You should read this if you’ve ever wanted to write in order to change people’s view of something. Maybe that’s not something you’ve ever wanted to do. I don’t know. I can’t really tell from where I am. I just made the assumption that there are people who do want to do that, and I made it explicit so you could decide for yourself how to continue.
Maybe my assumption is true for some of you (hello, dear readers), but not others. Who knows. Either way, this is the starting point I chose for all of us: you want to write in order to change people’s view. Are you with me? I hope so. If not, you could still keep reading just to see where I am going with this.
Changing people’s view is… difficult. It is for me, at least. If it’s not difficult for you, I’d be very curious to learn how you do it. And maybe some of the other readers would also be interested, because it would be better to listen to you explaining how to actually do it than to just listen to me talking about what makes it so difficult. So please do let us know when you get a chance.
While we are waiting, how about we think about what makes it so difficult, as an intermediate step. It could still be useful to do that, even if there is no clear answer provided. Maybe it can help us see potential solutions, and then we won’t need to read the other, hypothetical article explaining how to solve it. Or maybe we will realize that there is no solution, no trick that can be learned that makes the difficulty go away.
The reader knows who they are and where they are. The reader. That’s you. And it’s also me, and all the other people reading this. The reader is their own person. They know things. They have reasonable opinions. Their life, their view of the world, makes as much sense as it possibly can, at this moment in time. The reader is probably not struggling to make sense of their own daily existence.
So why would the reader listen to me, or you, or anyone, if what we, as writers, want to do is change their view?
“Would you like a glass of water?”, you hear a voice say. Your eyes look around until they find the face the voice belongs to. “Me?” “Yes, you.” “Uhh… sure!” The person pours you a glass of water. “Thanks.” You didn’t realize you were thirsty before it was offered to you. “Mhmm… water. It’s so good when you are thirsty.” But wait. What happened there? Did the person change your mind? Did you change your mind? Or did nothing really change at all? It’s hard to know. You take another sip and continue your existence as if nothing happened.
Are you still with me? Are you wondering where I am dragging you? Am I even dragging you somewhere or are we just going for a walk together? Let me just state that I didn’t mean to drag you with me against your will. But if that was my intention, that would be an example of manipulation. One moment you feel safe, you think you know where you are and where you are going. You feel oriented. And then something happens, something unexpected, and you don’t really have time to think about whether you are okay with it. Being manipulated doesn’t feel good, especially not in retrospect, and it makes people question not only the choices they made while being controlled by another person, but also the trustworthiness of the person they feel manipulated by. And that’s a reasonable reaction, because what has essentially happened to them is a form of concealed violence.
I don’t want to change a person’s mind against their will, neither openly, by grabbing them by their sleeve and dragging them along with me, nor covertly, by manipulating them. I want them to come along with me freely and willingly. But how? Where to even start?
If the idea is to take someone from where they are to where we would like them to be, we must start by having some idea of where they are. Imagine guiding someone through a labyrinth without first finding out where they are, or giving someone directions to where you live without knowing where they are coming from. That wouldn’t work at all.
The next thing we need to do is actively acknowledge to them where we think they are. Otherwise the other person might suspect that we don’t know where they are. This is especially important in writing because the reader has no way of telling me anything about themselves, what they know about the topic and how they feel about it. Speaking of the reader: I suppose that’s you again. Am I explaining things to you that you already know? It’s so difficult to not do that if I can’t observe your reactions, if I can’t just talk to you and ask if all of this is boring or if it is interesting or even entertaining. In my mind it is not boring, because we are exploring the difficulty of all this together and it feels like a shared activity. But anyway: for now, all I know is that you are reading this, and that is all I can acknowledge at this point. But sometimes there are more things we know about our readers, and it is worth acknowledging to them what those things are.
I enter a shop. I point my body towards some of the pretty items left and right of me. Seems like a nice shop! A few seconds in, a person smiles at me. “You are just looking around for a bit?” I smile back and nod. “Let me know if you need anything.” “Ok, thanks.” A quick and smooth interaction. How did they know that I didn’t really feel like talking to anyone? I don’t know, but it’s nice that they acknowledged it. I barely had to do anything. Sometimes when they don’t say anything, I actually get a bit anxious after a while because I don’t know if I am annoying them by not allowing them to be helpful. Not having had an interaction can create a kind of tension. So I’m glad they explicitly gave me permission not to talk to them.
I have a need to be heard, even if what I want others to hear is that there is nothing I want to say. The same goes for them: their willingness to be helpful needs to be heard. A smile and a nod can be sufficient.
Sometimes we don’t know where the other person stands, let alone our entire audience. I don’t know where you stand, and I will try not to make the mistake of telling you what you should or shouldn’t do, because why should you listen to me. How can you trust me. All I am to you is some words on a page. Or maybe, now that I think about it, maybe we’ve actually met, maybe you’ve seen my face in person, maybe we’ve spent time together in the same room. If that’s the case, I’m sorry for pushing you away so much, as if you were just some random person. But at the same time I struggle to see how I could avoid doing that. Think of all the other people reading this. You probably don’t know most of them. I myself don’t even know how many of them I know, who they are and what they know about me or how they relate to me.
I can’t assume to be more than just some words on a page. The shapes of the letters may add up to the impression of a person, but even then, that person is a stranger.
I still don’t know where you are, but I have an idea of the place I want to guide you to. Maybe I should just draw a picture of the place I have in mind and, given that we’ve found a way to talk to each other, you might just be able to make sense of it and find it on your own. I would do that if I could. Some people, apparently, feel like they can. They paint pictures to express ideas and emotions that are more difficult to express through the rigid medium of sequences of words. And some people have found a way to use words to do something similar: metaphors, fiction, entire worlds, bright and colorful, dark and mysterious, a mix of elements, some familiar, some foreign, that lets people understand ideas by experiencing them.
When has a picture last changed the way you look at the world? It can be difficult for a picture to strike a balance between being familiar enough to be recognizable as anything at all and being foreign enough to have the potential to change the viewer. Recognition is very effective at preventing us from seeing new things.
For someone who knows about “hot drinks”, there may be no discernable difference between a coffee and a hot chocolate. Of course they both taste quite different to you and me, but we are saying that from our elevated perspective of already being familiar with the more specific categories of coffee and hot chocolate. We can see beyond the blurry category of “hot drinks”.
And the same goes the other way: if I told someone about a friend of mine, about how great they are, how I met them, what we are planning to do together, eventually they will probably ask themselves whether that friend was a woman or a man. Their habit of gendering people, seeing a person through the lens of gender, makes it difficult for them to feel like they understand who I am talking about if I leave out that supposedly essential fact about them.
Creating familiarity is a way of acknowledging who someone is and where they are standing. Familiarity can help people recognize what they already understand, and at the same time, it also makes them feel seen and understood. For a writer that wants to change the way their audience looks at something, it is necessary to help them recognize themselves in the words, it is necessary for at least some of the words to sound familiar, but that same familiarity also always bears a risk.
If all I do is acknowledge where you are, I still have not provided a reason for you to go anywhere else.
“Look over here!” “What? Where?” “Look! Look here!” “What’s there to see?” “Don’t you see it?” “No. Maybe you could describe to me what I am meant to see?” “Isn’t it obvious? How can you not see it?”
Seeing new things is difficult enough. Maybe the goal of helping people move to a position from which they can see better is too ambitious. I can’t make people go anywhere. Maybe showing them something new would already be an achievement. I could point at something and describe to them what it is that I am seeing, and maybe that could motivate them to move so they can see better, but even if it doesn’t, at least they’ve seen something new.
How about we combine the two approaches: I could stand up and walk a few steps and ask them to watch me. That way, it might be easier for them to follow me?
“I am up here!” “Wow! You’re up in the tree! How did you get there?” “Didn’t you watch me? I climbed up. Just now.”
“Hey look at me! I’m swimming!” “How are you not sinking?” “As I said: I’m swimming! It’s fun, you should try it. It’s not that hard.” “Uh, no thanks. You do you.” “Try it!” “Nah… I could never do that.”
Any way I turn it, the difficulty remains. It’s a puzzle. How does anyone ever change their view of anything?
My impression is that people tend to change if there is something in their life that doesn’t seem right to them. There needs to be something that drives them, a source of tension that propels them forward, a problem, ambitions, some kind of difference between the way things are and the way they should be.
So maybe what is necessary is to convince my audience that there is a problem before I can offer a solution. That’s what Christianity did, and is still doing. Christianity created a reason for people to follow it by somehow convincing them that they were all sinners and that the only way to be saved was by joining the religion. I don’t know about you, but there is something about that approach that doesn’t sound right to me. I can’t just go around inventing problems for people, just so they listen to me, can I?
It all comes down to what my audience already cares about. What you care about. What you already see as a problem. What you see as desirable. From my perspective, it is a bit dissatisfying to think about it in this way, but maybe that’s how it is anyway. It is never me who changes the way you look at something. I can try. I can try to connect. I can acknowledge where you are. I can try to make you feel heard, even though in this medium you can’t speak. I can walk a bit this way and that way, point at things, do a little dance. At the end it is always you who either takes it in as a part of yourself or not.
So my answer appears to be: I can’t give you a reason to read any of this, unless you already have a reason. I can try to help you recognize that reason, but the reason would have been there before. What happens after that, is up to you.