someone who would be swayed into pondering what I had to say.
Now I know why. In this invaluable resource, Akadjian explains how people communicate – and why. If you have ever pondered why people support and vote for ideas and candidates that seemingly are against their own interest, it’s because the information presented to them is “framed” in an specific manner- exactly like an ad, because that’s what it is- that is compatible with the listeners world view, a view that has been carefully shaped and allowed to flourish by corporations in order to sell whatever they want to sell. Once you read this book, you’ll never look at social media or television the same way again. It’s liberating. And vital for democracy.
I chatted with author David Akadjian, and he shows just how all this is done.
Q: What does The Little Book of Revolution set out to do?Â
A: Have you ever known someone who rages at conservatives either online or in person?
I see it all the time. People who try to talk to conservatives but just get really frustrated when someone doesn’t get it. People calling conservatives “stupid” or “low information” or worse. This approach is actually counterproductive according to recent research. Countering beliefs with information has actually been shown to strengthen beliefs such as the belief that measles vaccinations cause autism.
Fortunately, there’s better conversations you can have. I design training for a living. Negotiation training, communication training, sales training, and working with difficult people. I’ve written about how to have better political conversations with people for years.
So I wrote The Little Book of Revolution for my friends and the people I saw struggling. I wanted something that would help them have better conversations. Not only conversations that could accomplish more, but conversations that would be less frustrating.
Instead of focusing on macro issues like climate change or money in politics, I decided to focus on the micro issue of how to win over the people you know. I suggest thinking of it as a game because games are fun. Much more fun than politics anyways. Once you start thinking about winning people over as practice or a game it also takes much of the anger and frustration out of it.
Q: You make the point that the “truth” doesn’t work. Why not?Â
A: First, let me clarify. I would say that there are many situations where facts and presenting information isn’t going to win anyone over. One of these situations is political conversations where you are head-to-head telling someone that they are wrong.
I don’t want people to think “the truth isn’t important.” Truth is extremely important. It just needs to be put into context.
People don’t think like computers. Our minds aren’t central processors that compute information the same way for each individual.
If our minds worked like computers, we could feed people facts and everyone would always compute the same result. This is how we seem to think of facts. If we present someone with the right facts, they will compute the same result each and every time.
Of course we know this isn’t true. People make decisions based on beliefs all the time. In fact, more often than not, facts are used to justify a decision. Think about how people justify a car purchase. They’ll say they bought a car because it got great gas mileage or because of some performance metric. This may be true but more often than not, people buy cars that match their personality and then use the facts to justify their decision.
Similarly, people make decisions about politics based on their values and beliefs.
Once you start thinking about how people make decisions about politics, you need an entirely different approach if you want to win them over. Facts and “the truth” still play a huge role. It’s rare, however, that you’ll win people over simply by presenting information.
There are much better and, believe it or not, easier ways.
Q: Explain framing.
A: A better way to think about how the mind works is as an associative networks. That is, for anything you care to think about, there’s a series of associations that each of uses to make decisions.
You can think of this series of associations as a series of shortcuts or beliefs or values. George Lakoff calls these shortcuts frames. Each person reasons with a slightly different set of frames based on their life experiences and their learning. And there’s often a great deal of emotion behind these frames. People become very vested in their “logic:” and rationalizations.
Let’s look at a brief example.
Conservative think tanks like the Mackinac Center have developed and taught the big vs. small government frame for years. They can take just about any issue and talk about it within this frame.
At one end is big government and the least “freedom.” At the other end is no government, or the most “freedom” as they frame it. The logic within this frame says that more freedom is always better.
Let’s look at education, for example, in the conservative world. They would say government mandated and controlled education is one extreme. We call this public education.
The other end of the spectrum (the desirable end in the corporate frame) is a completely privatized system. In the middle are any number of options from regulated home schooling, to regulated charter schools, to vouchers, to completely unregulated, privatized schooling.
If you talk with a conservative within this frame, where less government is always good, you will always lose. Presenting people with facts does not break them out of the conceptual framing that corporate special interest groups have developed to push the privatization of schools. In other words, they will never understand why public schools could possibly be a good thing within this frame.
This is what most liberals don’t understand. They don’t understand it because they’re not familiar with conservative beliefs and they think that conservatives are just “low information” or “stupid”.
Conservatives are neither “low information” nor “stupid.” They are simply arguing within different value frames than we are.
Fortunately, most people believe in other frames as well. If you understand how to frame the issue (in this case, education) within a belief like equality, for example, you’ll have much more productive conversations.
For example, when it comes to education, I believe everyone should have equal opportunity. Equal opportunity means equal access to education.
Within the equality frame, size of government doesn’t matter. I care that people have equal access to education.
Within the equality frame, it’s actually hard to understand why we don’t make college publicly available and free. Everyone should have equal access.
This type of conversation, however, is a different approach for many people and takes time to learn how to do well. You have to be patient, you want to avoid calling people names, and you have to understand your beliefs and how to talk about them. It’s quite a different conversation than most liberals are used to.
That’s why I break down five key liberal frames in the book and walk through specific examples of how to use each.
Q: Explain the Overton Window. How does this affect how issues are presented?Â
A: The Overton window is a concept developed by corporate special interest groups. The idea is that there is a window of available policy options that will be politically acceptable to people at a given time.
Right now, for example, completely privatizing our school system is likely outside of this window. It’s not yet an idea that is politically acceptable.
But corporate special interest groups are working to make it more acceptable through advertising and corporate media. At the legislative level, they’re also implementing steps in this direction such as charter schools and home schooling.
Another way to think about this strategy is to think of it as “shifting the center.” Corporate special interest groups work to make the once unthinkable mainstream.
Q: What tools can activists and others take away from your book?Â
A: There are many strategies in the book. All of them are ways you can have better conversations with the people you know. Especially people who hold different views.
What I hope people will do is approach political conversations differently. I hope people will work to win people over rather than win an argument. Trying to win an argument rarely wins people over who aren’t already predisposed to agree with you.
Teaching and reaching people is much more than using certain words. It takes practice and I break down how to do this in the book with specific examples to make it as easy as possible for people to learn.
Q: How can social media work to a goal of restoring democracy?Â
A: That is a huge question. Much bigger than I could ever fully answer here.
Off the top of my head, however, there are a couple things I’d point out. First, social media empowers people. No longer are they simply consumers of media, they’re also producers. This leads people to question content and content sources and interact with it in new ways.
Second, social media offers ways to connect with people that have never before been available. We saw this in the Arab Spring. We saw it with the Occupy movement. We see it with the Ferguson protests.
It’s amazing when you see it hitting a tipping point. I wrote a piece for Daily Kos about the Occupy movement when it first started. Occupy hadn’t been picked up in media outlets yet. I posted my piece on Facebook and went to work.
A few hours later, someone pinged me and told me I was on the front page of Reddit. At the time I didn’t know what that meant. I watched as the number of Facebook shares grew by 1,000 per minute. That’s Facebook shares. Not views. Typically, each share is at least 10 views. Within an hour it had been shared over 100,000 times.
In many ways, this is what democracy should look like. With social media, people “vote” by sharing. It makes you start to wonder why we need elected representatives. Don’t we have the technology for a more direct democracy?
These are questions we should be asking.
Q: How has the media coverage of current events- ie Ferguson/Garner or the downturn of oil prices- illustrate framing?Â
A: Take Rand Paul’s comments about the killing of Eric Garner. Paul invokes the small government/big government frame to explain what happened. Here’s what he said:
In other words, Paul used the situation to reiterate his view that government is always the problem and smaller government is always more desirable.
If I were talking to someone who was saying something similar I would reframe the conversation around responsibility or freedom. I would say something like: “The police should have been more responsible. Was it really necessary to kill someone who was reselling cigarettes?”
No one I know who isn’t a blatant partisan would be able to honestly say ‘yes’ to this question. Don’t worry about the 1 out of 10 (or less) who would say ‘yes.’ Win the independents and don’t waste your time with the zealots. If someone wants to say it makes sense to kill people over cigarettes, let them. Most people will side with you.
By approaching people and discussions outside of the corporate special interest divide-and-conquer games (right vs. left, etc.), you’ll find you have much different and better conversations. This, of course, is why the extreme right-wingers want to bait you into right/left games. Often, they have very weak moral arguments.
The trick here is that corporate special interest groups have spent the past 30 years developing and teaching frames like “big government” or “tax cuts” or “personal responsibility.” They’ve done such a good job that even if we disagree we know the frames and how they work.
We tend to dispute or make fun of these frames. Disputing the frame is only repeating the frame in a negative way.
A better way to win people over is to reframe the issue within the context of your own beliefs. The trick is many liberals come from an academic background and academia teaches a much different approach that works in an academic environment but doesn’t work very well in every day conversations.
Again, facts and argument are fantastic and are where our best beliefs and frames come from. If we want to win people over, however, we need to start with our beliefs, start with our ideas. Then talk about issues within the context of these beliefs.
If we won the idea battle for democracy, for example, think about all the policies we want that would be much easier to implement: repealing Citizens’ United, getting money out of politics, voting rights, fair elections, fair and public media, public education, and ending government surveillance.
We fight the battle, however, along all of these policy fronts instead of recognizing that if we won on democracy, it would be much easier to win on all these issues.
Q: What do you want for Christmas?
A: If I could have one thing for Christmas, I’d buy a media network. On this network, I’d create a couple of entertaining shows designed to help people understand democracy. They would talk about current events from the standpoint of democracy and they’d show people how to win the water cooler and coffee shop conversations we all have every day. I’d bring back democracy and make it more popular than tax cuts.
Q: What is your background, and how did the book come about?Â
A: I’ve spent the last 12 years developing training workshops for one of the largest technology companies in the world. I’ve taught negotiation, sales, leadership, communication, and enterprise narrative courses.
On the side, I blogged about politics. First, for a local version of The Onion called The Cincinnati Dealer. Then, I started writing for Daily Kos and my own personal blog (akadjian.com). I’ve also written pieces for Alternet, Popular Resistance, TruthOut and The Washington Spectator.
One of the things I noticed over the years is that people spend a lot of time getting angry and playing the liberal/conservative game. I used to too.
Recently, someone even told me this about conservatives:
All you can do is humiliate them.
I’ve found this to be a terrible approach if you want to win people over. Even if you’re talking to someone you can’t win over, it’s a terrible approach.
Fortunately, there’s better ways. Since I do this for a living, I thought I could help people take their game up a notch.