March 29th, 2013


more on the FB avatar thing

Over at Scientific American, Melanie Tannenbaum has a really interesting take on the way a lot of people over at FB changed their avatars to red equal signs.

The tl;dr version: people respond more to descriptive claims (everyone else is already doing X) to prescriptive claims (you should do X). She has some good scientific studies to back her up on this point, and my own experience in the classroom bears it out. My first tendency when talking about plagiarism was to emphasize how easy and common it was to accidentally use a source without giving it credit, as a way to encourage students to be extra-careful to guard against this proclivity. But that just gave my students at least a psychological excuse to not take plagiarism so seriously. After all, if “everyone fell into it,” it wasn’t so bad when they did this, too. (Do read the whole thing if you’re interested; it’s fascinating.)

I found the science really interesting generally; I’d heard people warn me against being too empathetic, letting my students think that “everyone did it” for just this reason, but never read about all the studies. But more than that, thinking about the FB avatar issue, this really cleared up for me why I was bothered enough by it to post about it here. I don’t doubt that the “everybody already believes this” (or values this, or does this, etc.) approach works. I’ve seen it play out in my own life too much to think otherwise. But I like to think that my own support of marriage equality and other gender- and sexuality-based issues goes deeper than “all my friends already believe this.” I like to believe it’s because I’ve really thought things through and think the case for opening up marriage to LGBT people makes more sense than the case for restricting it to opposite-gender people.

And I also like to think that other people I interact with –and I’m talking about coming from all sides of this issue– are capable of this kind of reasoning. Obviously we live in a world where the majority’s opinion carries a lot of weight. LGBT advocates rightly point to the fact that the majority of Americans support marriage equality, because American society puts a lot of stock in the importance of majority opinions. And for that reason alone, if you gave me the choice between a lot of people opposing marriage equality or supporting marriage equality for the wrong reasons, I’d take door #2. But I still think people can and should believe things for the right reason – not because their friends believe it, but for whatever reason because they actually think it’s true or good. And this is important. I think this is why I found myself nodding at Leonard Pitts’ editorial on Rob Portman last week: it’s obviously good that a GOP senator turned himself around on gay marriage, but I wish he would have done it for some other reason than the issue impacted him personally. This was the right position long before he discovered his son was gay.

I really do get that for many people the decision to change their avatar had very little to do with being persuasive. They just wanted to show support for their friends who happen to be gay. Part of why I felt I could pass, and why I was affected by other aspects of the change, was I thought I was already showing my support in other ways. And I really don’t want to come off as beating up on folks who chose to show their support this way. I guess for me it just seems like one more symptom of a pervasive disease: the way so many people make up their minds for reasons that have little to do with what’s actually true or good. But that may be my inner philosopher speaking more than anything. In any event, that’s the thing about the change that seemed most “real” to me, most important.

Whether you agree or disagree with me on that point, I think the article is fascinating. I hope you’ll enjoy it too.