BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Adam Harris describes the battles taking place over the American story everywhere, from newspapers to school boards to classrooms. The people engaged in these battles know that to the narrative victors go the spoils. And so they're giving it all they've got. But they're far from the first people to wage this kind of battle. Alan Jenkins is a professor at Harvard Law School and co-founder of the Opportunity Agenda, a social justice communications lab. He says that those deep in the work of narrative shifting understand that it's not just about knowing what story you want to convey, it's also about knowing when that story needs to change.
ALAN JENKINS I became the director of human rights at the Ford Foundation three weeks before September 11th, 2001, and so the narrative of the decency and dignity of every person and why torture is wrong. Those stories fell flat. The stories that were effective on September 10th were no longer effective in a society and to some extent, a world that was now afraid. Afraid of the other, afraid of people from other countries, afraid of harm. And so we really had to go back to the drawing board and tell a new story. But that works in both directions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How all those people home because of the pandemic watched the killing of George Floyd.
ALAN JENKINS Exactly. Speaking here, especially of people who are not black. Because of the terrible and televised murder of George Floyd and the killing of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others, we now see increased understanding and openness to the story of systemic racial bias and injustice. The everyday biases that we all carry around. That is a big change over a very short period of time. It's about events, but it's also about the largest outpouring of activism and movement participation in our nation's history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You say that narrative change is about reaching agreements. We've been talking about how hard that is. What do you mean?
ALAN JENKINS I can walk into any room in America and say that we need systems that keep all communities safe and that uphold the values of equal justice and accountability. And I've said that in rooms filled with police officers with movement for Black Lives activists, with swing voters. I never get pushback on that statement, right, because it articulates values that we all share. Then we're going to have to fight about. Well, does the system currently uphold those values and what are the right alternatives? But once you've framed it in terms of those shared values and outcomes, you already have brought people together in a way to work through how to achieve them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But isn't the devil in the detail?
ALAN JENKINS If we are arguing about the details, that's productive democracy. It's when we're walking in alternative realities that I think we're going to have a hard time coming together as a nation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's talk about semantics. You've described a particular sleight of hand involved in the invention of the term tax relief. Here's former Congressman Paul Ryan in 2012.
MICAH LOEWINGER President Bush delivered broad tax relief for all Americans because he understands that people, not government, start the businesses and create the jobs that drive our economy.
ALAN JENKINS Cognitive linguist George Lakoff has pointed out that a relief frame is an affliction. So the hero is the person who protects you from the affliction. The villain is the person who imposes that on you. The taxpayer in this instance is the victim. And so going from tax cuts to tax relief actually introduced a moral component. Democrats blindly just repeated that tax relief phrase to their detriment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Democrats have not been so successful as Republicans in this regard.
ALAN JENKINS Democrats are terrible at narrative and framing. We're seeing this now, despite an environment in which the safety net programs and protections that President Biden is trying to advance should be at their highest level of receptivity. He's allowed the debate to devolve down to how many trillions of dollars. When your agenda is framed in terms of dollars, fewer dollars, it's always going to be better than more dollars. But by contrast, when it's about opportunity, are people going to have the opportunity to go work a decent job because they have? Paid family leave when they get sick, they have resources for child care. That's the story the Democrats should be telling.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Capital punishment is an example of a discourse that has changed within the past couple of decades anyway. What was the shift in narrative there?
ALAN JENKINS For many, many years? Death penalty opponents were telling the story of abolition that the death penalty is wrong in all instances. It needs to be abolished the way slavery was abolished. It was clear in the 80s and 90s, that story was not being effective. The anti-death penalty community came together and began to tell a new story about the death penalty as a flawed system that threatened to execute innocent people. Now, that was controversial within the movement because those of us who opposed the death penalty oppose it in all instances. But the research and experience and the field testing made clear that that new story about the risk of executing the innocent would reduce support for the death penalty across the board. So they began to tell that news story and it began to work. DNA testing was freeing people from both death row and from prison generally, and so that helped to build momentum for that story. Both journalists and the Innocence Project have played a huge role in telling that story right through the exoneration of real people who've been wrongly convicted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your class, you teach about a Stanford study that showed how much a single word can change a frame of mind.
ALAN JENKINS It's a remarkable study by two scholars, Boroditsky and Thibideau. They had two identical groups of listeners in two separate rooms. They got the same crime statistics, but one group the metaphor of crime as a beast was used ravaging our city and decimating our population. And in the other group, the metaphor of a virus that's infecting our communities. And what they found was that people who got the virus metaphor were significantly more likely to recommend prevention and drug treatment and mental health treatment as a remedy for crime. And the people who got the beast metaphor were much more likely to recommend increased money for courts and police and incarceration.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So we know that language choice can affect people's initial responses. Is there any evidence that shows it translating into long term shifts in opinion?
ALAN JENKINS The impact is lasting. You think about Ronald Reagan's mythical welfare queen. The underlying narrative that programs designed to help low income people actually do more harm than good because they somehow rob people of their self-discipline. You know, in the 1960s, at least in the early 60s, that was an absurd concept. But telling those stories over and over and over again has resulted in a significant shift not only of where the public is, where current policy is, but what's become acceptable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I think the poster child for success on the left would probably be the current public outlook on marriage equality. I mean, it's almost a consensus. In 2008, then candidate Barack Obama said he wasn't pro-gay marriage. That wasn't even 15 years ago. How did activists move the needle so dramatically on this one?
ALAN JENKINS An early narrative from that movement was based on unequal rights and benefits. You should support same sex marriage as it was called, because look at all these rights and benefits that we don't have as gay and lesbian couples that straight couples have. That's unfair. And that just was not resonating with people, and it was causing a lot of straight folks to double down on the belief that, you know, straight people get married because of love and gay and lesbian couples get married because of rights and benefits. So number one, they rebranded and began to talk about marriage equality, and critically, they changed their narrative from give us equal access to rights and benefits to a narrative about love and commitment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE People were persuaded by a straight forward positive message. What's easier, steering the public's mindset towards something positive or steering it towards something...scary?
ALAN JENKINS Fear tends to drive people towards more defensive and conservative responses. Often conservatives have that on their side, but if you're afraid and I show you a pathway out of that scary situation, and if part of that pathway is rooted in the values that we share, then you might be with me for life. Solutions and shared values are the best way to persuade people to find their better selves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But in fact, it's a real art, and I wonder why the creation of a narrative sometimes is such a difficult thing.
ALAN JENKINS Two phrases that I often say to my students, they're probably tired of hearing it. One is a fish doesn't know it's in water. We swim in narratives all the time, and we can often fall into harmful narratives. But the other phrase is empathy is your superpower. So I'm a comic book geek, you know, and I have seen that really trying to understand people who don't agree with you is critical to persuading them to have in your own mind changed when you're wrong. A lot of people communicate to hear themselves talk or to vent, and there's a role for that. Sometimes you've just got to say what needs to be said. But really, listening to your audience is crucial to moving them to a new place and also to the possibility for compromise.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A lot of people say that there is no talking to these people. The only thing that can come of it is compromising your own principles. You say that you have to find your way to a shared story with the other person.
ALAN JENKINS Now people are complex and often will be outside of the glass in focus groups and hear people lurch from pretty hateful things to really hopeful, soulful things, and they're carrying around both of those stories in their head. Now some people are your opponents, they're working to undermine you, and it's very unlikely that you will ever persuade them. And as an advocate, that's not a place where you should be wasting your time. But that's not most people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how can we, as individuals, persuade? What are some lessons we can derive from those who created narratives that change the country?
ALAN JENKINS We should never leave an audience without giving them at least one thing that they can do to solve the problem that we've identified. And that's not a magic wand. But when we look at all of these successful efforts through the years, including the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, they all included those elements: listening, finding shared values, narratives, offering concrete solutions and giving our audiences actions that they can take to make things better.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It reminds me of what Bryan Stevenson has tried to do in Montgomery, Alabama. If persuasion has a long term goal, it has to be about reimagining who we are, what our history is, as you mentioned, what our society can be. When he created that museum that traced the history of slavery and specifically lynching in this country, he reproduced the tombstone like objects that represented all of the known lynchings in America and has sought for the communities where they occurred to take the replicas and put them up to remind people of their history. So he sees history as a way to come to terms with who we are. Do you think that falls into the realm of persuasion?
ALAN JENKINS The debates that we're engaged in now about Confederate monuments or critical race theory, those are all throwbacks to earlier efforts to erase histories of discrimination and oppression. After the Civil War and reconstruction, when federal troops were removed from the South and the harsh regime of Jim Crow and lynchings have returned with a vengeance. You immediately saw Confederate veterans and the Daughters of the Confederacy reinventing history textbooks to describe slavery as benign and the south as genteel and the Civil War as a war of northern aggression. And you see that same battle going on now. The idea that any discussion of past discrimination or oppression is something to be suppressed or censored. But you know, when you do that, it's like showing up in the middle of a movie. You're trying to understand what's happening and it is almost impossible. So for example, when you hear that our criminal justice system is racially discriminatory or that educational outcomes are unequal, but you have no idea what the first half of the movie was and that history of discrimination right up until today, then you can only conclude that this must be something wrong with the people. Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative have done a remarkable service to the country by making manifest aspects of our history that help to explain where we are today and where we need to go.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So persuasion in the long term involves redefining who we are and what we want to be.
ALAN JENKINS Understanding who we are and who we want to be as a nation, as a people in all of its fullness.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And ultimately, you believe persuasion can work.
ALAN JENKINS I see persuasion work all the time on issues that seemed completely intractable. Welcoming immigrants in the south, making marriage equality a reality, moving away from mass incarceration in places where we seem to have been addicted to it. Even the legalization of marijuana in so many places that seemed unthinkable a decade or two ago. Those were all the result of persuasion, of telling a new story about right and wrong, about what we could be together. And so I remain hopeful that that can be done on the toughest issues of our time now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Alan, thank you very much.
ALAN JENKINS Thank you. It's a pleasure, as always.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Alan Jenkins is a professor at Harvard Law School and co-founder of the Opportunity Agenda, a social justice communications lab.
And that's this week's show. On the Media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender and Eli Cohen with help from Juwayriah Wright. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter. Our show is edited by me and Katya. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week where Sam Bair and Adriene Lily. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.