Elizaveta Friesem (www.elizavetafriesem.com) thinks and writes about media and our relationship to it. Her recently published book is Media Is Us and it examines the idea that media is not something “out there” but more something that is part of us, something that happens internally, similar to any other human communication. And perhaps this means that acting as if “media” (of whatever sort) is to blame for various problems we have is a simplistic way to view the world. And maybe it’s also a tempting way to see the world as it lets us humans off the hook for being responsible for what we believe and share.
Elizaveta opens her book with something we can all probably relate to: she shared an angry take on social media (in this case, about a Dove soap ad that was accused of being racist), but it turned out to be a bad take, based on something that was wrong and taken out of context. So we talk about that story, and how that phenomenon seems so common, with social media aiding so many people in over-reacting to bad or distorted or outright false information. We also talk about power dynamics in society, and how power is defined. And we talk about the power of empathy and understanding others.
Zach Elwood: Hello and welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about understanding human behavior, whether that’s reading your opponents at tennis or poker or board games, or about understanding the political motivations of people, or about understanding humanity in general. You can learn more about this podcast at www.behavior-podcast.com. If you want to get on my email list, I don’t have anything automatic set up yet on the site, but feel free to send me an email from that contact form and I’ll put you on it. I’m actually starting to work on a book about healing American divides and about how we have a lot more in common than we tend to think and how our main problem is our us-versus-them animosity and not as much about the issues as we think. So if you’d like to be kept in the loop on that, send me a line.
On today’s episode, recorded August 5th, 2021, I interview Elizaveta Friesem. Elizaveta wrote a book called “Media Is Us,” which recently came out. You can learn more about her work at http://www.elizavetafriesem.com
Elizaveta opens her book with something we can all probably relate to: she shared something on social media, but it turned out to be a bad take, based on something that was taken out of context. I don’t know about you but this has happened to me many times and I’ve learned to be very careful about the things I see and share online; I’ve just been bitten too many times and I’ve believed and shared too many bad, distorted takes, so I’m much more careful. And that carefulness, that sense of personal responsibility for how we consume media, is what Elizaveta’s book is partially about.
We tend to think of “media” as something out there, as something that affects us, as something that can do something to us, as something we have to be cautious of lest we fall pray to bad media. Or if we don’t feel that about ourselves, we tend to think that’s true for other people: we have to police what they get ahold of, lest they, in their ignorance, fall pray to it.
Elizabeta’s book examines how we perhaps should not think about media as objects or systems that are “out there”, but should instead think of media as something that happens inside of us. Reading a book or watching TV is essentially the same process as talking to someone or talking internally to ourselves; it’s all just various forms of communication, of spreading or reinforcing ideas. Hence the book title “Media Is Us.” That may seem kind of obvious or a semantic point at first but if you really think about the implications of that, it might be very important. For example, it might mean teaching people to have more responsibility for what they consume, for the conclusions they reach, instead of a focus on eliminating bad media. And maybe if we started thinking more like that in society, with more focus on our own responsibility and less focus on blaming certain technologies or certain outlets, it would eventually lead to less division and more alignment on a common reality.
And Elizaveta’s book is also about avoiding blame, about recognizing how amazingly complex humans are, and how amazingly complex human relationships and communication is. And when you really recognize how complex things are, how many factors there are in these areas, it’s hard to blame people, it’s hard to get angry. And so Elizaveta’s book is about more than media, it’s about life, it’s about how we view the world and other people, it’s about everything really.
A little more about Elizaveta: she’s an editor of the Journal of Media Literacy Education and she currently teaches courses at Columbia College Chicago. She’s passionate about using empathy to heal ideological and cultural divides, and her current work explores how media literacy education can be enriched through principles of nonviolent communication.
The anecdote Elizaveta opens her book with is about her seeing angry takes on social media about a Dove Soap ad that many people thought was racist. If you google ‘racist Dove soap ad’, you can find more about this ad, it was from 2017. But basically the gist was that there was a section of the ad that showed a black woman removing her shirt to reveal a different woman, a white woman, there. And many people were drawing parallels between that ad and old racist ads that associated black skin with dirtiness. And Elizaveta did vet this angry take a bit; she saw respected news outlets talking about this. A Washington Post article, for example, reads “A Dove ad showed a black woman turning herself white. The backlash is growing.” A Time magazine article read “Dove’s ‘Racist’ Ad Isn’t the First Time the Company Was Criticized for Being Offensive”. You get the idea. And it was these well known outlets sharing these takes that induced Elizaveta to share it online.
We’ll pick up the story from when Elizaveta is talking about her decision to share her own angry take online.
Elizaveta Friesem: So I went to Google and I wrote ‘Dove ad’. I even wrote ‘Dove racist ad’ because obviously there are a lot of ads. So I thought, “Well, let’s see what comes up.” And lots of things came up. Lots of articles, blogs, and people were clearly writing about it big time. And some sources were trustworthy sources or something that I considered trustworthy back then. And I was like, “Well, if everybody’s saying that, I guess they looked into it and I shouldn’t look into it any further. [chuckles] So I guess there’s a problem.” So I shared it on my Facebook wall and I wrote, “Oh, my God, how come it’s so bad, it’s still happening?” So I shared that and I made this post public. And I was kind of surprised because maybe like an hour later, I had three people who I didn’t know, so three strangers responded to that. Normally, I don’t have strangers responding to my public posts. And all of them were critical of my interpretation. Two were kind of very succinct, sarcastic, sort of like, “If this ad exists, it must be racist.” [chuckles] Or something like that. And I was like, “Yeah, whatever. They probably don’t know, they don’t care.” And then the third one was a little longer and that one made me pause. It said, “Well, did you see the whole thing? Because that White woman actually also takes off her shirt and then turns into a different woman who has darker skin again?”
And my mind was actually blown up at that moment. [laughs] I was like, “Oh, my God, did I just miss something?” Because I was sure that every media outlet that I looked at– and I didn’t do comprehensive research, but I looked at a few– and they had this screenshot of putting together the picture of a Black woman taking her shirt, and then a picture of a White woman. Like, next to each other, two pictures. So it seems like they’re just that, right? So this third comment revealed to me that, “Whoa, there’s another person there?” So I started reading more and I realized that yeah, there’s a third person. And maybe her skin was not as dark as the first woman, but it was still darker than the second woman. And she looked more Hispanic, I guess. And her hair was definitely dark black even. Right? And then I read more and more and at that point I started feeling really, really bad. I was so embarrassed. [laughs]
Zach: Right. There was a lot more context. It was just a small piece of the ad and taken out of context and looked bad, but they were just switching between many people basically.
Zach: Yeah. I thought that was a great introduction because I think it gets things that happen so often these days. I mean, it happens to me so often. And I see people overreacting to so many things online that are just, you know, the latest outrage of the day where the next day you look into it and get the full context and it’s just people overreacting to something that was either deliberately or accidentally taken out of context and shared. People getting the immediate view… You know, I’m a video film major and I actually worked as a forensic video analyst for legal and law enforcement for a very short time. And the thing I know about video and audio is even when it’s real, it’s so easy to take things out of context. And for something to be shown at an angle that that looks bad, like for real videos, I think your intro was great, I thought. Because I think it’s something that we can all relate to. Like, anyone who’s a little bit critical and thinking about how they use social media has probably lived through that multiple times at this point and hopefully, has become more skeptical as we have over time. So if you had to give the one-minute elevator pitch to someone about your book and why you wrote it, what would you say?
Elizaveta: Well, I guess I would say that I wanted to provide a different perspective on media. And part of my background is media studies and media literacy so I’ve read a lot of books and articles about media. And I taught classes about media and communication and I realized that something’s missing. So that’s why I felt that I wanted to write this book. So in this book, I talk about how media is seen as something that has appeared recently– fairly recently. I mean, the last 150 years, recently, if you took the whole history of humanity, right? And it’s something enabled by the latest technologies, right? And so the idea is that media did not exist before and now it exists and it creates a lot of problems for us human beings. And I see a lot of people from different walks of life talking about media and being concerned media. Scholars, educators, parents, politicians, a lot of people say that media is something we should be concerned about that it can cause troubles and negatively impact our lives, essentially.
As I’ve been thinking about that, I realized that the question that I want to ask is, “Do we really understand what media is?” Because in all the books and articles that I’ve read, there was surprisingly little space for definitions of media. It was just taken for granted. And most of the time, there were just presented with huge lists or small lists. Like a sample of lists of, smartphones, social networks, films, commercials, video games, or media industry as people working in the media industry. And all the time it was… So, media was presented indirectly as something different from the person doing the writing, and something worse than that person or something that can cause harm to that person or other people similar to the person doing the writing or thinking in this piece of publication, whatnot.
So I felt that I was not satisfied with that. And I felt that really in order to better understand media, we cannot see it as something separate from ourselves. It is important to talk about latest technologies, it is important to consider new cultural forms and how they have changed our lives. But if we only look at those differences, we are missing a lot. Because there are also important tendencies that have existed through ages that are not new and that can be connected to something deeper within us. So when we start connecting questions about media to those deeper inquiries, we actually turn it into questions about ourselves. So my book argues that in order to make sense of the modern media, we should actually explore some deeper fundamental principles of human communication, and essentially, what it means to be human. So yeah, the book starts almost like a media studies and media literacy exploration, but then it turns really philosophical.
And then I talk about how ideally, this whole exploration will help us better understand ourselves and others. So it’s not just about understanding media literally. Like, “Let’s look at this movie and analyze what the author wanted to say or what can happen if somebody watches it.” It’s not just that, it’s way bigger than that for me. And so when we understand ourselves and others, we can enhance our awareness and self-awareness and enhance our empathy. So that’s a big part of my journey and my exploration in that book. And then engage in collaboration that would replace polarisation based on blame. And so as you can see, I use a conversation about media to start a really ambitious discussion here about polarisation and all this stuff.
Zach: Well, yeah, that’s what surprised me. I expected your book to be about media theory, and then it gets into the broader philosophical discussions of what power is, how we relate to each other, you know? And I think you’re right in the sense that it spoke to me because you, to me, you can’t talk about any of these things without talking about our humanity and how we relate to each other. Media is how we relate to each other. I mean, that it is what it is. It’s another form of us relating. Like when we read a book, we’re relating to the person that wrote that or we’re injecting these thoughts into our mind. And it made me think of, you know, to write a modern completely helpful media literacy thing would require– as yours does– it requires talking about the psychology of humans and how they relate.
And that’s what I thought was great about your book and really spoke to me because you’re digging into the complexity and the interconnectedness of everything in a very holistic sense. It’s like, you can’t examine one piece of any situation without realizing how hard it is to separate that piece from everything around it, you know? That really speaks to me and that’s what I see in the world. Sort of the distortions of social media like your Dove ad experience, it’s like we’re seeing one thing and overreacting to one thing, and not trying to understand how this thing is connected to so many things. I mean, let alone the distortion– there’s the distortion element. But even if we think we’re seeing it completely, we’re not realizing just how connected everything is. Yeah. So I thought it was great.
Elizaveta: When you talked about social media right now, I was thinking about how I wrote this book to counter this view that ‘it’s just media’, like films or social networks that distort the way we see the world, and that’s the reason why we don’t understand what’s really going on and why we fight. So when I least– I provided this list of five fundamental principles of communication and I talk about how people just by virtue of being human, when they communicate, they create the world around them in their mind. And what I mean is that– just to give you a simple example– is well, you think you turn on news and there’s somebody there who decided what story to tell and how to tell it and how to make a video for the story and from what angle to shoot and whom to interview. So they create the way you see the story, right?
But you don’t think about how, say, you go to work and then something happens to you, you talk with your colleagues, you have a fight with a boss or whatnot. And then you go home and then you tell the story to your spouse, and the exact same thing happens! You choose how to tell the story. You choose words, you choose the angle, you choose what to tell, you choose how to tell. So it’s not just something connected with technology. It doesn’t come from technology, it comes from us being human. [chuckles] So it’s important to do all this thinking when we’re watching the news, but it’s also important to do the same kind of thinking when we are talking to each other and telling each other how we see the world and how we see things. And at that point is, “Yeah, everything is connected exactly how you said it.”
Zach: You push back on the idea in the book that the perception that a lot of people have is there’s these entities out there that are all powerful and call the shots and we cannot compete with them, but you go into the ‘which really comes first? The ‘chicken or the egg’ thing. For example, you talk about Rupert Murdoch and Fox News and how his power is perceived. And it’s really hard. You make the case and I agree and I’ve seen other work that supports it so it’s really hard to make a case. Is he actually the powerful one, or is he the chicken or the egg? Because you can also examine how it’s society, it’s the people that desire that, and he’s just given them what they want or leading the cart. I recently interviewed Kevin Arceneaux, he had co-authored a book called Changing Minds Or Changing Channels, which was about the effects of political news TV and cable TV. And his research showed that contrary to most people’s opinions, most people were already polarised before watching these polarised TV news outlets like Fox News or CNN, I guess– on the liberal side, basically. But it supports the ideas that you talk about, that it’s hard to separate the chicken from the egg in that sense of which came first.
Elizaveta: I do talk about power. I dedicate a whole chapter to the issue of power, and I think it’s super important and super complicated. And this is actually a part of my book that I guess I’m most worried about how people will interpret that. Because I tried to be very careful in the book. Believe me, I thought about it for so long and rewrote different parts so many times to express this idea that I don’t want to say that, say, with the example of Rupert Murdoch, right? You see him as so powerful, and people who watch channels or read newspapers that his companies produce, so you see this people as powerless. Right? So I don’t want to say, “Let’s flip this so he’s actually powerless and they are powerful.” I’m not actually talking about that, because this is an interpretation that I would like to avoid. I’m actually talking about how the topic of power is so complicated that it shouldn’t be seen through a binary or through this “either you have power or you don’t have,” or “the world is divided into those who have power and those who don’t have power.” And actually, I introduced a whole new theory of power that I called Theory of Micro and Macro Power. Basically, the idea is that one thing happens– when we look at relationships or interactions between specific individuals. It’s very easy if you take a pair of individuals to see a specific situation. A specific place and time and pair of individuals. It’s super easy to say who has power over whom. Say, a parent tells a child, “Go to your room,” or “Eat those vegetables,” or a boss tells his employee, “Do this report,” and stuff like that. But then when you start zooming out of this very specific sort of snapshot of power and start seeing this relationship in the context of other relationships, because each of the people in this peer is connected to so many other people. And each one of those other people are connected to other people. That has become so complicated that our mind is exploding trying to understand all that. But the more you’re zooming out, the more you’re seeing how the person who is powerful in this specific situation, they are also influenced by other things that seem to be out of their control when they’re influenced by those things that does make this powerful person not powerful. So since Rupert Murdoch does have power, he does have so many people working for him and he does create all those media outlets and programs and-
Zach: He could definitely make better decisions and that would have big impacts.
Elizaveta: Yeah, it does matter. I don’t want to say that it doesn’t matter and that he doesn’t have power, but also it would be wrong to say that he’s sort of-
Zach: -in a vacuum.
Elizaveta: Yes, his power exists in a vacuum. Like, he just has it and that’s it. And so prior to this interview, I was thinking how to describe it in a way that would sort of make more sense. And I came up with this metaphor that I actually didn’t use in the book but I think I would use it somewhere, that I think about society as a game. And in this game, this game is not perfect by far. This game has certain rules but some people break these rules and some people cheat and some people keep winning and some people keep losing, and there are issues with this game. Serious issues. So I agree with that. But what I don’t agree with is when some people say, “Well, look at the people who keep winning. They are the ones who control the game. They can fix it, they can fix the rules.” That’s what I don’t agree with because I say, “Well, I don’t think that they can just fix the rules. They maybe bend the rules and they know how to use the rules to cheat the system, but they didn’t create those rules.” And that’s the thing. Because all of us are playing this game, all of us are creating those rules-
Zach: As we go. Yeah.
Elizaveta: As we go, yes.
Zach: To take a topical example, your book is always pointing back to the complexity. For example, a cop committing excessive force against a citizen. In that context, people would say, “Well, they have more power than the citizen.” But then a little bit later, that citizen could sue them and destroy their life and that cop could face serious repercussions. So it’s like the power dynamics are always shifting. Obviously, in some contexts where there’s not those kinds of recources or there’s less social dynamics like that, some people can get away with more. But yeah, your point is just pointing back to the fact that these dynamics are so complex and nuanced.
Elizaveta: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. That’s a good example.
Zach: Yeah. One thing that strikes me is whether on both on the left or the right across the political spectrum, it seems like so many people have such high expectations for media, you know? There’s this sense of holding them to this standard that to me is just not realistic. Because media is just, as you would say in your book, media is just people. It’s just people trying to accomplish different things. I mean, news organizations get things wrong, they make mistakes, they’re trying to sell papers, you know? I almost feel like part of the problem is people having too high expectations for media and expecting them to do a great job all the time, when really we could just be happy if they mostly do a somewhat decent job.
Elizaveta: Yeah. Well, that’s the wording that I actually… I’ve tried to be very careful with this kind of wording in my book because I didn’t want to say, “Well…” Going back to the Murdoch example. So you say Murdoch is a problem, but look at yourself. You’re probably part of the problem. And why I had the next chapter after the chapter about power, it was all about blame and how it’s not helpful. Right? Because the whole point of the book is not to say, “Well, let’s not blame them, let’s blame them or us or, you know?” [chuckles] Right? So it shouldn’t be about blame at all, it should be about recognizing how complicated it is and learning to help each other instead of just trying to undermine each other by saying that, “Well, you are the problem.” [chuckles]
Zach: Just a note here, I took out some of the interview here, and now I’m going to come back to me clarifying a question where I was asking her about how optimistic or pessimistic she is about our current highly polarised situation. To clarify, that was my question. It’s like, can we get enough people– just enough people thinking in these ways to avoid self destruction? That’s the part where I’m a little bit more pessimistic about. Obviously, we don’t need everyone thinking that way. We just need enough people trying to combat the Us versus Them dynamics. But yeah, that was more of what I would say.
Elizaveta: Well, I think if we– you and I, and at least I’m sure I know there are other people out there who agree with that– but if we want to avoid self distraction, I think it’s better for our own sake to think that something can be done. Because otherwise, it’s just so sad that we won’t do anything.
Zach: Yeah, I think that’s the point too. It’s like even if you’re listening to this thinking, “Well, obviously, I don’t have much power, other people have more power than me and news outlets have more power to me.” Even if you believe that, we only have control over our own behavior and our own activity and our own actions. So if you do see how your own behavior can be playing a role in society– which I don’t see how you can dispute that– and if you believe that we’re on the cusp, theoretically, of very bad things and you believe that these Us versus Them dynamics are bad, then I would say we only have control over ourselves. So still, you can make the case to think about all these things and think about how you might be contributing to the dynamics with your own behavior. Because that’s the thing that… I got interested in this stuff because a couple of years ago, I was like anybody else. I was just posting whatever insults or random things popping into my mind about the other group. If I had a witty thing to say or a cutting insult, I would post it. And always operated on the assumption that someone’s in charge and someone out there is going to bring us together or save the day or something. But then seeing how things have progressed, I realized that no, there isn’t some system out there or some power, as you say. The power is spread out amongst all of us. That, to me, that’s what changed my behavior and thinking about how my own behaviors may be contributing to these things. And I think understanding how it is so holistic and interconnected helps you want to change your behavior. It’s not some empathy saintly thing, and I think that’s another misunderstanding. We’re not trying to use empathy because we think it’s the good or the right thing or some saintly thing to do, it’s more like once you see how interconnected everything is, you really can’t help but act in a way that focuses on empathy and understanding multiple points of view. Because it is the truth that everything is just so interconnected and everybody’s behaviors, you know, what you post online has an effect on the dynamics of the whole system. That’s what changed my behavior. And I think for some people, they go through that journey of making mistakes like the Dove ad that you talked about, and they start realizing, “Oh, wait. I’m contributing to this.” To make this specific point, reacting to the Dove ad has the impact of the other side seeing this overreaction, and that influences them in various ways and so these dynamics are constantly bouncing back and forth. Like conservatives seeing liberals overreact and get pretty crazy way about something minor makes them think like, “Oh, that side is completely unreasonable. They overreact, their reactions to other things are similar to the overreactions there.” So it has this dynamic of accentuating the Us versus Them dynamics. Anything you want to add to that before I move on?
Elizaveta: Yeah. I guess I want to stress again this idea that I would like people to not to think, “Oh, I’m a part of a problem,” but rather, “I can be part of a solution.” Right?
Zach: You’re avoiding blame.
Elizaveta: Yeah. Cuz it’s so complicated that I don’t want to blame any… I think it’s not fair to blame anybody for contributing to this very complex dynamics that’s in the grand scheme of things. That’s what makes our society imperfect, right? So I agree that if we look at a specific case of, say, abuse or mistreatment, we can say, “Well, here’s a person who abused that person or those people, and we should fix that.” But at the same time, we shouldn’t think that doing that or punishing that person will fix the whole problem. Because there are so many other things behind that.
Zach: Yeah. And to take it probably to a philosophical step, I don’t believe that free will is likely. And that makes me see the world in a very holistic way because at the end of the day, I think we’re all just humans having a very mysterious experience of things happening to us and things happening that were based on the moment before the past, you know, all these factors around us. You know, I’m not different from anyone else. And I think that gets to what you’re talking about avoiding blame. Because I don’t blame anyone, I see it all as so complex. And who’s to say I’m right with my point of view? What good would it do for me to preach at someone? Because I don’t really know exactly what’s going on either.
Elizaveta: Yeah. I mean, you can say you are no different in some ways, but you’re all different in other ways. Right. And that’s what makes our society so wonderful, and that’s what actually should bring us hope. It’s that because people are different– I mean, it creates a lot of problems because then they start arguing– but they can actually generate solutions together by working together than if it’s just one person and they’re just stuck in their ways and they keep making mistakes. Historically, we know situations when one person or a group of people got an opportunity to use their thinking to modify a whole way of life of a whole country. Right? And that was no good, right? So that’s why it’s good that we’re different and we should tap into that difference, right? But at the same time, acknowledging that we have a lot of things in common. [chuckles]
Zach: Yeah. And by ‘not different from other people’ I just mean I’m not different in the sense of… I’m a human like everyone else and the only thing that makes me different… We all are different in various ways, but the only thing that makes me different is my different experiences and my different physical brain or whatever, you know, these various factors. We’ll probably getting too broad and philosophical here. [Elizaveta chuckles] But I did want to ask you, when it comes to empathy and when it comes to seeing other people’s points of view– which I think is very important even just for strategic reasons, like if you want to accomplish your goals it’s very powerful to understand other people’s points of view– and I wanted to ask, you know, sometimes I get pushback or there’s pushback in general on the idea of empathy because I think people can perceive it as, you know, we could perceive it as submissive. You know, if you tell some liberal people to think about a Trump supporter’s point of view, for example, they’ll have a reaction of acting like that’s weak and that’s submissive and ‘why is it on us to do this?’ I wonder have you heard those kinds of objections, and what’s your responses to objections like that?
Elizaveta: Well, I’ve definitely heard those kinds of objections. And maybe not to people objecting to my own work, but I witnessed conversations or maybe tried saying something along the lines of like, “Well, let’s try to understand them.” And I think it’s not just the idea that if you use empathy, you’re submissive and weak. It’s also the idea that if you’re trying to understand the other side, it means you’re also accepting excusing their behavior to some extent. Actually, I watched a podcast video by this really interesting person called Robert Wright. He has a channel called Meaning of Life. And in this in this video, he used a very interesting term that spoke so much to me. And the term was ‘explain/excuse conflation.’ So, people feel like if you’re trying to explain somebody’s behavior, you’re essentially excusing it automatically. And he’s saying, “No, that’s not the same.” And I write it in other words in my book that we can understand other people’s behavior without accepting this behavior. And I think as you said, actually, this kind of empathy is beneficial for us. So we’re not doing it for them, although you can see how it can also benefit the person you’r empathizing with like, but it benefits us. Because when we understand somebody’s behavior, we can better react to the behavior or be prepared for this behavior. Or if we see somebody make a mistake and if we try and understand their reason and go with explanations beyond ‘well, this person’s just stupid,’ then we start seeing how this actually has some parallels to what we might do and we can actually be more careful at what we are doing. It’s actually completely opposite to excusing their behavior. [chuckles]It’s actually just becoming more careful with our own behavior because we see it represented in somebody else and we are not happy about it. So yeah, it can be really beneficial for us if done correctly. I think that empathy is not something that we should just uncritically put on the pedestal and say, “Oh, it’s just empathy, empathy, empathy everywhere.” Although I feel like I do that sometimes. But it also needs to be practiced in a certain way. Like, say if we are empathizing with us of easy empathy and just empathizing with somebody who you already feel we should empathize with, this is easier. Right? It’s so much more difficult to empathize with somebody who we dislike. [laughs]
Zach: That’s the hard thing.
Elizaveta: Right? Yeah. And there’s a whole difference between cognitive and emotional empathy that’s really interesting to understand.
Zach: I think you hit the nail on the head there. Yeah. I’m glad you brought up the point that yeah, it’s exactly that about the conflation of, you know, people feel that acknowledging that you can see the other side’s point of view is saying that they have a point or that they’re right. And I see this every day because I spent a good amount of my time on Facebook and Twitter or even just in person showing people how you can have a different point of view on the opposite political side– to be specific, to show how there’s some conservative points of view. Showing those points of view to a liberal audience and showing how this doesn’t make you a monster, it just means you’re looking at it this way. Or there’s people even on your own side that can look at things this way. And I think when I try to do those things, often people focus on the issue itself, but what I’m interested in is the meta issue of how you can see those issues from different points of view. And I feel like that’s what people get stuck on. They’re focused on discussing the actual issue and showing who’s right or wrong, but I’m just saying, “Well, can you at least see the different point of view and how you could see it in a different way?” I think that’s where people really get bogged down. And they do feel that acknowledging that there might be that point of view that another person or a neighbor or a fellow citizen could have, or even they themselves could theoretically have, can drive some cognitive dissonance and make them angry. I’ve had this almost every day because I’ll post thoughts about how you can look at things from different perspectives. And I interviewed Michael Macy and he did research on showing the way our political stances grouped together are pretty random and probably arbitrary in the sense that they were kind of led by early movers and in a chaos theory kind of way. And we tend to make these narratives around like, “Oh, there’s a reason that these groups of stances are grouped together for a political party,” but really, it might be pretty arbitrary. For example, you can imagine if Trump had come out when COVID started with really strong and strict mandates, you know? With our polarisation being what it is, you can imagine Liberals taking a stance against that and being like, “This is draconian. These lockdowns are influencing communities of color and poor communities, we need to not be so draconian.” And you can see how the lines might have been drawn in a different way just based on initial conditions. There’d be a pushback to those things in a liberal framing. And I think that interview with Michael Macy and his work really opened my eyes to thinking about things in that way. Like, the things we tend to even just assume or make sense coherently are a lot of the times just us making these post hoc justifications of why the narrative makes sense, you know? And I think seeing that is related to your work, too, because it’s looking at the world and seeing this nuance and seeing how things could easily be different and seeing how it’s really hard to separate things or even say how things are, you know? And I think it’s a form of humility, really. These things are very hard to understand.
Zach: Well, thanks a lot for coming on, Elizaveta.
Elizaveta: Thank you so much for having me again.
Zach: That was Elizaveta Friesem. You can learn more about her work at her website, elizavetafriesem.com. I’m Zachary Elwood. If you want to learn more about this podcast, check out my website behavior-podcast.com.