We were talking to a smart woman about Oliver a few weeks ago, seeking her counsel about meltdowns and freak-outs and other pesky symptoms of childhood. My default response to aberrant behaviour is to reason: I work under the assumption that a calm and rational explanation of the aberrance will convince Oliver of the error of his ways, and help him return to the true path.
I take this approach not because there’s any evidence that it actually works, but rather from a firmly-held belief in the evils of Skinnerian behaviorism.
In other words, although I know in my heart that “Oliver, calm yourself down or you’ll have to do without your Nintendo for the next week” is an approach that will actually get results, I’ll ignore that, and opt instead for something like “Oliver, your reaction to the fact that you have to turn off the TV and go to school is unreasonable; education is an important aspect of a well-rounded life, and it’s important that you realize that.” And so on.
This approach achieves shockingly poor results. But then I probably don’t have to tell you that.
I thought about this last night as I sat in the middle of audience at a Public Forum on Biofuels.
While nominally a forum on making fuel out of stuff you can grow, it was really more a forum on the evils of transnational capitalism.
While the stuff of the debate may have been corn, palm oil, sugar cane and cellulosic ethanol, and the actors companies like ADM, Cargill and Goldman Sachs, you could have easily modified the sentences to change the subject to nuclear arms, or high-cost prescription drugs or climate change, and and the object to Halliburton, Pfizer or Royal Dutch Shell, and the rhetoric would have gone pretty well the same way.
This is not to suggest that the speakers weren’t engaging, or that I doubt the truth of what they had to say about the horrors of the biofuel industry and the havoc it can wreak on the environment, the economy, and the population. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to see clearly that the corporate agenda is to cast the biofuel industry in the image of the fossil fuel industry (and the arms industry, and the pharma industry, and…) that came before it.
Veracity is not a problem the anti-biofuel slash anti-capitalist camp faces: they’ve got veracity coming out their ears.
Where they fall down almost completely, however, is in the assumption that’s enough.
Like me with Oliver, the assumption appears to be that if you calmly and rationally outline the truth of a situation, self-directed behaviour modification will follow.
But it almost never does.
And yet, like me and my aversion to Skinner, there also appears to be a strong distaste for adopting any of the methods of allurement that the capitalists use to sell what they sell.
All the sincere public forums in the world will never match willyoujoinus.com and well-produced propaganda videos and pictures of happy palm oil workers. To say nothing of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, CSI: Miami and America’s Funniest Home Videos.
What seems to be left out of the equation is that convincing is an art. Trying to change people’s minds about something, especially when “something” is the free and easy life of cheap sneakers, discount air travel, and oranges in January, requires magic.
And there was no magic in the air last night.
There were plenty tragic tales. And statistics. And pictures of devastated environments. Lots of education. Even a couple of good lines. But no magic, no seduction, and more well-intentioned rambling than effective rhetoric.
And so while we may have all left the forum better-informed, we didn’t leave any better-equipped to topple capitalism than we entered.
Since our talk about Oliver, I’ve been making selective moves out of my anti-Skinnerian comfort zone. I haven’t locked him in a box, but I’ve been experimenting with the science of obvious consequences, being more selective about what’s an issue and what isn’t, and trying out different approaches to freak-outs. I feel queasy when I do it — “he should just understand that what he’s doing is wrong!” — but I grit my teeth and forge on through.
And, somewhat to my surprise, it works.
Not all the time. But more often than not.
If we’re going to prevent ourselves from destroying the planet, or at least making it even more of a living hell for even more of the planet’s population, I think a similar change in mindset might be needed.