Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Raising awareness by having a conversation

I have been mulling about the constant calls to "have a conversation" or the justification for some set of actions because it "raises awareness." It is not that the issues behind the conversation or the need to raise awareness aren't potentially real and/or serious. But the calls for conversation or the desire to raise awareness both seem to occur in situations where those calling are actually wanting someone else to accept their view without argument or even more often, simply want the other side to shut up.

It feels like both these tactics have lost whatever legitimacy they might once have had and now serve to signal that the calling side has lost the debate and now wants to suppress discussion. It doesn't help that in many cases, those making the call for the conversation or desiring to raise awareness are actually asking for resources, whether from the government or from private donors.

Many of these issues are touched on in this article, What Good Is 'Raising Awareness?' by Julie Beck.

I think many times, these tactics of calling for conversation and awareness are simply desperate attempts to obtain relevance or attention. They reflect no empirical reality nor do they actually proffer any likelihood of a solution. But if no one is paying attention to what you find interesting, then it is hard to make a living; better have a conversation.

What are some of the things people want us to have a conversation about? Off the top of my head, I think Race is probably the number one topic. Others I can think of include gun control, domestic violence, income inequality, poverty, prison reform, etc. These calls for conversation are often cast as a daring challenge to discuss something we would not otherwise talk about. Of course that is absurd. All of these topics are endlessly chewed upon by the chattering classes, written about, debated, etc. We need a conversation is really just "Pay attention to what I think is important." The frustrating thing for the chattering classes wanting to raise awareness and have conversations is that the great majority of their fellow citizens do not see their topics as being important and/or do not see them as having anything important to say. Most surveys I see trying to elicit what the public is concerned about have some regular monotony to the list of most important issues. Money, Jobs, the Economy, Crime, National Security are almost always right up there at the top jockeying for first place. Race relations, income inequality, poverty, etc. are right down there at the bottom garnering less than 5% of the public identifying them as important issues and usually, unless there has been some particular incident, down around 1%.

I understand why people are wanting to raise awareness and have a conversation. If they did not issue these calls, they wouldn't have anyone to talk to and they would have no money to spend on that which they think to be important. I suspect that the rapidly evolving informational ecosystem has something to do with this phenomenon as well. If you do an Ngram Viewer of "a national conversation" it is low and flat line up until 1985 or so and then begins a slow rise with a major jump circa 1992. That looks interestingly correlated with the new information ecosystem powered by the internet. You see the same thing with "raising awareness."

Beck, in her article, focuses in on a more epistemological aspect. Both calls for a conversation and attempts to raise awareness have an implicit assumption that people would behave differently, would make different decisions, if they had a better understanding of the issues and better access to facts. That is an assumption that is not borne out by research. Beck focuses only on the impact of Awareness Days but there is actually a lot more research on the more general issue of whether people make different and better decisions when exposed to more information. The general finding is that people's decisions don't change but they become more sophisticated in their post hoc justification of their decisions.

Where has my mulling led me? I think that by and large calls to have a conversation or efforts to raise awareness are largely self-serving to the interests of those making the calls, rarely are genuine in the sense of wanting to have an open airing and exchange of ideas, often signal marginalization and unimportance of the issue to the broader population, and have little correlation with people actually changing their behaviors or their decisions.

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