“You’re wrong and here’s why”. How the Gillette advert got me thinking about we disagree with each other
The new Gillette advert certainly ruffled some feathers. What interested me most about it was not the advert itself (I had some thoughts about it that I summarise at the end of this), but the reaction to it, and just how angry the discussion around it became. Just watch this segment on This Morning and bask in how an advert for a company that makes sharp metal to get rid of hair can make people very angry indeed. It got me thinking quite a bit about how we as a society disagree with others, and how we debate.
I love debates.
In debate, two people test the notion of a ‘marketplace of ideas’ and repeatedly smash arguments and assumptions against each other until one is left standing. Victory is secured purely on the basis of the strength and logic of the arguments and the skill of the delivery. Sometimes, a knockout blow is landed, with one side intellectually demolishing an opponent, leaving their fact-free rhetoric laid bare and all witnesses in no doubt which idea should live on the marketplace.
Except this doesn’t happen. At least not outside of debate halls.
There was a time in my early twenties where I was going through a ‘militant atheism’ phase. Not only did I not believe in god, I wanted everyone to know this fact, and if I got a whiff that someone held religious beliefs, I would steer conversation towards a God vs. Atheism duel, where I would try and deftly pick apart what I perceived to be their naive, foolish and intellectually inferior reliance on faith and, I don’t know, make the world better by having more atheists in it?
What a dick. And yet I persisted. I still do sometimes. I have an ugly, righteous side that rears its head when I’m not careful. A completely different tone of voice appears — a blend of high-horse, misplaced intellectual superiority, arrogance, stubbornness and competitiveness. It usually both raises my pulse and others in whatever environment I’m in. Some enjoy it, most feel uncomfortable.
Make no mistake — when I get in that zone, I’m not really seeking to understand others’ opinions, inform myself more, or form a more rounded view of the world. I’m looking to win, to lecture, to preach. You’re wrong, and I need to explain to you why. If you don’t get it at first, by my tenth argument, I’ll make you see how stupid you really are.
But here’s the thing. I, in all my years of intellectual sparring, have almost certainly not changed a single opinion this way.
I used to trawl YouTube, searching for ‘owned in debate’ and watch as people whose opinions I agreed with smacked down an opponent, caught them in hypocrisy, uncovered a baseless argument (probably based on an anecdote or opinion) and I used to cheer and feel validated. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris. Those were my favourites, taking the fact-swords to the flimsy faith-shields of archbishops, Anne Widdecombe, Dinesh D-Souza.
But then I noticed something. If I flipped the situation, and instead watched videos of people whose opinions I did not agree with ‘owning’ their opponent, I never, ever, ever changed my mind on the topic in question. Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson are just two examples. I would double down on my original opinion, dismiss their delivery as cruel, unfair, straw-manning and sometimes even think of a single comeback that would surely have shut down their ranting for once and all. Nevermind that they couldn’t reply to my point. It was a good one, and would have surely won the whole thing for my side. My opinions remain unchanged.
Sometimes it works. A debate, or opinion can reach your mind at just the right time. Doubt was already in there, and this gave you a push to change. But the vast majority of times, any conversation that starts with ‘you’re wrong and here’s why’ immediately leads to the raising up of our barriers and a retreat into defense mode. It really doesn’t matter how that conversation pans out, or what the message is after the initial foray, it won’t land. It makes you defensive, and double down on your original position, find ways to rationalise your belief and find ways to discredit the argument against you or the person delivering it.
People don’t like being wrong. People can enjoy learning, but not in a way that regularly and consistently destroys their existing knowledge and replaces it with other knowledge. Imagine if learning at school was taught like that. Tell me your current opinion, BAM, WRONG, here’s why. Repeat.
Validation of feelings and shared experience
So when are opinions and views changed? Well it usually takes time, and it almost always involves the absence of sides, and the absence of ‘winning’. And most notably it usually involves a whole lot of empathy.
I was listening to a Dax Shepard interview with Rob McElhenney (creator of the sublime It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and they started talking about Rob’s sons, who had got to an age where they often find themselves fighting each other. Rob said that he struggled to stop his eldest punching and kicking his youngest, until his therapist suggested that no matter what his son did, he should first validate his feelings, and openly empathise with them. Not with the action (brother punching), but with the feeling (anger). Rob says that as soon as he started to speak with his son about how he also felt angry, and wanted to punch something, but had to control himself and find other outlets for his feelings, his son instantly stopped.
Now it would have been easy for Rob to fail at this. To only look at the action, and fail to see any way to empathise with it. “My son punches his brother all of the time, he’s a monster” and shout at his son, telling him his actions are bad and he must stop them immediately. In fact, that’s what he’d be doing before. But with some empathy, he realised that the underlying feeling is one he can relate to, and that he experiences anger all the time.
The majority of my most important beliefs and opinions have come from spending time around others and absorbing their opinions and worldview in a way that isn’t based on sides, or winning. It’s been from being in situations and circumstances that lie outside my comfort zone, and realising that they aren’t so bad.
Importantly most of my most core beliefs have been shaped by the people closest to me, and who love and care enough about me to take the time to be non-judgemental, empathise with me and course-correct me when they think I’m straying down a dangerous path.
What’s all this got to do with anything?
Well, if the above seems painfully obvious, we only have to open up Twitter, Facebook, the News, turn on a TV or open a newspaper to see how wildly off track we can get. Our antagonist style of disagreement permeates our lives regardless of whether we’re talking about the underlying message behind an advert all the way up to the biggest issues in politics.
Politics is at a point where both sides are drifting quickly to their extremes. Not only is most political dialogue from a starting point of “You’re wrong and here’s why”, but these debates quickly slide into such vitriol that each side demonises the other to the extent all constructive conversation breaks down completely.
And both sides do this — it isn’t limited to the right, or left.
“They have an agenda, they lie, bend facts, they’re out of touch, they can’t see the truth!”
This could be uttered by either side of the political spectrum. If you think the above is only true of ‘the other side’, then you’re deep in the echo chamber. For every late night talk show mocking the president, there’s a Fox News segment lambasting the hypocrisy of the left.
Social Media and digital media are part of the problem. They take your views, bounce them around and send them back to you tenfold, magnified and validated. The echo chamber is real.
Take the issue of immigration. Are those proponents of less immigration racist, bigoted, nationalist Nazi’s? Are pro-immigration proponents naive, snowflake, globalist fairies?
If you search for the feelings that underpin views on immigration, you can find very universal feelings on both sides that you should be able to empathise with. Take the fear of change. We all have it to greater or lesser degrees. I manage change constantly in my work, but I don’t want to move to another city . The Left would argue that only the Right fears change (more immigration causes a shift in the culture of their destination area). Equally the Right can accuse the Left of fearing change — a change in the culture of where they live (London for example would change drastically if there was NO immigration at all). The feeling itself the same — how it manifests itself and the opinions it gives rise to are different. Immigration of course gives rise to a lot of feelings, not just this one. The Brexit debate is still full of feelings — unity, pride, nostalgia, control, progress and countless more.
These feelings aren’t in themselves wrong, they’re just feelings. We’ve all felt them, they just manifest themselves in different ways and give rise to sometimes vastly different opinions. All of our political opinions have been shaped by feelings and experiences. Those experiences aren’t ‘wrong’, nor can they be dismissed in debate. And yet, we never hear people on either side of this debate validate the underlying feelings of the other side, or try to empathise with them. They go straight to ‘you’re wrong, and here’s why’, or even — “you’re bigoted, hypocritical, extremist, wrong, and here’s why”.
The problem is, this just doesn’t work. No person has been angrily confronted in the street or online with “YOU’RE BIGOTED AND INTOLERANT AND WE WON’T STAND FOR IT” and suddenly felt a moment of clarity where they change their minds, and flip their entire worldview on its head.
Opinions are changed when our feelings are validated we feel the other person truly understands us, and guides us towards a different conclusion. The socratic method has endured so long because it captures this — dialogue leading to the very core of one’s beliefs, which are then gradually built back up to a different conclusion than we first started with.
There will be some who argue that when faced with someone’s opinions we find abhorrent, there is no place for empathy, no time to respect the life experiences that led to the formation of these views. We must stamp out their views, swiftly, loudly abruptly. We must remove platforms for hate speech, mock, ridicule and annihilate bigotry wherever it rears its head. We mustn’t be afraid to label fringe views as extremism, call them out, expose their hypocrisy and damaging beliefs. This seems to make intuitive sense, but how is it panning out in practice? As digital platforms magnify the strength of our indignation of extremism, is the world becoming more centred and cohesive? Or is it becoming more divided and damaged?
There will also be some that say it isn’t the responsibility of their own side to build bridges, defuse tensions or open a dialogue. They are in the right after all, and it should be the other side with their damaging worldview that should make the first move. Again, if both sides of an argument feel the same level of righteousness, things only get worse. If you’ve ever seen someone diffuse a heated argument deftly, it’s never because they finally arrived at the perfect way to annihilate their opponent; it’s because they took a big step towards the other person, dialled down the anger and moved to get to a place where they both agree.
Bringing it full circle — That Gillette Advert
Why was the Gillette advert so controversial? Why did some see it as an inspirational call to arms for men, and others see it as the demonisation of all men? And why were the discussions around it so heated?
If you don’t think the advert was telling men they are scum, that’s fine. But can you understand why some men did? Watch this advert for ‘This Girl Can’ from the same director:
Can you see a difference in their tone?
The Gillette advert starts by highlighting the shittiest of some men’s behaviour. It doesn’t matter that the second half of the advert if filled with positive imagery and behaviour, it’s too late. The walls are up. It’s a subtle manifestation of ‘You’re wrong and here’s why’ — perhaps more accurately captured by ‘A lot of your lot are bad — be better, like the best of your lot’.
What was remarkable to me was the fallout from it. Those that thought it was powerful and positive could not understand for a second where the negative reactions were coming from. “What, so your saying bullying is good? You want men to sexually assault women!? You monster!”
There was a failure to get to the underlying feeling behind what they rightly or wrongly took away from the advert. Equally those that got deeply offended by the advert seemed to fail to get to the underlying message or feeling that Gillette was trying to evoke. And so the issue burst into flames.
For what it’s worth, I think it was simply a very clumsily executed campaign. I agree with what I think is the message — positive masculinity exists, it’s awesome, let’s all aspire to grow as dudes (who shave sometimes). But they didn’t heed the lesson that as soon as you start from a place of negativity, and don’t empathise first, you’re in trouble. Cut the first half of the advert out, and it wouldn’t have caused such controversy. In fact, the UK advert for Gillette does this exact thing:
Which makes me think Gillette wanted all this talk, because there’s no such thing as bad press. Well played, Gillette.
If you want to see an example of, in my opinion, one of the most moving, brilliant, subtle depictions of positive masculinity (that happens to be an advert for beer), watch this glorious advert for Speights. It does not start with “a lot of your behaviour is bad”, and yet shows the best men can be:
It made me tear up and want to phone a male friend to tell them I loved them. All from a 90 second advert for beer.
So Gillette ad aside, I’m going to continue to be less of a blunt debater looking to win, and a more empathetic man who tries to understand. I might struggle sometimes (when speaking about Usain Bolt for example) but I hope it will make me a better person, and hopefully change more opinions for the better.