Turncoats, man your stations

Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein makes the point that, to convince ideologically rigid audiences of a fact, it is less important how persuasive the argument is and more important who is the one making it:

People tend to dismiss information that would falsify their convictions. But they may reconsider if the information comes from a source they cannot dismiss. People are most likely to find a source credible if they closely identify with it or begin in essential agreement with it. In such cases, their reaction is not, “how predictable and uninformative that someone like that would think something so evil and foolish,” but instead, “if someone like that disagrees with me, maybe I had better rethink.”

Our initial convictions are more apt to be shaken if it’s not easy to dismiss the source as biased, confused, self-interested or simply mistaken. This is one reason that seemingly irrelevant characteristics, like appearance, or taste in food and drink, can have a big impact on credibility. Such characteristics can suggest that the validators are in fact surprising — that they are “like” the people to whom they are speaking.

It follows that turncoats, real or apparent, can be immensely persuasive. If civil rights leaders oppose affirmative action, or if well-known climate change skeptics say that they were wrong, people are more likely to change their views.

I’m skeptical as to what extent this theory applies to ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities who have conservative or otherwise unorthodox ideologies for their groups, however. It seems the term “self-hating [insert minority group here: Jew, black, gay, etc.]” is very quickly applied to various targets by many critics in order to diminish the inevitable megaphone effect of the anomalous spokesman or spokeswoman. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas comes immediately to mind, but countless other examples exist as well: Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky, members of GOProud, and even Barack Obama, to name a few.

Perhaps we’ve crossed some invisible line as a nation, and even these helpful “turncoats” can no longer inspire our trust. They certainly don’t persuade me much. I’m a little unclear as to whether this says more about me, or more about the turncoats.

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One thought on “Turncoats, man your stations

  1. At the very least it reaffirms the notion that the progress of any given group cannot be directed or dictate by an external “progressive” agent; but rather conversely, it must be the external agent that [quietly] supports through presence and numbers the voice and direction of the internal source of agency (that of the minority). In that regard a turncoat might not be as immediately successful as a rule or policy “mandating” change from above; but the first act of internal dissent, while perhaps judged or misunderstood from the outset, begins to more effectively erode the impenetrable and univocal fortress of the minority agenda from the inside out. It is probable that this might lead to more honest change in the end, particularly when it can be fully appropriated by the community and its leaders without fear of having been co-opted or compromised by higher, “progressive” agents of change.

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