Communications Lessons From Religious Movements: Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton at TED speaking on sympathy

The always apropos Maria Popova features Alain de Botton today on Brain Pickings, discussing a topic near and dear to this blog’s heart – on the lessons we can learn from religion for promoting secular movements:

The tension between secularity and religion has endured for centuries, infusing academia and science with a strong and permeating undercurrent of atheism. But if we can divorce the medium from the message, there might be some powerful communication lessons secular movements could learn from religious ones. That’s the premise behind Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, a provocative and thoughtful new book by modern philosopher, prolific author, and School of Life founder Alain de Botton, who recently made a passionate case for redefining success.

Religions have been practicing the marketing arts for thousands of years – inspired, of course, by their faith and the help of their Gods – and have perfected a lot of approaches that are applicable in other areas. Indeed, the key concepts I harp on in this blog – such as the use of stories to build empathy, the appeal to authority (and who is a higher authority than the Divine?), and the importance of purity and sanctity – apply directly to church sermons as well as political speeches.

Link: Brain Pickings

Lowes vs “All-American Muslims” – A Way To View The Controversy

Leaving the realm of “Occupy” stories for a while, let’s see if we can apply the five moral dimensions of political decision making to another topic. I’m thinking of the controversy about the TLC show “All-American Muslims” and the fact that Lowes pulled out as an advertiser due to a “boycott” from an organization called The Florida Family Foundation.  There are several ways to approach this, and I’m going to cover several of them.

First, let’s just think about the situation and how impressive it is – there’s a TV show on a mainstream (cable) channel about Muslims in America that basically treats them as a normal part of American life and just another set of stories to tell about America. That’s impressive in itself – think about whether this would have been possible ten or 15 years ago.

And the response to the “boycott” has been impressive as well. The Florida Family Foundation organization is fairly fringe-y, and although it’s unfortunate that Lowes has pulled out due to the pressure of their boycott, the chances are that Lowes is the loser, much more so than TLC. The mainstream is aghast at Lowes’ response, and it’s clearly violated most Americans’ sense of right and wrong. And so we can recognize that we have made progress in tolerance as a culture, despite some fringe-y people amongst us (and not just in Florida).

What about the five moral dimensions that I keep talking about?

  • I think the “fairness” dimension is obvious, and I won’t spend much time on it
  • The “harm” dimension is also fairly obvious, except I want to point out that positions like FFF’s have led to things like the KKK – which in turn have caused lots of harm to Americans
  • The more interesting dimension is “group/other” – because of the extremity of the boycott, it has served to make American Muslims seem more “us”, and the Florida Family Foundation group seem more “them.” And that definitely puts Florida Family Foundation at a moral disadvantage in this case.
  • On the “purity/sanctity” dimension I think it’s really a wash – the Muslims on this show are clearly devout, but you have to give the Florida Family Foundation people credit for behaving in a way they think is pure.
  • But on the “authority” dimension, Florida Family Foundation loses out – if only because their opposition to having Muslims on TV is so clearly in opposition to the spirit of the Constitution. The Constitution is pretty clear – no discrimination on the basis of religion.

The other really great thing that All-American Muslims has going for it is that it’s all about stories. Stories are the other key dimension of political communication. The All-American Muslim stories, since they tie so strongly into the well-known tropes of earlier “all-American” stories, intrinsically bring you into a sense of group membership with both the teller of the story and the subject of the story.

A fundamental concept in liberalism is that your position should be judged on its merits. Unfortunately, that’s not the way that we, in America at least, judge positions. At least, that’s not the only way, and there is a big group for whom it’s only a part, if anything, of how their moral decisions are made. So it’s why we need to position our moral arguments in the right form. So if you wanted to do a “takedown” of the Florida Family Foundation, for example, in a letter to Lowes protesting their pulling their ads from American Muslim, you might structure it something like this:

  1. Open with a typical story about an all-American family having an all-American experience – the dad’s a policeman, the mom takes care of their four children.
  2. This family happens to be featured on “All-American Muslims.” You note that this all-American family is  under attack (harm) simply because they are Muslim by some members of a fringe fundamentalist sect-based group in Florida (“them”).
  3. Our (“us”) American ways of respect for diversity and individualism (group, fairness) and even our Constitution (authority) are being mocked by these attackers.
  4. Luckily, most Americans recognize that the Jaafars and the rest of the families on the show are just like us, and have responded with overwhelming support.

Lowes will be the loser in this fight if you continue to align with the fringe group rather than with mainstream America. I hope you see the error of this decision and come back into the mainstream and support this show.

That’s a good template for such a letter, although it’s rough, and quickly dashed out as an illustration for a blog post. The key point is that I am tying all of the key moral dimensions into the argument, instead of just relying on fairness and harm, which often happens in these cases.

Note that I’m not being “objective” about this story – I believe the Florida Family Foundation have just as much right to their opinions as I do to mine, but I don’t think that automatically makes their position equally valid. A typical trope in modern journalism is to treat both sides of a controversy as equally legitimate, even if they really aren’t. I don’t deny Florida Family Foundation the right to talk, but I don’t think that makes what they say valid.