Could 'wokescolding' be effective after all?
A fairly common idea you’ll hear if you’re having a discussion about how to counter peoples’ racist or sexist prejudices is that you definitely shouldn’t call them racist or sexist. Here’s one example, a comment from Alana Conner, executive director of Stanford University’s Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions Center:
Telling people they’re racist, sexist, and xenophobic is going to get you exactly nowhere, It’s such a threatening message. One of the things we know from social psychology is when people feel threatened, they can’t change, they can’t listen.
It makes sense - why would anyone question their own views after being told that they’re racist? If I told someone I was sceptical about reparations (which I am, this isn’t a belief I’m subtly trying to call racist) and was immediately met with shouts of ‘racist!’ or ‘bigot!’, my reaction would be to shout back ‘fuck off!’. But part of me thinks that this fails to grasp the actual mechanism by which wokescolding could, in theory, be effective. That mechanism is clearly not ‘if you call someone a racist, sexist bigot, they’re likely to see the error of their ways and change their mind’, and I don’t think many of the arguments against wokescolding do a good enough job of steelmanning the position.
A few months ago I saw former Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith (who I generally like) dunking on someone on Twitter for opposing luxury housing development or saying rent controls were good or some other such venial sin, and I asked him what the point of the dunk was - it clearly wasn’t going to change the person’s mind, and in fact I thought it was likely that it would harden their position. I can’t quote his response verbatim as the tweets have been deleted, but roughly his reply was that the dunk wasn’t for the person he was responding to, it was for the onlookers. The point of the YIMBYscolding was to encourage people to hop off the fence and march into the one-plus-five.
This mechanism of convincing people actually seems pretty plausible to me - you forever lose the person you’re criticising but win over some of the undecideds. One question that people who criticise ‘wokescolding’ have to tend with here is - ‘why the hell are so many people so woke?’. It doesn’t make enormous sense to say that the tactics that woke students/professors/elites use are perpetually ineffective, but also that wokeness is on the march through the institutions of modern society. From HR departments to Joe Biden to the children’s TV show ‘blues clues’, it is difficult to think of anyone who hasn’t been called woke by the Telegraph or the Spectator. While I suppose that it could be true that wokeness is so pervasive in spite of the tactical decisions of its advocates, it seems more likely to me that the in-group signalling of those promoting woke ideas isn’t actually totally ineffective.
In Scott Alexander’s famous essay ‘I can tolerate anything except the outgroup’, he notes that he doesn’t know a single person who is a creationist. Not because he is deliberately avoiding them - in fact, the impression I get is that he would rather like having a creationist friend, if only to explore the reasons behind their view (and possibly, and perhaps I’m being less generous here, for making it apparent that he is open to having creationist friends). The chance of him not having a creationist friend by chance, if we assume that his friends are a randomly assembled bunch, are about 1/10^45, or basically nil. But the fact is that his friends aren’t randomly selected by chance - the views and in-group signalling of his social group are bound to have an effect on other members of his social group.
Let’s imagine, for instance, that a creationist stumbles into, and rather enjoys the company of, a group of people who are interested in Bayes’ Theorem, cognitive biases, and all the rest of it. It seems immensely likely to me that if the creationist thought that they were a fan of these people, their creationism would be pretty likely to be left by the wayside as they begun to imbibe the views of their new group. My contention is that wokescolding works in a similar way - if you go to university and student body are all going on about some social justice pursuit, you’re likely to adopt at least some of these views lest you become some sort of pariah.
I think we’re pretty familiar with this effect for lots of other ideological claims - fewer people become opposed to gay marriage as it becomes less socially acceptable to be, fewer people are opposed to interracial marriage, fewer people hold retrograde social views in general - partially as a result of social pressure. While I might think the reason I support gay marriage is because I’ve properly considered the arguments for and against, I think in reality the chance of me opposing gay marriage given the immense social pressure to support it was always going to be fairly minuscule. In a way, this is a form of ‘wokescolding’, it’s just that we don’t think of it that way.
Admittedly, I’m not totally confident on the claim that wokescolding is effective at changing minds (or at least solidifying the views of those who are already sympathetic towards ‘woke’ claims) - it seems like being too woke could be very off-putting to the majority of people, so there’s definitely a question of how woke people should go if they want to spread their views - if you’re being ridiculed by mainstream pundits, you’ve gone too far. Similarly, I’m not convinced that wokescolding is a good short-term strategy for winning people over - I remember David Shor once wrote that the political adverts that employed a sort of wokescolding (see, for instance this 2016 election ad in which young women listen to all the vile things Trump has said about women) are actually so ineffective that they ended up being a net gain for Trump! So, there are obviously nuances here. But it wouldn’t surprise me if part of the reason that subsequent generations are usually more socially liberal than previous generations is that they’re exposed to ‘wokescolding’ in one form or another.