Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Being Effective

Yesterday, a commenter asked for permission to send a copy of one of my posts to several representatives, and asked if I thought that it would be ‘effective’. This brought me to thinking that I would like to say a few words about being effective.

Before I get started, I want to say that I write for the purpose of trying to make the world a better place than it would have otherwise been. This was an objective that I set for myself in high school. My essays do no good unless people read them. So, if you think that some benefit can be had by having somebody read what I have written, then please do so. I would be honored.

Be Right

Actually, before a person asks, “Will I be effective?” a responsible person has to ask a prior question. “Will I be right?” A great many people are quite effective at doing a great many things that end up making the world a worse place than it would have otherwise been.

The 9/11 hijackers had an opportunity to ask, “Will I be effective?” Indeed, perhaps they were, depending on what their goals were. However, what they really needed was to ask, “In the real world, will I be right?”

Exxon Mobile, in its quest to pocket as many billions of dollars as possible regardless of the costs inflicted on others, asked their public relations firms to come up with a campaign that will confuse the public on the question of global warming, so that they will continue to give billions of dollars to Exxon-Mobile, rather than save themselves and their descendents trillions of dollars in economic harm. They asked their public relations firms, “Will you be effective?” It seems that they forgot to ask, “Will you be right?”

I am always in doubt as to whether the things that I say are right. The fact is, none of us can ever be sure. Absolute certainty is no reliable indicator of truth. So, in asking the question, “Am I right?” it is never wise to be too certain of one’s answers.

Writing to Representatives

I do not believe that writing to any representative or Senator is really worth the effort. Take a real-world look at what happens. Your letter (email or otherwise) will end up on some staff member’s desk. That staff member will likely read it, look for a key word such as ‘abortion’, ‘pledge of allegiance’, or ‘Iraq’, open up a pre-written document on that issue, throw your name and address on it, perhaps change a few lines of text to reflect the content of your letter, print, and mail it.

Some letters may make it to the Legislator’s desk for a personal response. However, that legislator is running a business – the business of getting elected. Paying customers will come first. He is going to give more serious thought to the letter from somebody who can control a large pool of labor, a large block of voters, or a large bundle of campaign contributions, before he will give your letter much concern.

Those are the facts.

To be effective with the legislator, you need to become one of those people who can influence a large pool of labor, a large block of voters, or a large bundle of campaign contributions.

Talk to the People

A legislator listens to the polls. We say that we do not want our legislators to have this trait. Yet, in fact, the legislator who refuses to listen to the polls will find himself replaced by the legislator who does. What the people say they want, and what they vote for, are not the same thing. President Bush says that he does not care about polls. Yet, he gets his political advice from Karl Rove. You will scarcely find Karl Rove talking about political strategy when he is not talking about polls. Bush was confident that the Republicans would hold on to the legislative branch in the last election, because Bush listened to Rove, and Rove claimed to have a system that more reliably measured the voters’ mood than the polls that the news organizations were using.

So, if you want to bring about effective change in the legislature, you need to change the way that the people answer polls. You need to talk to the people. You need to communicate with friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, club members, and strangers, and let them know what you think a good person’s answer is to any poll that might come along.

Do not be discouraged by the fact that you have never been polled and that you know of nobody who has. People draw their opinions on a great many issues like a plant drawing moisture from the air. If the overall mood of society is hostility towards a policy, then that mood will make it into the polls. So, the trick here is to affect the overall mood of the society. That begins by talking to your family, friends, neighbors, and the like.

Now, nobody likes to be an obnoxious boor. Well, I guess, some people might like to be an obnoxious poor, but many people do not like to bring their political or religious opinions up in public because it causes friction and produces animosities. When out with others, we want to get along This means refusing to participate in anything controversial. People who bring up political issues typically do so only when they know that they are talking to the converted.

That does not do any good, other to reinforce existing opinions, without any respect as to their merit.

However, there are a number of situations where a person can speak their mind in front of an audience. There are conventional and traditional venues – letters to the editor, government meetings where public input is encouraged, public debates, political events, and by joining a political party and participating in its discussions. Modern technology gives us the opportunity to write blogs, discussion boards, MySpace, and a number of other venues where one can go to express a public opinion.

The Fence

In speaking to others – in trying to sway the mood of a society on certain issues, I typically use the metaphor of a fence. Imagine that you are in a vast yard with a fence down the middle. Place people in the yard according to their position on that issue. There are the fence sitters and those who are near the fence. There are also those in the far back of the yard, as far away from the fence as one can be.

The objective, here, is to speak to the fence sitters. What you want to do is to get those who are on the fence to step down on your side of the fence, for those just beyond the fence to climb on, and for those on your side of the fence to step a little further away from it.

Assuming, of course, that you are on the right side of the fence. This is what determines whether your actions are good or bad.

However, I would also argue that it is wrong to step too far away from the fence yourself – to close your mind to the possibility that you might be on the wrong side, and need to climb over it yourself.

Talking to a hard-core creationist is not a productive use of one’s time. Of course, it is not the case that every moment of one’s time has to be spent in productive activity. It is just useful to know the difference, so that if one wants to do something constructive one knows what to avoid.

Talk to the Kids

This is actually the most important lesson if one wants to be effective – to talk to (and in front of) the children. Tell children of the power of reason and science to explain and predict real-world events, and about the usefulness in being able to predict real-world events if one wants to avoid being maimed or killed, and one wants to give one’s actions the greatest chance for success. Do not let the children grow up thinking that atheists are some mysterious ‘them’ that one hears about but never sees.

If you care about that child, then it is important to let the child know that the best way to engineer success and to avoid harm is to be able to explain and predict what happens in the real-world. Pursuing imaginary solutions and working to avoid imaginary problems will not do the child, anybody the child cares about, or anybody the child will care about, any good at all.

If one wants to help the child to have a meaningful life, then the best thing to do is to teach the child that the best way to have such a life is to pursue that which has value in the real world, and not pursuing those things that have only imaginary value or value only within a realm of fantasy.

I look at it this way. I have nieces and nephews whom I care about. The quality of their lives will depend, to a large extent, on the quality of their neighbors. With the world being such a small place, virtually everybody is a neighbor these days. Events half way around the world can have a strong local impact.

Those children will have a much better future to the degree that the people they interact with are intelligent, rational people seeking and finding intelligent, rational solutions to real-world problems. They will have better lives to the degree that others do not wish to harm them in the name of God. And, of course, I do not wish my nieces and nephews to spend their adult years harming others in the name of God (or in any other name, for that matter). So, I ask, “What can I do to make sure that they are surrounded by honest, reliable, helpful, and kind neighbors – rather than hurtful, mean, and vicious neighbors?”

If one of those children should grow up to be gay, will that person be tormented by their neighbors, denied the joys of a true partnership? Or will they live in a world where others find value in depriving them of that which would enrich their lives (at no expense to others)? Will they grow up in a society that has medical treatments for whatever diseases might inflict them, or will they suffer and die because others have decided to block their access to effective treatment in the name of God? Will they be forced to endure the economic costs of climate change, robbing them of the standard of living that we could, with limited cost, have provided them?


So, these are the secrets to being effective. (1) Make sure that you are right, and that you are effective at doing what should be done. If you are not pursuing that which is right, then I sincerely hope that you are not effective. (2) Work to create a social culture – an overall social mood – that supports what is right and condemns that which is wrong. (3) In doing this, focus your attention on the children, who will determine whether future generations will live in peace and prosperity, or in war and loss.


Chad Van Schoelandt said...

I'll point out something about your fence story. There are many people who like to be in the middle of the crowd. Simply pulling people around the fence closer to your side will usually pull others who simply don't want to be left behind.

Dave said...

Your point about not only talking to children, but talking in front of them, can't be stressed enough; particularly these days. That includes correcting things - including those religious beliefs that are clearly mythology, and wrong - in front of children, rather than let them pass. During the BEYOND BELIEF confab, Prof. Lawrence Krause of Case Western University pointed out that tolerance for the religious beliefs of others does not mean staying silent when they say something that is plain wrong; something too many of us do, I think. I'm concerned that our silence over the years in the name of tolerance is what has led us to the situation we have now where over 50% of Americans 'believe' the Hebrew Bible version of 'creation', rather than recognize it as a mythology - like that of Zeus and Hera - that is inconsistent with every single piece of the millions (billions?) of pieces of data that we have.
Dave Huntsman

mtraven said...

You are wrong about writing to representatives. They pay attention to the volume of mail received on an issue, and it becomes another input along with polling data and interest group lobbying.

Writing a letter probably has a greater effect than voting, which is to say, not that much. But voting is an obligation, because it's a basic way of making your opinion heard in a democracy. Contacting your reps is another.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I'm not entirely wrong about writing to representatives. They do use letters as a type of straw poll. Any intelligent ones know that this method of poll-taking is unreliable - and the party that backs them certainly knows this.

In this respect, the volume of letters may tell a legislator that he or she needs to add some new questions to the poll. It lets the legislator know when he or she had made false assumptions - when something they assumed was obvious proved not to be so obvious.

If one wants to write this type of letter - to count as a vote in a legislator's straw poll, then there is no need to go through a lot of effort. Simply state one's opinion and move on. It's still the case that the arguments count for nothing, because they will likely not get read.

If you have an argument to make, then make it to your friends, family, neighbors, and whatever other social groups you belong to.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I have a posting from last year that speaks to this effect - that criticism is not intolerance.

Speaking versus Acting"

patrickimo said...

The question you state in your post, "Will I be right?" is certainly not lost on me. I am working on a blog post right now that will answer this question relative to a little conflict I am having with an organization which calls itself "The Brights' Net" (http://www.the-brights.net). I'm catching a lot of flack for my point of view, but if I can answer your question to the positive, then I think I'll be able to get somewhere.

Thanks much for your insight!

mtraven said...

Yes, letter writing to representatives is not the place to make detailed arguments. Letters get counted, but not read in any great detail. Fortunately we have blogs.

In a democracy, sometimes we have to be willing to be just another small grain of sand in a pile -- when voting, and also when doing things like participating in letter writing campaigns or demonstrations. I personally don't care for demos that much, but in some cases you just have to do it, if only to be able to say that you tried your best to stop some immoral act that the government is taking in your name.